Ashley P. Thrall with one of her origami shelters.

Origami-inspired engineering unfolds new ideas

Ever tried your hand at origami? Engineers are now taking the ancient art far beyond the realms of paper-folding, bringing unique solutions to a diverse range of applications.

From the words ori meaning ‘folding’, and kami meaning ‘paper’, origami is the art of paper folding associated with Japanese culture. Perhaps you’re familiar with the tradition yourself and have had a stab at mastering a crane or a frog? Less familiar is the fact that origami is inspiring the design of engineering devices and structures around the world.

Origami shelters

One such project is unfolding at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, USA, where Ashley P. Thrall, Myron and Rosemary Noble Assistant Professor of structural engineering, is developing origami-inspired shelters that have many potential uses, from military applications to humanitarian assistance.

Thrall directs the university’s Kinetic Structures Laboratory, which is devoted to analytically, numerically and experimentally investigating the behaviour of a wide variety of moving, modular and deployable structures. It is the only university laboratory in the United States that is dedicated to investigating kinetic structures for civil engineering applications. Kinetic structures are designed to allow parts of the structure to move, without reducing overall structural integrity, and can be employed to enhance a building’s aesthetic qualities, respond to environmental conditions, or perform functions that would be impossible for a static structure.

With funding from the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, Thrall and her team are developing an origami-inspired deployable shelter with integrated planning and management. This effort is an interdisciplinary project with the mechanical and electrical engineering faculty, postdoctoral research associates, and students who are developing optimised control systems for heating and cooling to further reduce energy consumption. Commenting on the project, she said:

“Our goal was to improve the quality of life of soldiers while addressing the need for better energy efficiency in heating and cooling. The principles of origami allow rigid wall structures to fold, so not only are they more energy-efficient than canvas tents, but they can also be easily transported. In fact, the structure that we built is the first rigid-wall shelter that is airlift-able.”

Folding far beyond paper

After experimenting with numerous origami paper models, Thrall and her team came up with a unique origami shelter combined with a novel lever system to easily lift and erect the origami structure. The design reduces energy consumption by a massive 70 per cent, is able to be deployed by a few soldiers in about half an hour, and could be transported by plane, ship or truck on a standard military pallet.

This origami-inspired thermally-insulated rigid wall structure combined with the optimised control system could potentially save the military millions of dollars per year on fuel for air conditioning or heat. It has the potential to solve the difficult problem of protecting soldiers stationed in extreme environments, from desert to mountain conditions. In a wider context, it also holds great promise as an environmentally-friendly shelter for disaster relief efforts around the world.

I still think they missed a trick by not incorporating an animal design, but I guess when you’re half way up a mountain or hunkered down in the middle of a sandstorm, aesthetics are the last thing on your mind. Just a thought.

How the origami shelter unfolds.  


Is that a drone in your pocket?

Traditional Japanese origami has been practised since the Edo period (1603–1867) and the principle of transforming a flat, square sheet of paper into a finished sculpture through folding and sculpting techniques still prevails to this day. The small number of basic origami folds can be combined in a variety of ways to make intricate designs and it’s these rules that are now being applied more widely, in medical, packaging and engineering, among other applications.

Today, origami is inspiring engineers to design active materials and smart structures that bend, stretch and curve, overcoming traditional design constraints and rendering products and systems with remarkable performance characteristics and features. Dr Stefano Mintchev, a professor of bio-inspired robotics at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, has created a compact, foldable drone inspired by origami that unfolds itself automatically and can take flight within a fraction of a second.

About the size of an outstretched palm, Dr Mintchev envisages that hordes of these quadcopters could be released over a disaster zone, taking photographs and making contact with survivors. Not only that, it’s small enough to fit inside your pocket. When not in use, the arms fold up into a trapezoid. Switch it on, and the force of the propellers causes the arms to unfold horizontally, with magnets then keeping the arms locked into position. The researchers maintain that the same origami principles could be generalised to any type of flying vehicle with wings. Watch this space.

Magical materials

Origami engineering is delivering, or on the way to realising, products and systems with very complex applications across multiple industries. To do this, engineers are experimenting with active materials like magneto-active elastomers embedded within an elastomer matrix, which have the ability to curve and rotate when a magnetic field is applied. Likewise, polymer synthetic compounds with extremely high energy density are also favoured by origami engineers because of the material’s ability to compress and stretch when a voltage is applied.

These materials appear almost magical in how they can morph into different shapes and patterns, but the challenge for engineers is in creating a system that is structurally sound and can be fabricated for practical use. Slightly more complicated than your traditional Japanese crane are NASA engineer Brian Trease’s solar panel arrays that fold and unfold like origami.

Space origami

A mechanical engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, Trease studied origami during a high school trip to Japan, and is now applying the same techniques to space-bound solar arrays. Trease, researchers from Brigham Young University, in Utah, USA, and origami expert Robert Lang have created working prototypes of the origami solar panels. Trease said of the project: “This is a unique crossover of art and culture and technology.”

The prototype uses a combination of several folds and resembles a blooming flower when it unfolds. Existing solar panels collapse like accordions or fold up like hand fans, but Trease thinks the more intricate origami folds could simplify the folding and unfolding process. The origami technique the team used for the prototype allows the panel to open and close with a single push or pull on the corner.

The Miura fold is a method of folding a flat surface such as a sheet of paper into a smaller area and was named after its inventor, Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura. He first worked on solar panels with origami designs in 1995 and now that astronomers are pushing for smaller satellites loaded with larger equipment, the space-saving tech may become even more useful.

The brief examples outlined above demonstrate that foldable solutions are viable in engineering design and becomingly increasingly popular as materials and technology advance. So, pick up a piece of paper now and give it a go – the ancient art of origami continues to inspire engineering devices and structures and you never know where it will lead.

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