While three-dimensional printing has come a long way, engineers still struggle with fabricating objects smaller than a quarter. In those small structures, the upper layers crush and distort the weak lower ones. To solve this problem, researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a novel solution: print out a flat sheet, and then fold it, origami style, into the desired shape. Creating this origami crane as proof of concept, the researchers have hit upon a technique that could produce any number of microscopic medical or mechanical devices through folding, rather than layered printing.
The researchers start by printing out a flat sheet of titanium hydride. Normally, this material is too rigid to fold, but the printing process imbues the "ink" with a number of solvents that soften it up enough for manipulation. In the case of the crane, it took 15 steps to go from a flat sheet to a finished bird.
This material is malleable enough to fold, but strong enough to retain its shape once the folding process is complete. Additionally, titanium hydride can be treated after folding to become pure metallic titanium. That way, a potential medical device could be folded into the desired shape, and then transformed into a substance that the body wouldn't reject.
The scientists have just begun to explore the implications of this technique, so it might be a while before a doctor actually uses a stent or implant created by folding titanium hydride. However, Japanese legend holds that if someone folds 1,000 origami cranes, a real crane will grant their wish. So all the researchers need to do is fabricate 999 more of these, and just wish for a practical application for this technology to arrive within a year. Easy!