Mar 8, 2016 | By Alec

Over the past few decades, surgical instruments have transformed dramatically into minimally invasive, flexible tools – each with their own purpose. But even those could soon become outdated, because a team of researchers from Brigham Young University in Utah are working on next generation tools that are so small that incisions heal on their own (rather than requiring sutures). Taking inspiration from origami and NASA space concepts for flat tools, these new surgical instruments are being pioneered with 3D printing prototyping.

Origami, of course, is the traditional Japanese art of paper folding. You might wonder what that has to do with anything scientific at all, but NASA has actually used folding principles to design very efficient satellites and spacecraft that take up minimal space. BYU mechanical engineering professors Larry Howell and Spencer Magleby are specialists in applying those same folding principles to engineering, and are now combining that with medical tools and 3D printing in a collaboration with professor Brian Jensen and their students. Their first results are published in the journal Mechanical Sciences.

In a nutshell, they are seeking to develop surgical technology that will make recovery time after surgeries as quick as possible. “The whole concept is to make smaller and smaller incisions,” Howell explained on the BYU website. “To that end, we’re creating devices that can be inserted into a tiny incision and then deployed inside the body to carry out a specific surgical function.” A series of mechanisms related to that work have already been licensed to robotic surgery specialists Intuitive Surgical, makers of the da Vinci Surgical System.

But why origami? Why not just scale down existing tools? Well, because the industry has essentially reached a limit in terms of what’s possible with downscaling. New concepts are needed, and BYU’s team has been working on eliminating the need for pin joints and other parts, instead relying on the deflection inherent in origami folds to create motion. “These small instruments will allow for a whole new range of surgeries to be performed—hopefully one day manipulating things as small as nerves,” Magleby said. “The origami-inspired ideas really help us to see how to make things smaller and smaller and to make them simpler and simpler.”

What’s more, they are also keenly aware of similarities to NASA’s compact space equipment. “Those who design spacecraft want their products to be small and compact because space is at a premium on a spacecraft, but once you get in space, they want those same products to be large, such as solar arrays or antennas,” Magleby said. “There’s a similar idea here: We’d like something to get quite small to go through the incision, but once it’s inside, we’d like it to get much larger.”

The first results are already quite impressive. One of the first instruments they produced is a robotic forceps that can pass through a hole just 3 mm in size – about the thickness of two pennies. Another project is the D-Core, a flat device that ca be inserted into incisions, where it expands into two rounded surfaces that roll on each other to mimic the behavior of spinal disks. These tools are first prototyped through 3D printing to test their viability, before being produced with other manufacturing options. 3D printing, they say, gives them a great deal of design flexibility and greatly speeds up the entire process. Could these be the surgical instruments of the future?

 

 

Posted in 3D Printing Application

 

 

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