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Origami Class Teaches New Angles on Design

Origami Class Teaches New Angles on Design

Students who take Origami Engineering at Georgia Tech apply the art form to almost any need.
For many people, origami is simply a way to make paper cranes. But for the students who take the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Origami Engineering course, the art of paper folding becomes a gateway to learning structural principals, design, creativity, entrepreneurship, and empathy.

The class received a makeover in 2021 after its creator departed. Its current lead faculty member, Lauren Stewart, director of Georgia Tech’s Structural Engineering and Materials Laboratory, and Robert Simon, who teaches the leadership and entrepreneurship aspects, decided to go beyond mathematics and societal issues. The course now hones students’ creativity and empathy, teaching them to use the ancient paper sculpturing to create design solutions for specific users as widely ranging as surfers, backpackers, locksmiths, and beekeepers.

“I’m a structural engineer, so how I look at origami is structure,” Stewart said, adding an important aspect for any creation is “the ability to deploy. Think of satellites, stents, and bridges for the military.”

One of the deployable origami designs developed by students at Georgia Tech. Photo: Amelia Neumeister
Now that pandemic-related travel restrictions have been relaxed, the Origami Engineering instructors has re-introduced a study abroad component, partnering with STILFOLD, a Swedish company that uses its industrial computational software and robotic arms, which Stewart calls “cutting edge origami.”

The system doesn’t just crease a flat plane such as sheet metal along straight lines. It can bend curves or form more complex folds to create advanced designs, such as the body of a new type of lightweight motorcycle called STILRIDE, said Jonas Nyvang, the startup’s founder and CEO.

“When you consider how wasteful traditional metal fabrication can be, we thought, ‘Why not use origami principles to revolutionize this?’” Nyvang said. “It was not just about creating innovative products, but about designing solutions that are adaptable, like electric vehicles and architectural structures.”

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Nyvang explains the company’s software enables curve folding by “leveraging computational design to determine the most efficient curve folding patterns for a desired shape.”

The company’s robotic arm can “mold a single sheet of metal into these intricate 3D designs,” with the intent of reducing waste and energy consumption and increasing the structural strength and aesthetic appeal of the final product.

The partnership between the startup and the school is so new that at the beginning of the Fall 2023 semester, students hadn’t yet been told of the planned visit to STILFOLD’s facilities in Stockholm during 2024’s spring break.

“We were looking for an experience or a capstone that kind of merge the two” aspects of engineering and entrepreneurship/leadership,” Simon said. “They’re going out to talk to users but not really taking it to market.”

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Simon adds that working with a smaller company is another lesson for students. “From an academic perspective, universities doesn’t just have to partner with big corporate partners.”

In turn, the pairing benefits STILFOLD and the industry at large, Nyvang said: “The collaboration is about advancing origami engineering as a whole and offering the scientific community a new perspective on design and manufacturing.”

To that end, the company will also make part of its software open source, he said, and Stewart adds the school could get its own version of the robotic arm.

As much as the faculty and the startup will teach students, Stewart said prior pupils have already surprised and impressed at the course’s end-of-semester “trade show,” in which they present their designs.

For example, when students had to learn about surfers’ challenge, they discovered “that when they paddle out, they can wear flippers on their feet, but not on their hands, because have to grab surfboard. So they created deployable fin that could tuck back in. Sort of like a satellite,” she recalls.

Another project was aimed at hikers, Stewart said. Students created “a backpack that could fold, but when it rained, it could deploy over their heads and collect water.”

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These impressive projects are also notable because they’re invented by teams rather than individuals — challenging the trope of a visionary, almost mythological single inventor who created something by themselves. This, too, is by design.

As the Origami Engineering academic team said in its presentation at the American Society of Engineering Education’s 2022 conference, “performance skills” like teamwork, communication and leadership are just as important to develop as technical abilities — if students will be able “to meet the 21st century demands of being an engineer.”

Eydie Cubarrubia is a technology writer based in New York City.

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