​Your next fitness wearable could be a patch

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin say they've come up with an easier way to manufacture medical trackers, opening the door for wearable patches instead of devices.

Researchers at the University of Texas say they have found a more efficient way to manufacture patches that could ultimately replace that Fitbit, Jawbone, Apple Watch or other fitness-centric wearable device.

According to the Cockrell School of Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, Nanshu Lu, an assistant professor at the school, has created a manufacturing method that can create "disposable tattoo-like health monitoring patches for the mass production of epidermal electronics,"

Lu helped develop the technology in 2011.

The manufacturing breakthrough is notable on a few fronts. First, the previous method for making these health monitoring patches took days. Lu's process brings the time down to 20 minutes. Given that the method would fit in with traditional roll-to-roll manufacturing that 20 minute time frame could come down more.

For anyone who has been messing around with fitness trackers in recent years, a disposable patch may be welcome. Why? Fitness trackers are a work in process. I've seldom have seen one that has realistically lasted more than 6 months. Static cling, water, bad batteries and other issues plague the category.

What Lu's method could do is relegate companies like Jawbone and Fitbit to software. You could get patches in 6 month packs or on subscription. There would also be an option to print at home at some point. The University of Texas manufacturing method doesn't need a clean room, wafers or other equipment. Instead, the dry and portable process is more akin to 3-D printing except that material is removed not added.

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Electronic patches monitor and transmit data on vital signals, tracking heart rate, hydration level, muscle movement, temperature and brain activity. The patches tested by the University of Texas at Austin were able to take on tasks from existing medical devices and could minimize false signals and errors.

In a statement, Lu noted:

One of the most attractive aspects of epidermal electronics is their ability to be disposable. If you can make them inexpensively, say for $1, then more people will be able to use them more frequently. This will open the door for a number of mobile medical applications and beyond.

The process goes like this:

  1. Start with inexpensive, pre-fabricated, industrial-quality metal deposited on polymer sheets.
  2. An electronic mechanical cutter is used to form patterns on the metal-polymer sheets.
  3. After removing excessive areas, the electronics are printed onto any polymer adhesives, including temporary tattoo films.
  4. The cutter is programmable so size and patterns can be customized.