Michelle Chrétien is a materials scientist and a research leader in the fields of electronic materials and 3D printing. With her multidisciplinary team of chemists, material scientists and engineers at the Xerox Research Centre of Canada (XRCC), Michelle is working on creating revolutionary new materials that could change how we live and work.
Imagine a world where athletes wear mouth guards that monitor their heart rate as well as levels of oxygen, cortisol, and glucose — then transmit the data back to coaches on the sidelines. Or where the perfect pair of glasses can be printed following a scan of the face, with sensors and displays embedded in the lenses. Batteries wouldn’t be a problem — they can be printed into the frame of the glasses too.
This is the type of world Michelle Chrétien envisions for the future — a world where printed smart objects are part of our everyday lives.
Why are 3D printing and printed electronics exciting spaces to work in?
Where do I start? What’s really exciting to me about 3D printing and printed electronics is not so much making conventional things in a different way, but the possibility to make things that were un-makeable before. I like to describe our work as being at the intersection of printed electronics and 3D printing. We want to produce unconventional objects by printing form and function together.
We’re also interested in inventing new materials for printing conventional objects with improved properties — making them, for example, harder, shinier or bouncier. Moving across that divide to being able to print form and function together is really exciting.
How important is 3D printing?
Today, we’re still at the early stages of 3D printing but the potential is massive. It’s already a useful prototyping tool in the manufacturing value chain but there are plenty of opportunities still to be exploited. There’s the potential to avoid waste. For example, are we able to produce things with less material waste in terms of tooling? There’s also the manufacturing portability; you could imagine taking a small 3D printer up to a space station or down into a mine to produce things on the spot and on demand.
What does additive manufacturing mean?
Additive manufacturing is a term that refers to a process where items are made by adding material in contrast to many conventional “subtractive” manufacturing techniques. When you use a lathe or a CNC machine to even a hammer and chisel to produce a part, you are using a subtractive manufacturing process. For example, a metal sprocket can be created by carving the shape out of a block of metal, effectively “subtracting” the excess metal to reveal the part. Or you can produce the sprocket in an “additive” way by printing the shape directly by fusing together metal powder in a metal 3D printer. In this way, only the metal required to form the part is used.
Tell us about your work with printed electronics.
I’ve been lucky to work at XRCC which is really a pioneer in the design and manufacture of electronic materials. Over the last decade we’ve developed everything from conductive silver nanoparticle inks to semiconducting polymers, to metal complex based inks.
My lab also works on integrating materials with different printing technologies. For example, we’ve coupled digital printing with robotic motion control so we can print on all sorts of different objects, not just flat surfaces. We can do large features using a robotic arm, or we can do very fine resolution, less than the width of a human hair.
With this printing capability and our ability to develop new materials, we’re looking at being able to print really interesting circuits and sensors on, or in, three dimensional objects. The aim is to put all the pieces together so when an object is produced, you’re adding in electronic circuitry along with the structural elements to generate a complex, interesting, and functional object. This will hopefully move device design out-of-the-box — designers will be able to create new products where the form factor isn’t limited by the shape of a conventional circuit board.
Can you talk about your work developing materials?
3D printing is one piece of what we do. But we have a lot of firepower in the new materials design space in general. We help our clients design, develop, and demonstrate new materials for a variety of applications. Our team has made some really interesting progress in terms of evolving new materials for existing 3D printing processes. We’re interested in inventing materials that have new functions or combine different properties. So maybe it’s rubbery or maybe it’s shiny. Maybe it’s conductive and rubbery or perhaps thermally insulating and really robust. We’re looking at different combinations.
How did you become interested in materials science?
I’m a curious person by nature — so asking questions and trying to figure things out is just something I’ve always done. When I was going through my chemistry degree, I took a class in material science. I was intrigued because it felt like the closest thing to real life, application-oriented kind of science. I became really interested.
After I finished my undergraduate degree, I decided to go to graduate school. Our group was studying photochemistry and photo-physics, and projects related to some key photochemical reactions. But I was much more drawn to the projects that were about how we leverage chemistry to get interesting properties out of materials.
From there, I ended up working on projects in sunscreens, and sensors, and all sorts of interesting things. It became really clear that was where my passion was — making science work.
Agents of Change
We’ve all changed the world. Every one of us. With every breath we take, our presence endlessly ripples outwards.
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But few of us have the opportunity to change many lives for the better. And even fewer are challenged to do so every day. That’s the gauntlet thrown daily at Xerox research scientists – to try and effect change.
In return, we give them time and space to dream. And then the resources to turn dreams into reality – whether they’re inventing new materials with incredible functions, or using augmented reality to bolster the memory of Alzheimer’s patients.
We’re proud of our Agents of Change in Xerox research centers across the world. Here are some of their stories.
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