Origami, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, has been making a modern-day comeback. In recent years, it has inspired a wide range of academics, from architects to engineers to materials scientists, to explore ways of transforming flat sheets of listless material into three-dimensional, reconfigurable structures that can expand, contract and shapeshift in an instant.
Some of the results have been truly remarkable. Last year, Harvard researchers presented a 3-D structure inspired by a modular origami technique called snapology, which, if scaled up, could make it possible to fold a house-sized object into a block that would fit inside a backpack.
But like other so-called "architected materials," also known as metamaterials, the structures cannot be reconfigured after they're built, limiting their use. What's more, researchers do not know which origami shapes, of the myriad possibilities, are best for making architected materials.
Now some of the same Harvard researchers that explored the snapology technique have come up with a general computer model for linking multi-sided, three-dimensional building blocks to make intricate, shapeshifting structures. The model, reported in the journal Nature, quantifies all of the different ways that a particular structure can transform, depending on the building blocks used.