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Origami Saves the Day

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Sometimes, simplicity is at the root of complexity.


So it is with a newly discovered method for fabricating very thin materials—including plastics and metals—into structures that are remarkable for their durability and sturdiness.


American engineers drew on the ancient art of origami in a revolutionary new approach to hardy design. By folding strips of extremely thin materials into tight configurations via something called the “zippered-tube” configuration, scientists can build everything from furniture to pop-up emergency shelters.


The researchers—from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Tokyo—employ a particular origami technique called Miura-ori folding in which precise, zigzag-folded strips of material are organized and glued together in a tube-shaped arrangement—and are stronger for it.


The researchers discovered that interlocking two tubes in zipper-like fashion made them impressively stiff and hard to twist or bend but, interestingly, still highly flexible. Moreover, the structure folds up flat for easy transport, and then can quickly expand itself into its rigid-tube configuration at the other end.


The engineering world’s recognition of origami as a legitimate means of achieving strength and resilience in manufacturing has only emerged over the last several years. Much of this discovery, say the scientists, was prompted by space exploration. The ability to launch compactly compressed structures into outer space, only to successfully unfold them into comprehensive, robust structures at their destination, is an appealing prospect.


And as so often happens with revolutionary discoveries, a focus on the subject revealed that the same magic can find effective utilization in a range of other applications, including—in this case—fixture manufacturing and bridge-building. While plastic and metal provide the most specific focus on this origami-inspired front, even paper—the antique art’s original source material—enjoys a dramatic bump to its properties when subjected to this fastidious folding exercise.


The researchers’ zippered-tube findings were published in the September 7 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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