Origami Engineering

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Fold by fold, engineers have begun to recognise the innovative potential of origami beyond the traditional paper cranes and flowers. With its applications ranging from ingestible robots to deployable shelters, it is easy to see why the ancient art form has many excited for the future of robotics, medicine, and spaceflight.

Inspired by unfurling insect wings, foldable structures have been used for their space-saving benefits in spaceflight for some time; the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) used the Miura fold for their 1995 Space Flyer Unit, and NASA is following suit in their upcoming James Webb Space Telescope. Increasingly, the mathematical laws of origami are being applied to engineering – helping to create tools without the need for complex internal mechanisms.

In this episode of Create the Future, we speak to Dr Mark Schenk, an aerospace engineer whose childhood interest in origami led to his innovative work on morphable and deployable structures that might – one day – lead to a future without hinges or springs. We learn how to save weight when building aeroplanes, discuss the implication of ‘soft robotics’ in factories and warehouses, and hear why Mark insists on showing his engineering students an Anglepoise lamp during their first lecture.

About the guest

Dr Mark Schenk is a lecturer in aerospace engineering at the University of Bristol, working within the Bristol Composites Institute (ACCIS). He received his bachelor's and master's in Mechanical Engineering at Delt University of Technology, before completing his PhD in Structural Mechanics from the University of Cambridge. Previously, Mark worked as a post-doctoral researcher in deployable structures at the Surrey Space Centre and at the Advanced Structures Group at the Cambridge University Engineering Department.

Episode highlights

  • “My mother did origami when we were children, so I was always aware of origami as a plaything, as a pastime … it was more when I then got into my PhD phase that origami became an option for a research topic.”
  • “This is a prototype for an inflatable deployable structure we launched in orbit a couple of years ago. It's an origami cylinder. So when it folds up, it's a really compact shape. You then inflate it once it gets into space, and then it deploys from something which is about six centimetres tall to something about a meter in length.”
  • “We get a lot of students coming into aerospace engineering who are really fascinated by space or aircraft - that's one route into engineering. But for me, I was always good at problem solving, maths, and physics, and it got me into engineering. … Once you started engineering, you'll probably learn to love it.”
  • “Origami requires quite a few fields to come together. So there's a lot of mathematics involved, quite pure mathematics, there's mechanism theory, structures, design. You need to be aware of quite a few things, to be able to combine quite a few fields, to be able to study origami because they aren't really like structures or mechanisms, they’re somewhere in-between.”
  • On why to study engineering: “I think it is problem solving. It's the ability to solve problems which have not been solved before. There's plenty of problems that need to be solved – making aircraft lighter and more fuel-efficient, to wind turbines, to new renewable energy sources – all those problems which we need to tackle, we need engineers for, we need problem solvers. That's the main motivation: you can actually change the future.”

* This episode was recorded early in 2020 before any lockdown measures were implemented. To see the QEPrize response to the current public health situation click here.

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