Light as paper, heavy as a chassis?

How a Traditional Japanese Artform Can Help Heavy Equipment Manufacturers Lighten Up

Origami is the ancient Japanese art of folding a square piece of paper into a three dimensional shape like a bird, a boat, or a flower. The Japanese have been practicing this art form since the 1600s for recreation and even for communication with a higher power (it’s said that if a person folds 1,000 paper cranes their wish will be granted).

Origami literally translates to “folded paper”, but the principles of origami can work with other materials. Our imaginations might immediately take us to towel sculptures of swans at beachside resorts or napkin fans perched attentively on expectant dinner plates or even an Issey Miyake dress that unfurls from a flat shape to a three dimensional one with one tug on a loop, but origami can be applied to more rigid materials as well.

At an industrial scale, origami can be used to fold metal, plastics, and composites into useful, lightweight shapes. For over a decade, a company called Industrial Origami, based in Cleveland, OH has been experimenting with the power of the fold to make products lighter, stronger, and less wasteful to produce.

The process works something like this: the component begins as an outlined shape, similar to a flattened box. A laser or stamper cuts an outline and fold lines. The fold lines are not solid cuts, they’re small intermittent, evenly spaced rounded lines that extend along the place where the material (most likely sheet metal) is to be folded just like scoring a piece of cardboard. The material is secured with straps and bent and folded into formation.

Besides the cool factor of telling your customers their finished product was made in part by origami, the process reduces the number of steps needed (less joining, fixing, etc.) which can translate into lower costs, production time, and labor. Depending on where you produce your product and who your end customer is, there may be other cost savings like the ability to flat pack flat pieces and transport more product in less space. There might also be cost savings and streamlined bills of materials without need for joint brackets and fixtures.

This is a strategy for companies that really want to commit to it. The time it takes to design or redesign a part to work with this production strategy is not insignificant and there is a lot of trial and error to maintain dimensional tolerances as the flat pattern is defined and tested. Their website cites examples as small as electrical encloses, as midsized as an arm for a construction digger, and as large as a system on which to mount large scale solar projects.

Industrial Origami works with companies as an R+D partner, and as a direct supply manufacturer. Check them out here: Warning: the videos of their solutions are about as addictive to mechanical engineers as cute cat videos are to the general public who has no idea how things work.

Brian Sather is a product marketing manager at Autodesk. An engineer by trade, he likes taking things apart and putting them back together. Half the things in his home work twice as well as they should, and the other half don’t work at all.

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