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From Origami to Space Engineering: An Art Folding Every Limit

Dario Tameu

Dario Tameu, Writer
@uxconnections

Engineers are turning to the world of origami as an inspiration source for all sorts of applications, from medical devices to aerospace structures.

Origami is an ancient art that originated more than 400 years ago in Japan, and from then to nowadays the number of folding designs and structures developed has grown exponentially.

This practice is resulting significantly useful in the field of engineering for the way it allows to turn a flat sheet of material into almost any shape, just by folding it. This aspect creates a huge advantage in terms of the overall structural economy, as it prevents further interventions and additions.

The simple act of folding can increase the structure’s rigidity and allows to control its dimensions; moreover, through origami it is possible to take advantage of the material’s characteristics to create a specific motion.

Furthermore, origami’s scalable principles make it possible to miniaturize devices, this factor presents potential implementations for medical research and procedures.

We are witnessing a progressive connection between two fields of practice seemingly disconnected, but the outcomes that this collaboration is producing are indeed an affirmative point on how much there is in common.

A very recent and impressive example is the set of shape-shifting wheels developed by a team of researchers in South Korea, which take directly inspiration from origami techniques.

The project results from a collaborative effort between researchers at Hankook Tire and Technology co., Seoul National University’s Biorobotics Lab, and Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

The wheel’s kinematic mechanism, thanks to its high-weight-to-payload ratio, softness and flexibility, is capable of bearing about 1000 kg of load. The wheel transforms into two forms: large and protruding, or small and smooth.

The structure of the shape-shifting wheels was developed with the use of a ‘waterbomb’ tessellation origami pattern. The pattern had been analysed and used for the wheel design due to its structural factors.

The waterbomb-based wheel structure features a perpendicular characteristic, transforming in the horizontal direction and load bearing in the vertical. With this configuration, the wheel can maintain the two different shapes with minimum energy input.

The concept required almost a decade of development and origami research, and finally, the team presented the set of wheels and attached them to several different vehicles, demonstrating how the wheels vary in diameter from 46 to 80 centimetres, while supporting enough weight to carry a full-size vehicle on top.

The wheels are composed of a flexible, three-layer membrane: it is made rigid with sandwiched, laser-cut aluminium facet panels. In their natural state, the wheels are collapsed and small. When squeezed horizontally, they fold up to their maximum diameter.

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