Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

This origami structure is composed of 12 interlocking tubes that can fold flat for easy transportation.Rob Felt, Georgia Tech

Origami, the ancient Japanese art of folding paper into decorative shapes, may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about revolutions in structural engineering. However, a team of researchers believes that it could.

Thanks to a new “zippered tube” configuration, paper structures can be stiff enough to hold weight, yet have the ability to fold flat for shipping and storage.

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This method could be applied to other materials, such as plastic or metal, and used to construct buildings, furniture and miniature robots.

Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology and the University of Tokyo are applying the concept to a host of structures. Envision pop-up furniture, bridges (following a natural disaster) or emergency shelters, as well as foldable structures designed to travel very far distances — as far as outer space.

The researchers enlisted the help of a specific origami technique called Miura-ori folding. By using zig-zag folded strips of paper, two strips are then glued together to make a tube, which adds stiffness to the highly flexible structure.

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The technique also lets engineers adapt a structure for another use. A bridge could become a roof, for example.

“They are reconfigurable,” said Evgueni Filipov, an Illinois graduate researcher, said in a press release.

Indeed, if this zippered tube configuration used with origami proves to be as strong, yet flexible as researchers are anticipating, we could expect to see some very intriguing and adaptable structures in years to come.