Structural Engineers Show How Origami Can Produce Load Bearing Structures

University of Michigan engineers in Ann Arbor have looked to the Japanese art of paper folding to demonstrate how load bearing structures like bridges and shelters can be made with origami modules — versatile components that can fold compactly and adapt into different shapes.
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U-M researchers using origami to fold structures
U-M engineers have looked to origami, the art of paper folding, to develop new ways to create load-bearing structures. // Photo courtesy of U-M

University of Michigan engineers in Ann Arbor have looked to the Japanese art of paper folding to demonstrate how load bearing structures like bridges and shelters can be made with origami modules — versatile components that can fold compactly and adapt into different shapes.

The principles of the origami paper folding art form allow for larger materials to be folded and collapsed into small spaces. And with modular building systems gaining wider acceptance, the applications for components that can be stored and transported with ease have grown.

It’s an advance that could enable communities to quickly rebuild facilities and systems damaged or destroyed during natural disasters, or allow for construction in places that were previously considered impractical, including outer space, says Evgueni Filipov, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering at U-M.

He also is a corresponding author of a study on origami modules published in the scientific journal Nature Communications.

In addition, the technology could be used for structures that need to be built and then disassembled quickly, such as concert venues and event stages.

“With both the adaptability and load-carrying capability, our system can build structures that can be used in modern construction,” says Filipov.

Researchers have struggled for years to create origami systems with the necessary weight capacities while keeping the ability to quickly deploy and reconfigure. U-M’s engineers have created an origami system that solves that problem. Examples of what the system can create include:

  • A 3.3-foot-tall column that can support 2.1 tons of weight while itself weighing just over 16 pounds, and with a base footprint of less than 1 square foot.
  • A package that can unfold from a 1.6-foot-wide cube to deploy into different structures, including: a 13-foot-long walking bridge, a 6.5-foot-tall bus stop and a 13-foot-tall column.
  • A key to the breakthrough came in the form of a different design approach provided by Yi Zhu, research fellow in mechanical engineering at U-M and first author of the study.

“When people work with origami concepts, they usually start with the idea of thin, paper-folded models—assuming your materials will be paper-thin,” says Zhu. “However, in order to build common structures like bridges and bus stops using origami, we need mathematical tools that can directly consider thickness during the initial origami design.”

To bolster weight-bearing capacity, many researchers have attempted to thicken their paper-thin designs in varying spots. U-M’s team, however, found that uniformity is key.

“What happens is you add one level of thickness here, and a different level of thickness there, and it becomes mismatched,” says Filipov. “So when the load is carried through these components, it starts to cause bending.

“That uniformity of the component’s thickness is what’s key and what’s missing from many current origami systems. When you have that, together with appropriate locking devices, the weight placed upon a structure can be evenly transferred throughout.”

U-M’s research has been helped along by use of its Sequentially Working Origami Multi-Physics Simulator (SWOMPS). It’s a simulator that accurately predicts the behaviors of large-scale origami systems. Developed at U-M, the system has been available to the public since 2020.

The study was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation and the Automotive Research Center.