3D Printing and Origami Could Yield Self-Folding Medical Implants
Staff posted on October 24, 2016 |
(Image courtesy of Delft University of Technology.)

(Image courtesy of Delft University of Technology.)

Researchers at Delft University of Technology (TU Delft) have made flat surfaces that are 3D printed and then ‘taught’ how to self- fold later. The materials are potentially very well suited for all kinds of medical implants. They report on their findings in the journal Materials Horizons.

Complete regeneration of functional tissues is the holy grail of tissue engineering and could revolutionise treatment of many diseases. Effective tissue regeneration often calls for multifunctional biomaterials. A lot of research is currently going in that field.

One example is the large research project, led by Maastricht UMC and with TU Delft as one of the participants, in the field of ‘smart’ 3D printed implants for recovery of bone defects. The project started this month; if it’s successful, it will lead to faster recovery of patients and less operations. 

But the potential applications of 3D printed bio-implants is much bigger than only bone defects. Dr. Amir Zadpoor is one of the researchers at TU Delft in this field, cooperating closely with hospitals. 

“Ideally, biomaterials should be optimised not only in terms of their 3D structure but also in terms of their surface nano-patterns,” said Zadpoor. “3D printing enables us to create very complex 3D structures, but the access to the surface is very limited during the 3D printing process. Nanolithography techniques enable generation of very complex surface nano-patterns but generally only on flat surfaces. There was no way of combining arbitrarily complex 3D structures with arbitrarily complex surface nano-patterns.”

Origami and 3D Printing

Zadpoor looks to the ancient Japanese art of paper folding (origami) to solve this deadlock. In this approach, flat surfaces are first 3D printed in a particular way to teach them how to self-fold. The flat surface is then decorated with complex nano-patterns. Finally, the self-folding mechanism is activated (for instance by a change in temperature) to enable folding of the flat sheet and the formation of complex 3D structures.

“Nature uses various activation mechanisms to program complex transformations in the shape and functionality of living organisms,” said Zadpoor. “Inspired by such natural events, our team developed initially flat (two-dimensional) programmable materials that, when triggered by a stimulus such as temperature, could self-transform their shape into a complex three-dimensional geometry”.

 “We used different arrangements of bi- and multi-layers of a shape memory polymer (SMP) and hyperelastic polymers to program four basic modes of shape-shifting including self-rolling, self-twisting (self-helixing), combined self-rolling and self-wrinkling, and wave-like strips,” Zadapoor added.

Some of the modes of shape-shifting were then integrated into other two-dimensional constructs to obtain self-twisting DNA-inspired structures, programmed pattern development in cellular solids, self-folding origami, and self-organizing fibers. 

“This work is just one little step toward better medical implants,” said Zadpoor. “But we are definitely making exciting progress.”

For more medical engineering, find out how this portable smartphone laboratory detects cancer.

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