Linking Engineering, Art and Science: Origami May Be Key to Complex Air Force Needs

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July 30, 2018 | Originally published by Date Line: July 30 on

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – Origami, the art of paper folding, has captivated generations of audiences across the globe, as artists craft intricate, intriguing figures and objects by folding just a single sheet of paper. 

For scientists and engineers at the Air Force Research Laboratory, the prospect of using origami to create complex, multi-functional materials from a two-dimensional substrate is a highly attractive concept, with the potential to deliver engineering solutions and new applications for the Air Force.

“A decade or so ago, we started seeing some amazing origami, with artists creating things like dragons, human replicas, objects with curved surfaces and more just out of a single sheet of paper. Scientists and engineers saw this and thought, ‘wow,’ how can we leverage this in our work and attach a function to it, taking advantage of this amazing art for our needs?” said Dr. Kazuko Fuchi, a research engineer from the University of Dayton Research Institute on the AFRL team. “That’s how the excitement in origami started.”

The AFRL approach to origami differs from that of an artist, as computational mathematics, physics and engineering disciplines all play an integral role in the exploration of origami for technology applications. The greatest challenge, according to Dr. Andrew Gillman, a research scientist with UES, Inc. working at the AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate, is understanding a design space that has thousands of possibilities. This is the first step towards exploiting its technological potential.

“One of the interesting things about origami is that it provides a platform for some extreme mechanical behaviors,” said Gillman. “But to simulate and model these requires the development of complex mathematical theories to understand motions. I’ve been developing mathematical algorithms to help us better understand the origami deformation process. The optimal tool would enable us to describe what we want to do and generate the ideal shape and location for fold lines.”

It is a challenging design space, say the researchers, but the tremendous potential of origami to generate solutions for the Air Force is worth the effort.

“What is the right way to look at origami from an engineering standpoint? What are the hard problems that we can solve using this?” said Pankonien. “We are taking something out of the art realm and merging it with mathematics, physics, mechanics and computation to design useful tools for the future.”