Imperial College opens miniature medical robot factory

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A £4m mini-factory for developing the next generation of miniaturised medical devices and robots officially opened this week at Imperial College London. 

The new EPSRC Micro-Machining Facility for Medical Robotics facility will be led by Prof Guang-Zhong Yang, director of Imperial’s Hamlyn Centre.

According to the university, the new facility will provide a national hub for academia and industry in Britain for developing miniaturised surgical robotics to improve the diagnosis of diseases and drug therapies.

The need for improvements in surveillance and earlier diagnosis of conditions, along with an increasing proportion of minimally invasive procedures being carried out by surgeons that target smaller lesions, requires the development of new types of miniaturised robots for surgery.

Thanks to advances in rapid prototyping technologies, micro-fabrication and micro-machining processes, along with the development of advanced materials that are compatible with the body, researchers at the facility will now be able to build a range of advanced surgical tools and smart implants that can deliver targeted therapies with micro-instruments that also have integrated sensing and imaging technology.

In a statement Prof Guang-Zhong Yang said: ‘At Imperial we are already in the process of developing a range of miniaturised medical robots and smart surgical devices that improve the way patients in the UK are cared for…This new Facility will speed up and improve development and production processes not only for the Hamlyn staff but also for researchers across the College and at other institutions.”

To develop miniaturised surgical robotic devices in the past, researchers at the College had to undergo a prolonged and costly design and construction process that involved getting parts made off-campus, a process that could take weeks and often months. The new Facility, which is funded by the EPSRC, brings the entire construction process in-house, which could cut development time down significantly. 

The Facility will house advanced 3D printers for researchers to print components for surgical devices with features ranging in size from the microscopic to the nanoscale. The 3D printers will provide precision 3D rapid prototyping of components that will be made from advanced materials that range from thermoplastics, to photopolymers, and biocompatible metals.

In order to build these components, the researchers have also installed a range of machines including imaging technology such as the micro CT that uses x-rays that will enable the researchers to see in real-time the tiny components they are working on. The Facility is also equipped with a micro-machine assembly line for compiling new components.

The Facility is part of the UK Robotics Network, which is led by the Hamlyn Centre, to spearhead and coordinate the development of surgical robotics in the UK.