When Anton Willis moved into his San Francisco apartment, he had a space problem: no room for his beloved kayak. He'd grown up paddling the Pacific and local waters in Mendocino County. Retrieving it from storage was an inconvenience he was determined to solve.
He found inspiration in a 2007 New Yorker story about Robert Lang, a NASA physicist who had become a full-time origami artist in 2001. Lang applied his math background to transport the art of folding into new frontiers, creating pieces never before possible. He was beginning to explore practical possibilities like containers, medical implants and air bags.
"I starting thinking about if I could fold up a kayak like a piece of paper," says Willis, who had recently completed his master's degree in architecture from the University of California at Berkeley.
He'd done a little origami as a child, but nothing sophisticated. He started folding one model after another, fooling around on weekends. Making a kayak shape was relatively easy, but a second set of folds to transform the single sheet of material into a box small enough to carry in an oversized backpack proved difficult. Two years and more than 25 designs later, he had a working prototype that launched Oru Kayak, a California company, and wowed the panel on “Shark Tank.” Oru, where Willis is the chief design officer, now sells four models of folding kayaks. One of them is even in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
While we think of origami as art, it increasingly is being used by companies and researchers in space, medicine, robotics, architecture, public safety and the military to solve vexing design problems, often to fit big things into small spaces. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers now includes origami in its annual conferences. So has the American Mathematical Society.
At the center of that transformation is a small number of scientists and engineers championing the practical applications of the Japanese art. Foremost among them is Lang, a passionate proselytizer for the art and the science of origami. He earned a bachelor's degree at Caltech and a master's degree at Stanford University, both in electrical engineering, before finishing a Ph.D. in applied physics at Caltech. He folded throughout as a way to relax, designing mostly bugs and animals—a hermit crab, a mouse in a mousetrap, an ant. Some took him weeks to design and hours to fold. Shortly after he began working at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1988 (Lang has published more than 80 papers and has 50 patents), he folded a life-size cuckoo clock.
In 2001, he left his then-job at the fiber-optics company JDS Uniphase to focus on his art. He wrote a paper outlining an algorithm for origami design. More papers followed. He has written books, whimsical and serious, and computer programs with names like TreeMaker and Tessellatica that take simple stick figure models and create crease patterns. One paper caught the eye of engineers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory who were working on a telescope lens they needed to fold for its journey into space. He helped design a prototype lens the size of a football field for the Eyeglass, which would have stretched to the size of Manhattan had the project been funded. He also consulted on a similar design with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory called Starshade, an immense, folding iris that would block light from distant stars to improve the capability of a space telescope.
These days, Lang divides his time between art and consulting on a wide variety of projects with corporate and academic partners. "Every good scientist is, in part, an artist," he says.
Lang’s research papers attracted Larry L. Howell, an engineering professor and researcher at Brigham Young University, after a doctoral student suggested looking into origami to create engineering solutions. "We realized there were a lot of things we could learn from these origami artists that could help us doing engineering in ways we would not have discovered using our traditional approaches," he says.
They’ve collaborated on a number of projects. Howell admits he was cautious at first, especially when applying for federal funding. He had visions of a senator asking why federal research money was going to origami, something his 10-year-old grandchild knew how to do. One of the initial projects funded by the National Science Foundation was designing a solar array that compacted to 9 feet during launch, but deployed to 82 feet across in space to generate power. That provided credibility for origami in high-tech design. More projects—and more research papers—followed.
Howell and his student researchers have dived into medicine, where using origami to create compact devices is particularly useful in robotic surgery. They invented the oriceps, tiny surgical grabbers based on an origami idea called chompers. They created a retractor to push aside an organ during robotic surgery that can be inserted through a tiny incision and then deployed inside the body. Intuitive Surgical, the company that makes the da Vinci Surgical Systems, licensed their patents.
After talking with officials at the Homeland Security Agency, Howell’s team worked with Lang and designed a foldable Kevlar shield that protects two or three people. A licensing deal is in negotiation. They consulted with a railroad company to design origami fairings for the front of locomotives that fold up when the cars are linked, but deploy when they're in front, making them more aerodynamic. The fairings save a million dollars a year in fuel costs, Howell says. And they've designed a better fitting adult diaper using origami.
Lang says a number of researchers were doing similar work independently. "Although I didn't know about it at the time, there had been other people tinkering with math, origami and technology," he says. "I think it was not so much that one person launched this field, but that we kind of reached a critical mass of ideas and people with mathematical backgrounds getting involved and you had the field blossom."
A Harvard roboticist used origami to design a grabber for catching soft-bodied deep-sea creatures like jellyfish without harming them. Oxford University researchers developed a heart stent that works using the traditional origami concept of a water bomb. Manan Arya, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, has the nickname "origamist in chief." He wrote his doctoral thesis on the use of origami in space superstructures.
Erik Demaine, a professor in computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the son of a sculptor, is following Lang’s path, pursing origami art and research. He earned a MacArthur “genius” grant for his research about folding and bending. “In the last few years, there's been a lot more excitement about the engineering and science applications of origami, that you can make practical structures that fundamentally change their shape,” he told a PBS interviewer. “Folding gives you a way to think about shape transformation.”
Lang thinks the appeal goes beyond function. "There is an aesthetic elegance to origami solutions to problems that's a little bit unexpected and a little bit beautiful," he concludes. "When you see a deployable structure like a solar array unfold with all these panels moving in different directions and then suddenly it's expanded in a way that didn't look possible, that captures peoples' imaginations."