The team is developing robotic origami forceps that are so small they can pass through a 3 mm hole.
Image credit: Mark Philbrick / BYU
Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, UT, have already licensed some of their origami-inspired technology to Intuitive Surgical, makers of the da Vinci surgical robot that enables surgeons to carry out operations like prostate removal through a few, small incisions.
Larry Howell and Spencer Magleby, professors of mechanical engineering at BYU are leading the group working on the origami surgical technology.
Prof. Howell says the goal is for smaller and smaller incisions, and:
"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."
The surgical instrument industry has reached its limit regarding size - it cannot go smaller with traditional designs.
The BYU team has developed an innovative approach that does not require pin joints and other parts - it uses the deflection inherent in origami to allow movement.
One example they are working on is robotic forceps that are so small they can pass through a 3 mm hole - roughly the thickness of the charging cable for a computer or cellphone.
Once inside, the instrument 'needs to get much larger'
The BYU team is also working on a concept called the "D-Core." Here, the instrument starts out as a flat shape that can be inserted through a small incision, then expands to become two rounded surfaces that roll on each other - rather like the movement made by adjacent discs in the spine.
The researchers report their ideas about D-Core and how it might work in a paper published in Mechanism and Machine Theory. The paper includes a description of physical models that show single-sheet manufacture, flat storage and deployment states.
Prof. Magleby says they are applying the same principles to medical devices that they used in developing space equipment for NASA. He notes the similarity in requirements:
"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."
He says the concept they are applying to surgical instruments is the same: "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."
In the following video, the engineers sum up the work they are doing to apply origami principles to making precision, compact surgical instruments, and they show some examples.
Prof. Magleby says that the methods they are developing - inspired by origami - are really helping them see how to make things smaller and smaller, and simpler and simpler. He concludes:
"These small instruments will allow for a whole new range of surgeries to be performed - hopefully one day manipulating things as small as nerves.
Engineering innovations are bringing many benefits to the operating room. For example, in January 2016, Medical News Today learned how surgeons in Britain transplanted a father's kidney into his 2-year-old daughter with the help of a 3D-printed kidney.