A new origami “zippered tube” design that makes paper-based (or other thin materials) structures stiff enough to hold weight, yet can fold flat for easy shipping and storage could transform structures ranging from microscopic robots to furniture and even buildings. That’s what researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the Georgia Institute of Technology, and the University of Tokyo suggest in a Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper. Such origami structures could include a robotic arm that reaches out and scrunches up, a construction crane that folds to pick up or deliver a load, furniture, and quick-assembling emergency shelters, bridges — and other infrastructure used in the wake of a natural disaster.
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. Interlocking two tubes in zipper-like fashion made them much stiffer and harder to twist or bend, they found. The structure folds up flat, yet rapidly and easily expands to the rigid tube configuration. The zipper configuration works even with tubes that have different angles of folding. By combining tubes with different geometries, the researchers can make many different three-dimensional structures, such as a bridge, a canopy, or a tower.