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PhD student Weijun Shen works with a robotic arm
June 7, 2023

Work of art: PhD student brings origami to 3D printing

Written By: Tom Ziemer

At home, Weijun Shen enjoys crafting origami cranes and frogs for his 4-year-old daughter.

But the PhD student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison also brings his artistic curiosity into the research lab, in what might seem like an unlikely area: additive manufacturing, or 3D printing.

As part of Assistant Professor Hantang Qin’s lab in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Shen is incorporating methods from origami and kirigami (a related Japanese practice of cutting and folding) to create biomedical tools—in addition to using other technologies and techniques to help develop an ambitious autonomous road repair system.

Shen transferred to UW-Madison in fall 2022, following Qin from Iowa State University. After applying origami and kirigami techniques to 3D printing structural reinforcements for oil pipelines, Shen has turned his attention to biomedical solutions.

He and Qin are trying to replicate their previous work at a much smaller scale to create stent grafts, while combining more flexible tubular origami structures with electrohydrodynamic jet-printed metal sensors to produce soft robotic components. Those could be deployed in the body to monitor various health conditions, such as acidity in the gastrointestinal tract, or for timed drug release and controlled externally.

“We can put that sensor into a capsule, you will swallow it, and according to the external stimulation, it can self-deform or shape into a predesigned structure for a sensor or an antenna to get some information,” says Shen, who’s also working on flexible sensors for wearable technology to monitor back and shoulder conditions.

Shen’s other research project doesn’t involve foldable structures but is unique in its own right. In collaboration with researchers from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, he’s devising a system that uses a 3D scanner and extruder to detect and repair cracks, potholes and other road damage. The researchers hope to mount the whole setup on an autonomous vehicle or robot to carry out less disruptive repairs.

“Our target is to repair the pavement during the night,” says Shen, whose group incorporated machine learning into the system after competing in a student data analytics competition sponsored by the Institute of Industrial and Systems Engineers. “Everybody goes to sleep, we release our robots, fix the pavement during the night without stopping traffic. When everybody wakes up, the road is done.”

Shen and the rest of the research team have met with officials from the city of Middleton, just west of Madison, to help inform the project. He says the notion of working on research that directly benefits the surrounding community—the Wisconsin Idea—is a big part of what’s made UW-Madison a good fit for him, along with educational opportunities for his daughter and weather that reminds him of his home city of Shanghai.

He plans to infuse the philosophy of service into his teaching when he pursues a faculty career after completing his PhD in 2024. Before starting graduate school, he spent six years working in a teaching lab at his alma mater, Shanghai Polytechnic University. He found he enjoyed working with students and wanted to extend his education.

“I love teaching,” he says. “I’m trying to think about the functions of a university—education, research, engaging with the community, and the cultural heritage. I think those four aspects are equally important.”

Top photo caption: PhD student Weijun Shen works with a robotic arm that he’s planning to attach to a small autonomous vehicle for making road repairs. Photo by: Tom Ziemer.