Origami is the art of folding paper to produce complex and visually appealing structures, such as swans or cranes. While it may seem to be just another interesting hobby, a team of mechanical engineers from Brigham Young University have been applying the principles of origami into engineering.

In a new study published in Mechanism and Machine Theory, they’ve branched out and are now trying to apply their origami skills into bioengineering. Their goal is to design surgical technology that could produce instruments so small that the incisions needed to accommodate the tools can heal on their own without sutures.

"The whole concept is to make smaller and smaller incisions," Larry Howell, one of the three professors who led the study, said. "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."

Unsurprisingly, their work could address the growing need for smaller surgical tools in the operating room. Traditional designs have hit a limit insofar as to the extent of miniaturization that could be accomplished.


To go around this limit, the team has leveraged the inherent deflection in origami to produce the needed motions in their tools. This also allowed them to eschew the pin joints and other parts normally required in the surgical tools, and has led them to develop new design concepts that could serve as a foundation for future operating instruments.

"These small instruments will allow for a whole new range of surgeries to be performed—hopefully one day manipulating things as small as nerves," Spencer Magleby, another professor who led the study said. "The origami-inspired ideas really help us to see how to make things smaller and smaller and to make them simpler and simpler."

The results are nothing short of amazing. An example instrument is a robotically-controlled forcep that is so small that it can pass through a hole as small as 3 millimeters in size—roughly the thickness of two pennies held together. Another device is the D-core, a flat looking tool that would be inserted into an incision that would then expand to become two rounded surfaces that roll on each other, which would mimic the movements made by spinal discs.

The results of their research have been licensed to Intuitive Surgical, the world leader in robotic surgery and the maker of the popular da Vinci Surgical System. So the next time you end up taking a trip to the operating room, don’t be surprised if you can barely see the tools being used.

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