Building a flex sensor from component packing materials

Hacks like this one don’t help us recover from extreme pack-rat behavior. Driving home the point that one should never throw anything away [Peter] built a flex sensor from component packing material. It uses the black conductive foam in which integrated circuits are sometimes embedded for shipping. Above you can see the grey rectangle which is the sensor itself. in the background of the image, each component used in the build is labelled except for the tape.

The project starts with the foam being cut to the appropriate size and thickness. He does the same with some aluminum foil, then rips tape strips to act as the enclosure. Fine wire from some cable shielding serves as the two conductors for the sensor. He attaches each wire to an upturned piece of tape, followed by the foil, and finally the foam. When the two halves are assembled in the video after the break, [Peter] hooks up his multimeter to show the change in resistance as the sensor is bent.

We think it will take a clever calibration algorithm to get this working reliably, but it’s no more troublesome than the optical flex sensors we saw in this links post.

10 thoughts on “Building a flex sensor from component packing materials

  1. Neat idea. Can the video be re-done without hands touching the test leads, so body resistance isn’t factored into the reading? I can’t even tell which scale the meter is on, either.

    1. Why? The actual values are completely dependent on the amount and thickness of the foam, the measurement is merely a test to show it works and obviously not to get any precise numbers.

    1. The base material of the foam is non-conductive. It’s made slightly conductive one of two ways:

      1) Conductive carbon particles are mixed through it. Not all of these actually touch each other and allow current to flow, just some. Stretch it and less touch, which causes more resistance. Compress it and more touch, which causes less resistance.

      2) A conductive coating is applied (cheaper). The component that makes it conductive may vary, but the same principles apply when it comes to mechanical stress.

      Yes, it works. And yes, it takes some clever calibration. Once a mechanical stress is removed, the resistance never returns to quite the same resistance as before. Repeated stresses result in a permanently higher resistance as the conductive properties break down, especially if coating-based. If you want to interpret the results as a digital result, you must dynamically adjust the threshold. Meaningful analog results are very difficult to obtain, and good accuracy is impossible.

      Commercial (not homemade) conductive rubber suffers less from these issues, and is more repeatable/reliable. But it can’t be scavenged. You can still get it fairly cheap as electrodes meant to be applied to the skin for TENS/EMS stimulation, on Ebay for example, if you can work with the shapes available. Last time I checked, bulk sheets are more difficult to obtain, and more expensive. I got a 12″x12″ sheet years ago for $40 from a medical specialty supply (intended for making custom TENS electrodes). And they only sold to medical specialists, so I had to pretend to be a physical therapist. ;)

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