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Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo
A developable mechanism created by researchers at tBrigham Young University is pictured. An article detailing the research was published in Science Robotics on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

PROVO — What happens when Brigham Young University engineers work together with a world-renowned origami artist?

Breakthroughs that allow engineers to "build complex mechanisms into the exterior of a structure without taking up any actual space below the surface," according to university officials.

Translation?

"It took just over 10 years, but real science has finally caught up to the science fiction of Iron Man’s transforming exoskeleton suit."

And researchers foresee the superhero-like technology impacting the medical field, the military, vehicles, airplanes and space exploration.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo
Larry Howell, Brigham Young University mechanical engineering professor, shows a developable mechanism created by researchers at the university. An article detailing the research was published in Science Robotics on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

The new class of mechanisms are called "developable mechanisms" and can take on 3D shapes from curved surfaces.

"They reside in a curved surface (like, say, the arms of Iron Man's suit) and can transform or morph when deployed to serve unique functions. When not in use, they can fold back into the surface of the structure seamlessly," BYU officials said.

The research was published Thursday in Science Robotics.

According to Larry Howell, researcher and professor of mechanical engineering at BYU, those new discoveries reached within the last year have been 25 years in the making.

"We realized, because we were trying to make things that were very compact but then expand out to do more sophisticated tasks, we realized that origami was something that was flat because it was a flat sheet of paper, but then could be folded into these complex shapes," Howell told the Deseret News.

He said the researchers have been exploring origami-based engineering for the past seven or eight years. "And then this particular work came, and we were doing curved origami where you have curved creases in paper and that led to this work that we're doing now," Howell explained.

But what is the benefit of compact mechanisms?

"Consumers are expecting that they're going to be able to get a lot of function out of their devices, and that demand is becoming greater and greater," Howell said. For example, cellphones have transformed into not only a means of communication, but devices that serve countless purposes. They double as calendars, watches, books and music players, to name a few.

Jaren Wilkey, BYU Photo
A developable mechanism created by researchers at Brigham Young University is pictured. An article detailing the research was published in Science Robotics on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

It's "becoming more and more of an expectation that we can get more function out of our products. And that also is the case even in mechanical-type devices. And so there is this need to get, you know, more function in smaller space," according to Howell.

"And that's felt very much so in surgery, where you'd like to be able to make very small incisions to put your surgical tool into the body, and then be able to still expand out and do complex things."

The technology could be used to create surgical instruments that can cut materials and place lights in minimally invasive surgery; storage components in vehicles and airplanes; and quad-rotor drones with adjustable wing spans for the military, among other uses, according to the university.

The BYU researchers worked with origamist Robert Lang, who visits the university three or four times a year.

"And he brings all of his knowledge of origami and all the background that he has there, and we're able to combine our efforts with the origami and the engineering and do things that are really interesting that neither one of us could do on our own," Howell said.

That intersection between art and engineering isn't common, Howell said, but it should be.

"I think there's a lot of benefit to having that interaction of people that think differently and approach problems with different ways, and value different things. When we get together, that can be really powerful for doing new sorts of things, very creative things that haven't been done before. And so it doesn't happen very often, but you know, there should be a call for doing more of that, because there's evidence that shows that we can learn more," Howell explained.

Nate Edwards, BYU Photo
A developable mechanism created by researchers at Brigham Young University is pictured. An article detailing the research was published in Science Robotics on Thursday, Feb. 14, 2019.

The research is still new and "straight out of the lab," but BYU researchers are beginning to put it to use in products. Howell thinks the most likely early products will be medical devices because they're a "natural fit."

"There's many potential applications that could come out, but those products will take a while to develop," Howell said.

The professor said it's "exhilarating" to see years of research come together in this way.

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"It's usually lots of small eureka moments combined that kind of come together and come into understanding of what phenomena you're dealing with and discoveries there, and also what it means, and that is usually a sequence of events," he said.

Many BYU students participated in the project, and "that's one of the exciting things, is to have those engineering students have those experiences" that will help them be better engineers, Howell added.

The National Science Foundation sponsors the research. Researchers at the University of Southern Indiana and Lang Origami also participated.