Bull Moose, opus 413

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Robert Lang folded this from one uncut square of Nepalese lokta paper. While origami art has gotten more sophisticated, so has the science and math applications inspired by origami.

When I told people I was going to a recent conference “about origami,” I got some perplexed responses. Origami? Like paper cranes? Well, not exactly. Origami principles are now used in a wide variety of applications–from the design of satellites, to heart stents, to self-assembling robots, and much more.

But what does paper art have to do with these things, you may ask? Indeed, origami has been practiced for centuries and involves folding shapes like birds and boxes out of paper. Japanese origamist Akira Yoshizawa has been credited for helping to popularize it in the 20th century, developing a picture-based set of instructions that served as a universal language, fostering collaborations between artists and scientists.

But since the 1960s, and especially in the last few years, the overlap between origami, mathematics, engineering and other disciplines has grown. As I soon learned at the conference hosted by the University of Illinois, in Champaign, the mathematical processes that underly origami are quite complex, and the same analytical techniques and computer models that allow one to fold a piece of paper into an inordinate variety of shapes can be used to solve a wide array of vexing design problems.

According to Illinois researcher Glaucio Paulino, a chipper man who organized the conference, origami techniques can help make a 3-D object out of flat (sometimes basically 2-D) materials. Even more fascinating, these objects can range in scale from a microscopic nano-bot to solar panels on a satellite. Applying origami principles help fit large objects into a smaller shape, after which they can expand again.

Without further ado, here are nine amazing origami-inspired applications, ranging from those unveiled in papers published this week to others from the past or that will come out soon.

Unfold thyself and prosper

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These three images show the robot assembling itself, beginning in a flat state.

1. A self-assembling robot

You may be familiar with Transformers–especially if you’re a teenage boy or a fan of Michael Bay. Well, MIT and Harvard researchers have designed something that is similar at its core: a robot that can assemble itself.

But it gets better. Initially, all the materials for the machine are quite flat, and they can fold to create a device that can move on its own and make turns. The flat panels are embedded with electronics and connected by hinges; they are also made of materials that contract and fold when heated to 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius). The machine takes four minutes to assemble, according to a study describing the work, published today (Aug. 7) in Science.

Such machines could have several applications. First, they could be used for “remote, autonomous assembly,” the authors wrote–e.g. when putting satellites into space or building shelters in dangerous environments. Search-and-rescue bots are also a possibility, as the thin pre-machine could fit in a small hole and then be deployed. The concept could also be used to automate steps used in manufacturing.

2. Mirrors and solar panels in space

How do you get something into a compact shape for lift-off–and then quickly make it big again in outer space? By now, you can probably guess. Origami-type folding principles have been used to make folding mirrors, such as those on the James Webb Space Telescope (PDF), said Robert Lang, a physicist and origami artist. Lang is a perfect example of the overlap between origami artistry and science/engineering. A Cal Tech-educated physicist, he decided to forego a more typical science trajectory to pursue origami; he’s now one of the better-known origami artists in the world, and he regularly collaborates with scientists of different disciplines from around the world. Lang for example worked with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory to design the Eyeglass Telescope using computational origami to make a foldable lens. A prototype of this enormous telescope–which would have stretched the length of Manhattan–was built, although the final work was never completed.

The same general idea has been applied to make foldable solar panels and other contraptions that need to be tucked away and then unfurled. One way to do this is by using a Miura fold, a crease pattern named after Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura, who happened to be at the conference and is a legitimate legend in the field. When a piece of paper is folded into a small shape à la Miura, one needs only to hold on both ends and pull, and the paper unfolds. This simplicity allows the fold to be used in many of these origami-inspired applications; one solar array designed as such was used in a Japanese satellite that launched in 1995.

Zig-zag metamaterial

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In another study, also published today in Science, Cornell University researcher Itai Cohen, graduate student Jesse Silverberg, and colleagues developed a special type of metamaterial (a material with properties not found in nature) using a variant of the Miura fold. Silverberg found that by altering the size of a repeating patterns of creases, he could change the stiffness of a material in a programmable way. This could be useful for a number of purposes, for example quickly creating strong 3-D objects from flat materials.

