This ancient Japanese art could improve everything from bridges to surgical gear.

Origami: It's more than just paper cranes!

My crane style defeats your monkey style. Photo by Doug/Flickr.


Did you know the principles of paper folding have been used to cram car airbags into tight spaces for years? And that's just the beginning.

All that material sits patiently inside your steering wheel until you need it. Photo by Scott E./Flickr.

The ancient Japanese art is actually inspiring the future of engineering.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Georgia Tech, and the University of Tokyo, for example, have been toying with a specific fold configuration they're calling the "zippered tube."

They say it could have some pretty amazing applications.

Whooooa. All GIFS via University of Illinois News Bureau/YouTube.

They start by folding a strip of paper into a sort of zig zag. Then, they glue two of these folded strips together to form a flexible-yet-powerful tube. From there, multiple tubes can be combined in all kinds of different combinations and geometric formations.

The result?

Firm, yet still flexible, Transformer-like structures capable of folding nearly flat for easy transportation or storage.

Here's a basic paper bridge holding up some hefty weights.

“A lot of (our research) was driven by space exploration, to be able to launch structures compactly and deploy them in space," says Evgueni Filipov, a graduate assistant on the project. "But we're starting to see how it has potential for a lot of different fields of engineering. You could prefabricate something in a factory, ship it compactly and deploy it on site."

But it's not just paper that can be origami'd into amazing new forms.

Imagine a steel surgical probe capable of collapsing in order to fit through a tiny incision, then expanding after insertion in order to perform its function.

Imagine shelters, bridges, housing, boats, and medical equipment that can be deployed at lightning speed during natural disasters.

Imagine an incredible, self-assembling robot. (Sound familiar?)

The possibilities are really endless.

From super cool, super convenient pop-up furniture...

This table is "more than meets the eye." Photo by Brett Jordan/Flickr.

... to solar panels that collapse and then expand when launched into space.

Starts small, becomes huge. Image from BYU/YouTube.

It may take some time before we see some of these techniques reach the mainstream.

But it's pretty exciting to think about a world where structures can be moved, modified, and stowed away with ease. And it's even cooler to think about a world where engineering is based as much in art as it is in science.

So, let's keep folding our way to a more beautiful, more functional world.

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