Centuries ago, the invention of paper led to the development of a new art form—origami. As the art form spread, practitioners learned to manipulate a single sheet of paper into ever-more complex figures. Even in recent years, new fold techniques have been developed by masters of the art. Some of these new techniques—along with more traditional ones—are now being applied in a way that the inventors of origami could never have imagined. This ancient art, once practiced by monks and nobles, is now making possible the next generation of electronic devices.

Origami techniques enable versatile three-dimensional (3D) structures to be created from planar, two-dimensional (2D) sheets. The versatility made possible by these techniques means that origami has potential applications across a wide range of industries, including space exploration, electronics manufacturing, robotics, and medicine.

Why Use Origami for Electronic Devices?

“Origami fold patterns can add structural integrity to an object, as well as affect its mechanical and metamaterial properties.”

By creating a 3D object out of a 2D piece of paper, origami provides unique structural solutions to many engineering problems.

Origami fold patterns can add structural integrity to an object, as well as affect its mechanical and metamaterial properties. The Miura fold (a fold conceived in 1970 by astrophysicist Koryo Miura), for example, can confer both rigidity and compressibility to a non-rigid material. Using techniques like the Miura fold, engineers have made lightweight, foldable robotic parts that weigh only 30 grams, yet can unfold and self-lock to become rigid and capable of sustaining a compressive load of 12 kilograms.

Saving Space—in Space

As with many fabrication and engineering innovations in the field of electronics manufacturing, some of the first technological applications for origami were in space.

Using origami provides aerospace engineers with an elegant way to construct complex structures that can fold down for easy (and less expensive) transport. Then, once the devices have reached orbit, they can seamlessly open up to several times their size. And if needed, they can return to their folded state just as easily as they unfurled.

Origami has already been successfully used by NASA and other space programs to design large objects that are lighter in weight than their traditional counterparts, and smaller too, so that they significantly reduce the volume taken up in the spacecraft.

In fact, the recent launch of the largest telescope ever into space—the James Webb Space Telescope—was made possible by the use of techniques borrowed from origami and its related discipline, kirigami. Both the mirror and the giant sunshield, 21 feet and 69.5 feet respectively, folded down to fit into a narrow 18-foot rocket opening.

By enabling the creation of new types of electronic devices, origami is also creating new areas of demand for electronic components. The mirror of the Webb telescope, for example, was unfolded with the aid of miniaturized SIDECAR microprocessors. These processors, designed to convert analog to digital signals, had been miniaturized from a volume of about one cubic meter to an integrated circuit about the size of a half-dollar coin—demonstrating how innovation in one area often pushes development in another.

Making Electronic Devices Less Expensive and More Sustainable

With precise folding, manufacturers can also produce more complex and intricate designs without the stress development issues associated with traditional designs.

The Ohio-based company, Industrial Origami, specializes in the low-force folding of steel and aluminum sheets. The company has patented a technology that uses origami principles to simplify the design and assembly of a host of products, including heavy construction goods. According to the company, their origami-based designs reduce material usage by 20 to 50 percent, while making the production process easier, faster, and less expensive.

Two people in a living room, using their wall-mounted smart home interface
Origami is set to create greater efficiency in sensory technology.

Another company that has taken space-saving folding techniques to the factory floor is the Swedish company Stilride. Using “industrial origami” techniques, the company is able to build an e-bike out of a single sheet of stainless steel. Bicycles made this way are more sustainable than traditionally made bikes, because they use fewer raw materials. They’re also 40% lighter and cost 20% less to build.

Not only is this origami folding technology scalable, it also allows for a flexible manufacturing model where lightweight, flat modules can be easily transported elsewhere for assembly.

Shifting Shapes

Engineers are looking to origami techniques to create shapeshifting, reconfigurable structures, particularly in the development of antennas and antenna arrays.

Origami accordion designs, for example, enable the construction of highly flexible antennae. These bendable antennae are capable of movement beyond a single linear functionality, which gives them the ability to work at two different frequencies.

In another novel application of origami, engineers at Princeton University have been working on antenna arrays using a new class of broadband metasurface antenna. These antennas are arrayed in a configuration that’s based on an origami pattern for a folded paper box called a waterbomb. This highly flexible waterbomb array confers much higher functionality than the standard antenna array, enabling the careful calibration of electromagnetic waves.

As demand grows for robotics, smart devices, and other wireless-dependent technologies, robust and flexible antenna arrays will become more critical. Sensing antennas are already low-cost and lightweight. Now, origami-inspired arrays are making them more useful and easier to deploy on a wide scale.

Flexible Semiconductors for Flexible Devices

As wearables, soft robots, and other flexible electronics grow in popularity, origami has found its way into the design of semiconductors.

Flexible electronic devices require materials and designs that mitigate the strain and movement that produces unwanted electronic signals. PCBs and their components—especially semiconductors—are becoming more flexible, and origami is inspiring new PCB and device designs that take advantage of this pliability.

To this end, engineers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign are using kirigami—origami’s sister technique that uses cutting in addition to folding—to produce elastic-like semiconductors that won’t cause troublesome signal outputs. These designs use atomically thin graphene sandwiched between two layers of polyimide to create a highly flexible material, which is then engineered using a kirigami design to further enhance stretchability. These novel semiconductors have proven to be highly strain tolerant and function without producing unwanted motion or signals.

Nanomaterials like graphene are contributing to the next generation of microchips.

In another area of strain engineering (aka “straintronics”), researchers at the University of Sussex have been working with graphene and other 2D nanomaterials to create transistors by using a folding process called “nano origami.” With nano origami, kinks and folds are made in a 2D sheet of graphene—which is itself composed of only a single layer of carbon atoms—to create the smallest ever microchips. These graphene microchips, still in development, will be 100 times smaller than regular microchips. By enabling electronics manufacturers to add dozens of chips to devices without increasing their size or weight, these extremely small microchips seem poised to usher in a new era of electronics.

Self-Assembling Packaging

Perhaps the most obvious application of origami (and kirigami) is in an area that relies heavily on paper and paper-like materials—packaging. With hard plastic losing favor as a packaging material, and with paper and other flexible, organic substances growing in popularity as sustainable substitutes, it’s no surprise that origami is playing an increasingly important role in packaging design.  

One of the most innovative developments in this area is the creation of self-folding packaging, which is adding an efficient new twist to a traditional packaging design—the honeycomb.

Honeycomb structures have all the right properties for good packaging: low weight, effective heat insulation, and high shock absorption. But the folding process has traditionally been time-consuming and impractical, especially for very large or small objects.

That may be changing, however. A group of Japanese scientists have created a packaging design that combines dry paper with wet ink to create a packaging material that folds itself into a honeycomb shape—without mechanical intervention. Best of all, the material can be easily replicated, because what makes this packaging unique isn’t the raw material used to make it, but the pattern of the ink coating that’s applied to the paper.

With this process, low-cost paper is run through an ink-jet printer to coat it with a pre-designed pattern of printing solution. Once the paper comes off the printer, it self-assembles into the desired shape—ready to fit objects of any size.

This yields a sustainable packaging solution that can provide snug cushioning for small or fragile products and absorb shocks and impacts for large unwieldly structures, reducing the risk of damage during transportation.

Future Prospects for Ancient Techniques

From giant telescope mirrors to nano-folded microchips, the art of origami applied to industrial design is set to create more efficient and sustainable products that are cheaper to produce and easier to transport. And with origami techniques just beginning to be utilized for electronics, there are likely many more useful applications for this ancient art that are yet to be discovered.

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