Bridge in a box: Unlocking origami’s power to produce load-bearing structures

Walls and bridges

For the first time, load-bearing structures like bridges and shelters can be made with origami modules — versatile components that can fold compactly and adapt into different shapes — University of Michigan engineers have demonstrated.

It’s an advance that could enable communities to quickly rebuild facilities and systems damaged or destroyed during natural disasters, or allow for construction in places that were previously considered impractical, including outer space. The technology could also be used for structures that need to be built and then disassembled quickly, such as concert venues and event stages.

“With both the adaptability and load-carrying capability, our system can build structures that can be used in modern construction,” says  Evgueni Filipov, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and of mechanical engineering, and a corresponding author of the study in Nature Communications.

Totally mod(ular)

Principles of the origami art form allow for larger materials to be folded and collapsed into small spaces. And with modular building systems gaining wider acceptance, the applications for components that can be stored and transported with ease have grown.

Researchers have struggled for years to create origami systems with the necessary weight capacities while keeping the ability to quickly deploy and reconfigure. U-M engineers have created an origami system that solves that problem. Examples of what the system can create include:

  • A 3.3-foot-tall column that can support 2.1 tons of weight while itself weighing just over 16 pounds, and with a base footprint of less than 1 square foot.
  • A package that can unfold from a 1.6-foot-wide cube to deploy into different structures, including: a 13-foot-long walking bridge, a 6.5-foot-tall bus stop, and a 13-foot-tall column.

A key to the breakthrough came in the form of a different design approach provided by Yi Zhu, research fellow in mechanical engineering and first author of the study.

“When people work with origami concepts, they usually start with the idea of thin, paper-folded models — assuming your materials will be paper-thin,” Zhu says. “However, in order to build common structures like bridges and bus stops using origami, we need mathematical tools that can directly consider thickness during the initial origami design.”

To bolster weight-bearing capacity, many researchers have attempted to thicken their paper-thin designs in varying spots. U-M’s team, however, found that uniformity is key.

“What happens is you add one level of thickness here, and a different level of thickness there, and it becomes mismatched,” Filipov says. “So when the load is carried through these components, it starts to cause bending.

“That uniformity of the component’s thickness is what’s key and what’s missing from many current origami systems. When you have that, together with appropriate locking devices, the weight placed upon a structure can be evenly transferred throughout.”

Piece cranes

In addition to carrying a large load, this system — known as the Modular and Uniformly Thick Origami-Inspired Structure system — can adapt its shapes to become bridges, walls, floors, columns, and many other structures.

U-M’s research has been helped along by use of its Sequentially Working Origami Multi-Physics Simulator (SWOMPS). It’s a simulator that accurately predicts the behaviors of large-scale origami systems. Developed at U-M, the system has been available to the public since 2020.

The study was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation and the Automotive Research Center.
(Lead image: From left, Yi Zhu, a Research Fellow in Mechanical Engineering, and Evgueni Filipov, an associate professor in both Civil and Environmental Engineering and Mechanical Engineering, working in his lab. Credit: Brenda Ahearn, Michigan Engineering.)


  1. Brian Schiller - 1970, 1972, 1979

    Is there an upper limit that limits application of origami structures, bridges in particular?


  2. J Oleinick - 87

    Reality is Origami has been used for years in structural design, and material thickness was considered.

    Theatre Roof 2003 – Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater
    The outdoor Bengt Sjostrom Starlight Theater in Rockford, IL integrates origami principles into its kinetic roof design. The folding roof panels were designed by Studio Gang Architects and completed construction in 2003. The roof can expand upward to reveal the open sky or contract downwards to shelter the theater stage below. When open, the wing-like roof structure creates an intimate environment for audiences to enjoy theater under the stars. This folding mechanics enables a smooth transition from an open air theater to an enclosed performance venue.

    Chapel Wall Roof 2008 – Chapel for the Deaconess of St. Loup
    The Chapel for the Deaconess of St. Loup located in Pompaples, Switzerland was designed by Localarchitecture & Danilo Mondada and completed in 2008. Architects generated the algorithmic timber fold patterns used to construct the chapel’s organic origami-like form.

    Master Sculptor and Engineer Calatrava – 2001
    The Quadracci Pavilion of the Milwaukee Art Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA was designed by architect Santiago Calatrava and opened in 2001. Its standout feature is the large glass roof structure with wing-like folds spanning the interior atrium. The hydraulic mechanism controlling the roof’s folding enables it to gracefully open and close like an origami piece.

    NASA – Trease partnered with researchers at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, to pursue the idea that spacecraft components could be built effectively by implementing origami folds. Shannon Zirbel, a doctoral student at BYU, spent two summers at JPL working on these ideas, supported by the NASA Technology Research Fellowship, with Trease as her research collaborator.

    NASA – Why did NASA use origami?
    Origami folds let the inner disk of NASA’s starshade prototype wrap into a cylinder for launch, then unfurl to block starlight reaching a space telescope.Feb 1, 2023
    International Space Station & NASA
    Capturing the art and science of NASA’s origami starshade

    Oleinick – used a basic Origami fold for a articulated roof in an undergraduate student project in 1986
    Material Thickness was considered.

    I think Calatrava demonstrated thorough consideration of material thickness as did Bengt Sjostrom.
    Basically material thickness being addressed in another way is what Yi Zhu has come up with, which is cool, but maybe a little less Moulin Rouge Marmalade strutting ur stuff.

    Jon Oleinick, Class of 1987


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