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Kiju holding robotic arm in her hands

A childhood fascination inspires an invention that could change health care, manufacturing and more

As a child, I did a lot of origami. I’d fold (and fold ... and fold ...) until the flat sheets of paper became intricate 3D figures.

It’s a hobby I neglected over the years, until I had children. As we built boats and airplanes together, I couldn’t stop thinking about the origami structures that can move by themselves, like robots. One of my students and I came across the Twisted Tower, in which the paper structure can bend, contract, extend and twist. Then, I had an epiphany: This design could translate to robotics, providing a flexible yet structurally sound alternative to today’s rigid robots.

So my students and I got folding, creating paper robotic models that could transform to fit the shape and space. Then, we used Sears think[box], the university’s innovation center, to 3D print our designs using a more resilient material while also speeding up the process. We went from 20 hours to make the robots by hand to 10 minutes of human involvement (plus about 10 hours of machine printing). The experience proved that the elaborate technique could translate to large-scale production.

Right now, we’re exploring the use of these robots in modern manufacturing. Our soft, flexible and durable robots can move efficiently and grasp items, and can work alongside people on the manufacturing line, unlike the rigid robots that present safety risks.

My goal, though, is two opposite applications: I want to miniaturize the robots for use in minimally invasive surgery, and then enlarge them for space travel. The possibilities for their use are as vast as the origami designs that inspire them.

Kiju Lee, the Nord Distinguished Assistant Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering

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