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How Origami Is Informing Structural Engineering

An emerging design technique is based on a centuries-old Japanese art form.
Engineers Glaucio Paulino and Evgueni Filipov with prototypes of their "zippered tubes."
Engineers Glaucio Paulino and Evgueni Filipov with prototypes of their "zippered tubes."Rob Felt/Courtesy of University of Illinois

A sheet of paper can bend, twist, and tear easily. But folded several times, it becomes stiff and can support objects many times its weight. That’s the basic idea behind “origami engineering,” an emerging technique in structural engineering that’s based on a centuries-old Japanese art form.

Researchers at Georgia Tech, the University of Illinois, and the University of Tokyo have come up with a new, origami-inspired structural-support configuration called “zipper tubes,” long tubes with zigzagged creases. On their own, the tubes are flexible and can bend into a “U” shape. But when coupled together, the structure can be a hundred times stronger than the original material used to make the tubes, says Evgueni Filipov, a graduate engineering student at the University of Illinois. “We’re basically able to eliminate all those twisting, bending, and other types of deformations to make a nice stiff structure, like a beam,” he says. Filipov and his colleagues built their prototypes out of paper, but he says he’s excited about trying the technique with thin sheets of metal or plastic.