September 8, 2015

Paper tubes make stiff origami structures

Georgia Tech professor Glaucio Paulino and University of Illinois graduate researcher
Evgueni Filipov developed an origami “zippered tube” folding pattern that allows them to build
structures with much greater stiffness than a single sheet of paper. They collaborated with
University of Tokyo professor Tomohiro Tachi (not pictured). Photo by Rob Felt

(September 8, 2015)  From shipping and construction to outer space, origami could put a folded twist on structural engineering.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Tokyo have developed a new “zippered tube” configuration that makes paper structures that are stiff enough to hold weight yet can fold flat for easy shipping and storage. Their method could be applied to other thin materials, such as plastic or metal, to transform structures from furniture to buildings to microscopic robots.

Illinois graduate researcher Evgueni Filipov, Georgia Tech professor Glaucio Paulino and University of Tokyo professor Tomohiro Tachi published their work in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Origami structures would be useful in many engineering and everyday applications, such as a robotic arm that could reach out and scrunch up, a construction crane that could fold to pick up or deliver a load, or pop-up furniture. Paulino sees particular potential for quick-assembling emergency shelters, bridges and other infrastructure in the wake of a natural disaster.

“Origami became more of an objective for engineering and a science just in the last five years or so,” Filipov said. “A lot of it was driven by space exploration, to be able to launch structures compactly and deploy them in space. But we’re starting to see how it has potential for a lot of different fields of engineering. You could prefabricate something in a factory, ship it compactly and deploy it on site.”

Origami "zipper tubes," interlocking zigzag paper tubes, can be configured to build a variety
of structures that have stiffness and function, but can fold compactly for storage or shipping.
Click to see a slideshow Photo by Rob Felt

The researchers use a particular origami technique called Miura-ori folding. They make precise, zigzag-folded strips of paper, then glue two strips together to make a tube. While the single strip of paper is highly flexible, the tube is stiffer and does not fold in as many directions.

The researchers tried coupling tubes in different configurations to see if that added to the structural stiffness of the paper structures. They found that interlocking two tubes in zipper-like fashion made them much stiffer and harder to twist or bend. The structure folds up flat, yet rapidly and easily expands to the rigid tube configuration.
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