Home / Chroniques / Origami and kirigami in the service of science
Colorful paper origami close up detail
π Science and technology

Origami and kirigami in the service of science

Sophie Ramananarivo
Sophie Ramananarivo
Researcher at LadHyX* (IP Paris)
Key takeaways
  • Origami, the art of folding, and kirigami, the art of cutting, have techniques for making things that can be useful in certain scientific fields.
  • Examples of these techniques can be found in nature, such as the leaf of a tree or the wings of an insect.
  • These techniques can be used to make an object more flexible or to change its structure.
  • In this way, objects lose strength but are more easily adapted to different environments.
  • The question remains as to how to control the deformation of the flexible object so that it is fully effective.

Have you ever tried to make an A4 sheet of paper stand up? Flex­i­ble as it is, no mat­ter how hard you try, it will keep col­laps­ing in on itself. But if you fold the same sheet length­wise, it gains a new prop­er­ty: more rigid, this time it stands on the table! How­ev­er, the mate­r­i­al of the sheet does not change, only a dif­fer­ent aspect of its struc­ture has been added. How can this change in prop­er­ties be explained?

This phe­nom­e­non can be observed in nature, in var­i­ous forms – such as the leaf of a tree, which has a spe­cif­ic fold­ing for its unfold­ing out of the bud and which rein­forces, at the same time, its struc­ture. Origa­mi, the art of fold­ing, and kiriga­mi, the art of cut­ting, work in a sim­i­lar way. Sophie Ramana­nari­vo, a researcher at the Hydro­dy­nam­ics Lab­o­ra­to­ry (Lad­HyX*1), is cur­rent­ly work­ing on these arts and their con­tri­bu­tion to science.

From life to robotics 

One of the main advan­tages of origa­mi and kiriga­mi is it’s the flex­i­bil­i­ty they bring to the mod­i­fied object. What is more, this flex­i­bil­i­ty becomes con­trol­lable. A flex­i­ble object can, through this char­ac­ter­is­tic, acquire new prop­er­ties. “One of my pre­vi­ous projects con­sist­ed of observ­ing and under­stand­ing the use­ful­ness of the flex­i­bil­i­ty of the wings of cer­tain insects,” explains Sophie Ramana­nari­vo. “In fact, this char­ac­ter­is­tic was a pas­sive way of lim­it­ing the effort of flap­ping these wings for bet­ter per­for­mance2.” Anoth­er study looked at the folds that made up the wings of cer­tain insects3. Instead of hav­ing mus­cles that would allow a stronger flap­ping action, the folds struc­tur­ing their wings give a greater ampli­tude to the flap­ping action, while facil­i­tat­ing their deploy­ment. “It would be inter­est­ing to observe the role of these folds in flight per­for­mance,” admits the researcher. “This is some­thing I would like to study in the future.”

In this phe­nom­e­non, it is not the mate­r­i­al of the wing that gives it this prop­er­ty, but the folds that it is com­posed of. This struc­ture can be repro­duced on a sheet of paper, using origa­mi. “Origa­mi and kiriga­mi are used as meta­ma­te­ri­als,” she explains. “The prop­er­ties of the object do not come from its mate­r­i­al, but from the struc­ture we give it.”

These tech­niques soon became of inter­est to the field of ‘soft robot­ics’45. “Pre­vi­ous­ly, in robot­ics, we tend­ed to favour rigid com­po­nents,” explains the researcher, “so that each of the robot’s parts that had to move in rela­tion to each oth­er was robust. But there is a real ben­e­fit in mak­ing com­po­nents that are more flex­i­ble: this field of research makes it pos­si­ble.” Like an octo­pus ten­ta­cle, which is much more flex­i­ble than the arm of a tra­di­tion­al robot and has greater free­dom of move­ment. How­ev­er, the dis­ad­van­tage of a weak ten­ta­cle, which pre­vents it from car­ry­ing heavy loads, must be tak­en into account. 

A low-cost object 

The tech­niques spe­cif­ic to these Japan­ese arts are sub­jects of research in full expan­sion, “espe­cial­ly as it is a ‘low-cost’ way of mak­ing mate­ri­als with very impres­sive prop­er­ties”, insists Sophie Ramana­nari­vo. The aim is there­fore to make an object that can ful­fil a func­tion ‘pas­sive­ly’. A good exam­ple of this type of pas­sive func­tion is a valve that can open accord­ing to the inten­si­ty of the water flow it encounters. 

This valve is designed using origa­mi fold­ing tech­niques. These folds give the valve more flex­i­bil­i­ty: if the flow of water reach­es a cer­tain speed – itself set accord­ing to our require­ments – it will open to allow the flow to take place with­out the need to oper­ate it remote­ly. The process is there­fore pas­sive. “Being able to per­form a func­tion pas­sive­ly, with a flex­i­ble object, lim­its the process­es that would have to be put in place if the func­tion in ques­tion were active,” says the researcher. There is no need to install an oper­a­tor to mea­sure the flow rate and final­ly acti­vate the valve at the right moment.

