Origami is the Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes and figure.

Its use of geometrical shapes makes it a curious art form — one that could inspire mechanical engineering design.

According to Northeastern University researcher Soroush Kamrava, the future solar panels and air bags will be informed by origami designs. The research includes utilizing metamaterials (plastics, metals and rubber) to create complex designs that could produce stronger and more functional products.

Source: Pixabay

Engineers are figuring out how to 3D print origami-inspired structures and introduce new, novel products, but also updated prototypes of products with new structures; such as airbags or solar panels. The researchers are testing out various designs and experimenting with several different angles on everyday shapes.

“Our work is a combination of science and art. So sometimes inspiration comes from a museum, old architecture, or just floor tiles,” says Kamrava.

They are looking to redefine geometry on some of the most renowned engineering designs. The researchers use an origami printer to print out the outline of the folded shape they wish to create. They then fold a paper prototype of what they intend their final print should look like, while working out whether a metamaterial prototype will be structurally sound.

Once they are happy that a geometric shape can sustain the relevant stresses, the engineers begin their print of several parts. They employ metal hinges to get the pieces into the relevant origami shape. The benefit of the origami inspired shapes is that they could be repositioned into new shapes. Creating foldable structures for industries like aerospace could be beneficial, as they’re privy to utilizing deployable structures.


Nothing new under the sun

The practice of using origami as inspiration for engineering design is not altogether new. A year ago, the Brigham Young University developed bulletproof ‘origami kevlar’. They created an origami-based deployable ballistic barrier for police safety during dangerous or hostile situations where gunfire is likely.

The engineers met with federal agents that regularly used the current shields and asked how they could improve the design, to help them safely do their jobs in hostile situations.

 BYU Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Terri Bateman said:

“Current products out there are about 90 pounds - that’s pretty heavy for one person to carry. And, it only protects one person.”

The engineers worked on reducing the weight to 50 pounds and making it possible to protect two people at once. They used a crease pattern, enabling the kevlar to be collapsible.


Not only is the kevlar aesthetically pleasing, but it also works.


Origami underwater

Engineers at the Wyss Institute at Harvard University have designed a 3D printed, 12-sided origami trap that can be used in the ocean to capture marine life without harming it. The way in which the trap is constructed allows it to fold over the marine life without asserting too much force.


The marine life is then studied by marine biologists. They have dubbed the device the Rotary Actuated Dodecahedron (or RAD). The engineers have pressure-proofed the trap to withstand pressure at 11 kilometers (6.83 miles) deep.

The engineers say their design is well suited for aerospace as well.

Brennan Phillips, a University of Rhode Island professor of ocean engineering attached to the project said:

“We believe that the geometric design can be used for things like deployable solar arrays and mirrors in space, as well as for nanoscale manufacturing. There are likely a lot of other potential applications, but using this high-tech approach to study deep-sea animals is really the best thing, in my opinion.”

A trend of flexible, soft, skin-like exoskeletons for robots and origami-inspired geometrical shapes for product design is currently playing out in the mechanical engineering industry, producing some of the most complex engineering projects the industry has seen for quite some time.


Works Cited

“How Origami Might Reshape the Future of Everything.” Phys.org - News and Articles on Science and Technology, Phys.org, phys.org/news/2018-08-origami-reshape-future.html.

“How Origami Might Reshape the Future of Everything.” News Northeastern Schools Are Safer than They Were in the 90s and School Shootings Are Not More Common than They Used to Be Researchers Say Comments, news.northeastern.edu/2018/08/02/how-origami-might-reshape-the-future-of-everything/.

“URI Engineer: Origami-Inspired Device Enables Easy Capture, Release of Delicate Underwater Organisms.” URI Today, today.uri.edu/news/uri-engineer-origami-inspired-device-enables-easy-capture-release-of-delicate-underwater-organisms/.

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