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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 December, 2003, 10:02 GMT
Origami help for tech design
Paper Concorde, BBC
Origami - the Japanese art of folding paper to make models - is being put to a new use - to help engineers design, amongst other things, new telescopes and cars.

Exploiting the study of the way that paper folds, known as computational origami, can reveal both better ways to construct objects and also predict how they will respond to certain pressures.

In practical terms, this is being applied to space telescopes, amongst other things, to crack a long-standing problem - how to fit a bigger lens inside the finite room of a space shuttle.

"There is this application where we wanted a really big telescope, twice the size of Hubble," assistant professor Eric Demaine, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told BBC World Service's Science In Action programme.

"The trouble is that at scale the lens doesn't fit in the space shuttle, as space shuttles are fairly narrow.

"So you take this big lens, you fold it so that occupies some vertical space and less horizontal space, you put it in the shuttle, launch it into space.

"In space there's lots of room, so you can just unfold, and you have your big lens."

Car safety

Artists have been modelling nature in paper for nearly 400 years.

The first paper aeroplane, for example, came from the imagination of Leonardo da Vinci.

Hubble, Nasa
Folding a lens is theoretically the same as folding a paper swan
But computational origami is a relatively new study, and is helping to solve problems in many surprising areas.

"Some of the artistic questions in origami - making a structure to give you a certain artistic result - could really be solved, or at least advanced, by treating them as engineering problems and applying the tools of science and engineering," said Robert Lang, the engineering consultant behind Treemaker, considered to be the seminal work in computational origami.

Treemaker allows the user to specify a desired structure, and the computer then works out where to fold the pieces of paper.

In effect, the underlying principles behind folding a lens and folding a paper swan are the same.

As a result, learning how better to fold paper is teaching how to better fold many other things.

In Japan, scientists are using computational origami to design better crumple zones on cars.

Airbag art

Meanwhile a design firm in Germany coming up with more effective ways to design airbags on steering wheels.

"Materials have to behave predictably, reliably," explained Michael LaFosse, of Origamido Studios in the US.

Car wreck
Origami is teaching engineers how a car crumples in a crash
"If you're talking about furling and unfurling a sheet of something, or having a machine accomplish the re-shaping of a flat form - whether it's a ribbon or so forth - you've got to have some kind of practical knowledge about folded things.

"You have to convey to these machines - through numbers and through the engineers - what's going to be done with them."

However, while it is true that machines are increasingly able to model more complex origami shapes, some feel that the computer will never replace the artist.

"The beauty of origami is often something that a computer cannot predict, said Origamido Studio's Richard Alexander.

"There's no way that an artist would ever want to use a computer to design that kind of a composition.

"It's a very free-form, abstract - but yet very realistic - piece of crumpled paper that looks so beautiful.

"It's definitely a work of art on its own."

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