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Origami: The Ancient Art of Designing New Things



Traditional Origami Boxes.
Image Credit: Jorge Jaramillo via Flickr.

When thinking of origami you may imagine brightly-colored squares of paper folded into cranes and flowers. But did you know that origami has inspired the design of many everyday objects including take-out boxes and airbags? The art of transforming flat sheets into 3D objects can be used to design many devices in our modern day world. Today this traditional folding technique is bringing together artists, engineers, and mathematicians to create innovative new products in architecture, medicine, and even space exploration.

Origami is especially useful in designing objects that must be small and compact for transport, but require large surface areas for use. Paper maps are a practical example. Frustratingly, maps can be exceedingly difficult to refold once opened. But using a method called Miura-ori, a map can be folded into many small parallelograms that fit together, allowing the map to easily return to its folded state. You can even try doing this yourself.


Image Credit: MetaNest via Wikimedia Commons.

So where does the engineering and math come in? Researchers have found that folded materials have superior mechanical properties compared to flat sheets. Mathematicians have developed ways to model these novel properties, which can inform engineers on how to use origami in the real world. Interestingly, a folded paper sheet can be much stronger than it’s original flat form. Researchers at Brigham Young University have exploited this information to create a “pop-up” police shield strong enough to withstand bullets. Future applications of this property might include deployable bridges and shelters that can be used during disaster relief.

Bulletproof Origami.

In medicine, origami has been used to make devices and tools for non-invasive surgery. Doctors use stents, tiny mesh tubes inserted by a catheter, to hold open veins and arteries to ensure consistent blood flow. A new design uses the principles of origami to manufacture a continuous cylinder that can fold down to a tiny size until deployment. Surgical probes and tools have also undergone an origami revision; they can be small when inserted into the body, then expand to a functional size internally. This makes surgery less traumatic for the patient, which reduces recovery time. Someday we may even be able to swallow pill sized robots that can unfold to suture internal wounds or remove unwanted objects.

On the final frontier, origami has facilitated sending large structures into space. Devices like solar arrays and telescopes require extensive surface areas to function properly, but are difficult and costly to transport into orbit. By folding these structures down to a manageable size, deploying them becomes feasible and cost effective. It is possible that one day entire livable habitats may be folded down and carried into space on a rocket.

Origami Solar Arrays

Origami is an ancient art, yet it has remodeled the way we understand and use materials. Contraptions that were once too bulky to transport can now be made compact and economical. Medical devices provide better care for patients. And we can look out into space with larger telescopes, unhindered by their final size. Origami has changed the way we use materials, design structures, and see the world.

About the Author

image2Hailing from the deserts of Arizona, Mackenzie Carter is an enthusiastic masters student in the College of Veterinary Medicine. She is currently studying tissue engineering to model disease states in bone, namely panosteitis in canines. Mackenzie loves hands on projects, from ceramics to solar powered robots. In her free time she explores her passions: cephalopods, tea, and swing dancing. You can connect with Mackenzie via email at mackenziecarter@uga.edu.

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