3. Other space devices

Besides solar panels, there are other uses for origami in space. Mark Schenk, a research fellow at the Surrey Space Centre in the United Kingdom, is building a cube satellite with an inflatable mast. This mast needs to be quickly elongated, which is a challenge; it’s difficult to find a material that can be quickly deployed and then stay rigid. His solution has been to turn to origami principles, using a laminate material that unfolds very quickly in the span of six seconds. In the future these kind of “deployable structures” could be used for a range of space gadgets, Schenk said, such as for masts to connect solar panels or solar sails to satellites.

University of Illinois researcher Jimmy Hsia also said he is working on developing tiny spherical solar cells made from folded silicon, which would have a significant advantage: “Regardless of where sun comes, you have the same efficiency.” Typically these cells are flat and have to be carefully aligned perpendicular to the sun, otherwise they are less efficient.

peugeot 306 airbag
Janipewter via Wikimedia Commons

4. Designing air bags

Making an air bag is pretty tough. It’s got to open in a split second and become rigid, but not too rigid; it can’t be rock hard, after all. It turns out that the best way to model the inflation of a shape of this size is to figure out how to create a 3-D polyhedron from a flat sheet, using folds. Robert Lang helped a German company develop software to simulate the opening and folding-up of an air bag, and his algorithm has been used in the corporation’s computer models to improve the product.

5. Heart stents

Japanese tradition holds that somebody who makes 1,000 cranes may be granted a wish–perhaps to save a life. But origami principles may actually save lives through science. Oxford University researcher Zhong You and colleagues developed a heart stint that works using the concept of a “waterbomb base,” which is used in those inflated origami boxes you may have seen. The stent is made of plastic materials and can be contracted to be small enough to fit through a catheter, but then once it reaches its position, it can be inflated to open up arteries.

6. Architecture

Neil Katz, an architect with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in Chicago, said that origami-inspired work is increasingly being incorporated into architecture. It’s being used to make folding, easy-to-assemble homes, for example. But on a higher level, it is increasingly being used to make adjustable screens or walls that can let light through in one shape, but are then more opaque in another formation. To this end, origami principles also allow architects to making “shading and cladding” that can keep out sunlight–and thus heat–during the hottest part of the day, and then can open up later when it’s cooler. For example, the facade of the Beijing Greenland Dawangjing tower, “is origamic, for self-shading,” a design which “saves a significant amount of energy.”


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7. Nano-devices and machines robots

Researchers have used the folding properties of DNA to make a variety of super-tiny objects, including boxes and vessels used for drug delivery and to make nanobots. Some day such devices could crawl around your body diagnosing problems (although I wouldn’t sign up). For now, though, the devices have been used inside living cockroaches.

“The fundamental laws of folding apply at any scale,” Lang said.

8. Retinal implants

Cal Tech researcher Sergio Pellegrino is developing an origami-inspired retinal implant, to help people with age-related macular degeneration and retinitis pigmentosea–conditions that cause loss of photoreceptors. Pellegrino said his device would have several advantages over current models: It could be built flat at a lower cost; folding techniques could allow for a dense array of electrodes near the retina (to transmit electrical signals from a camera mounted near the eyeball); and it could be “elastically compliant to adapt to a variety of retina sizes.”

9. Excellent pieces of art

As you might expect, origami is still used to make… origami. Here’s a piece of work by Robert Lang:

Roosevelt Elk, opus 358

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This was made using one uncut square of Korean hanji paper.

Tomohiro Tachi, a researcher at the University of Tokyo and renowned origami artist, develops innovative 3-D sculptures using origami techniques. Below is a structure he made from metal, which he holds with gloves because of the sharp edges. This shape took only an hour to make, since he had help from a specialized printer. “It’s so easy due to the simplicity of the structure,” he said, in a typically humble fashion, speaking of something that looks neither simple nor easy at all.

Tomohiro Tachi origami
Tomohiro Tachi answering questions about his origami creation. Douglas Main

Tachi also showed a time lapse of himself folding a paper rabbit, which took him 10 hours.

And while we’re at it, here is Miura with a copy of a Miura fold. In the early days, he had to hand-draw the distinctive crease pattern because there weren’t computers to help design this kind of thing.

Koryo Miura fold
Koryo Miura and his famous fold. Douglas Main

Robert Lang sums it up best. “If you look up into space, or the operating room, you’re likely to see origami,” Land said. “And it may one day save a life.”