How the ancient art of origami is inspiring cutting-edge technology


June 28, 2016

Original Article Published on


Long before the 3D printer, origami was the original genius at creating lifelike forms out of a flat surface. Folding brings with it the ability to collapse, flex and unfurl structures at will, which has huge potential for a variety of engineering applications. From digestible origami pills that could provide alternatives to invasive surgery to solar panels that could be tightly packed in an aircraft and deploy after launch, at the heart oforigami’s modern applications is its ability to transform.

Origami has been transforming ever since Buddhist monks carried paper from China to Japan in the 6th century. Because paper was expensive and not widely available, its first origami applications were for religious ceremonies.

One of the first common shapes was the “Shide,” a series of zigzag folded and cut paper attached to either rope or wood to signify purification rituals. Next came the “Mecho” and “Ocho,” male and female butterflies that were attached to sake bottles at traditional Shinto weddings. By the 17th century, origami extended beyond its ceremonial origins to a popular form of recreation, thanks to the advent of mass-produced paper. Millions of paper cranes ensued.

Forms stayed relatively stagnant until the 1950s, when the Japanese artist Akira Yoshizawa inspired a new generation of artists and scientists with his complex and lifelike renderings of animals. Then came physicist Robert Lang, who has been leading the charge in computational origami, uniting mathematical formulas with the art of folding. Among Lang’s many practical origami-inspired applications has been improving the safety of airbags in automobiles.

This intersection of multiple disciplines has rich potential for solving a whole host of real world engineering problems, mainly because origami is a compliant mechanism. It gets its motion from bending and deflection rather than hinges or bearings, and the motion relies on the paper’s flexibility. If these principles of strength and flexibility are applied to materials more durable than paper, the possibilities are endless.