A pro­to­type of the valve with pas­sive prop­er­ties6, research to opti­mise it is still ongoing.

A sig­nif­i­cant advan­tage is that a flex­i­ble object tends to adapt eas­i­ly to its envi­ron­ment, whether it is sta­ble or sub­ject to chang­ing con­di­tions. “It’s like the fable of the Oak and the Reed, the lat­ter being flex­i­ble enough to cope with the wind,” she says. “This phe­nom­e­non can also be observed with sea­weed, which can fol­low the sea cur­rent with­out being uproot­ed. But to design such an object, you need to be able to con­trol how it will deform. Origa­mi and kiriga­mi allow you to do just that: con­trol the defor­ma­tion in a fair­ly com­plex way,” con­cludes Sophie Ramana­nari­vo. “That is why this tech­nique is of such great research interest.”

A myriad of applications

These Japan­ese arts allow the cre­ation of flex­i­ble objects at a low­er cost, more resis­tant depend­ing on the con­di­tions of use, and whose pas­sive func­tion­ing could almost earn them the qual­i­fi­ca­tion of “intel­li­gent objects”. Thanks to all these advan­tages, origa­mi and kiriga­mi have many appli­ca­tions in many fields. 

“These Japan­ese arts could almost earn flex­i­ble objects the title of intel­li­gent objects.”

In fact, this type of tech­nique is already being used in every­day life, for exam­ple in a deliv­ery box. It con­sists of three lay­ers, one of which is made of cor­ru­gat­ed card­board – in the shape of a wavelet. This is an origa­mi tech­nique to absorb shocks dur­ing trans­port. The same goes for crepe bob­bins, also made of card­board, which use the kiriga­mi tech­nique to pro­tect what they surround.

These assets can also enable tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tions. For exam­ple, they allow the solar pan­els of a satel­lite7 to unfold and ori­en­tate them­selves accord­ing to the time of day, giv­ing it an ide­al posi­tion in rela­tion to the sun at all times. Once the con­trol of the objec­t’s defor­ma­tion was acquired, researchers were also able to make a kind of shield to pro­tect a drone: the rotariga­mi8.   

Pablo Andres
1] *Lad­HyX : une unité mixte de recherche CNRS, École poly­tech­nique – Insti­tut Poly­tech­nique de Paris.
2Ramana­nari­vo, S., Godoy-Diana, R., & Thiria, B. (2011). Rather than res­o­nance, flap­ping wing fly­ers may play on aero­dy­nam­ics to improve per­for­mance. Pro­ceed­ings of the Nation­al Acad­e­my of Sci­ences108(15), 5964–5969.
3Haas F, Woot­ton RJ. 1996 Two basic mech­a­nisms in insect wing fold­ing. Proc. R. Soc. B: Biol. Sci. 263, 1651–1658.
4Polygeri­nos, P., Cor­rell, N., Morin, S. A., Mosadegh, B., Onal, C. D., Petersen, K., … & Shep­herd, R. F. (2017). Soft robot­ics: Review of fluid-driven intrin­si­cal­ly soft devices; man­u­fac­tur­ing, sens­ing, con­trol, and appli­ca­tions in human-robot inter­ac­tion. Advanced Engi­neer­ing Mate­ri­als19(12), 1700016.
5Lida, F., & Laschi, C. (2011). Soft robot­ics: Chal­lenges and per­spec­tives. Pro­ce­dia Com­put­er Sci­ence7, 99–102.
6Marzin Tom, de Lan­gre Emmanuel and Ramana­nari­vo Sophie. 2022 Shape recon­fig­u­ra­tion through origa­mi fold­ing sets an upper lim­it on drag. Proc. R. Soc. A. 478: 20 220 592 http://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​9​8​/​r​s​p​a​.​2​0​2​2​.0592
7S. A. Zir­bel, R. J. Lang, M. W. Thom­son, D. A. Sigel, P. E. Walke­mey­er, B. P. Trease, S. P. Magle­by, L. L. How­ell, J. Mech. Des. 2013, 135, 11.
8Sareh, P. et al. (2018) ‘Rotoriga­mi: A rotary origa­mi pro­tec­tive sys­tem for robot­ic rotor­craft’, Sci­ence Robot­ics, 3(22), p. eaah5228. Avail­able at: https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​1​2​6​/​s​c​i​r​o​b​o​t​i​c​s​.​a​a​h5228.

Our world explained with science. Every week, in your inbox.

Get the newsletter