To some, the Japanese art of origami looks like child's play as thin sheets of paper are folded into intricate shapes and figures, like birds, flowers, and dragons.
But to scientists and engineers, the principles of origami have been applied to design problems, such as getting solar panels into space, making a foldable robot that can walk, and even creating a working optical microscope, simply by folding paper in a systematic way.
Origami engineering is really focused on designing deployable structures that can fold and unfold.
It can fold up into a compact shape and then deploy into a much larger shape.
Mary Frecker is a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering at Pennsylvania State University.
Her research, funded by the National Science Foundation, uses the principles of origami to design better devices and equipment, including smaller, smarter, and more efficient tools for surgeons.
I think what is innovative about what we're doing is we're trying to, not design something static.
We're trying to look at this idea of folding and unfolding, and how do we control that, and how do we make that happen, and how do we use it for something useful? Frecker's inventions, which have already received several patents from the United States Patent and Trademark Office, could one day make surgeries less invasive.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 50 million Americans underwent surgical procedures in 2010.
If surgeries could be performed through smaller incisions or by using ear, nose and mouth pathways, patients would have less pain and scarring, shorter hospital stays, and quicker recovery times.
If we could have a surgical instrument that could be very small and compact and be inserted into the body through a small incision, say, and then deploy into something larger once inside, then you get all the benefits of the minimally invasive approach.
However, when it came time to build these micro-tools – some thinner than a human hair – Frecker and her team had to overcome several design challenges.
One of these included creating tiny hinges and joints– an essential part to many mechanical devices that would enable the instruments to work inside the body.
Their solution incorporates the principles of origami.
Instead of having several moving parts, these micro-tools could be made as single structures that fold by themselves, eliminating the need for separate hinges and joints.
Our project is focused on what we call self-folding, where we would like to be able to have a device that would, say, for example, start from a flat sheet and fold into a certain shape on its own, without having to fold manually, like it's done typically with paper.
Frecker's team includes not just engineers and materials scientists, but as part of the NSF grant, it also includes someone with a different skill set.
I was brought into the team to round us out, to get a different kind of a thinker.
Rebecca Strzelec is an artist who uses computer-aided-design, or CAD and three-dimensional printing to create wearable objects of art.
Strzelec's participation is an example of the crucial role teamwork can often play in the innovation process, as people with diverse sets of talents and backgrounds work together.
I think as my role as the artist, I kind of sweep in sometimes and shake things up a bit.
I said, well we haven't thought about things that unfurl or things that are sheathed like bananas, for instance, or flowers, or a plant that unrolls when its new leaves come out.
The team works with existing or newly-created "smart materials" or composites and polymers that carry unique properties, like the ability to stretch or rotate.
These materials are then paired with other smart materials with different properties such as the ability to compress or expand when exposed to various stimuli, like a type of force or stress.
If I apply a magnetic field to my materials, it would fold into a certain shape.
And then if I apply the electric field to the same materials, it would fold into a different shape.
Depending on the type and strength of the stimuli, the materials can do things like curve, inch along, fold up into a box, or catapult a small object through the air.
Eventually, these applications can be used for the design of structures like a foldable antenna used to gather information from space.
I think this project in particular, because it involves multiple disciplines, really requires some teamwork.
So whether it's the materials side or the design or the modelling or the artistic inspiration, all of that really contributes to our outcomes.
An outcome that could help pave the way for new technologies due to an innovative team inspired by the ancient art of origami.