We think of flatpacking practices as being the domain of furniture manufacturers. Compressing a large bureau down into a small box is useful for bringing down shipping costs. But as researchers at Brigham Young University have realized, flatpacking has a much wider range of practical applications ranging from space exploration to surgery.
To exploit this they've turned, interestingly enough, to origami.
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Several years ago they began working on large solar panels that could be compressed into relatively tiny payloads that fit handily on a rocket. Free of Earth's bonds, it then unfurls into a massive array:
More recently they've turned their attention to surgery and how to make it less invasive. Surgeons need a way to get nimble, sophisticated tools inside of human bodies, and the incision needed to insert them has traditionally been commensurate with the size of the tool. But BYU Mechanical Engineering professors Spencer Magleby, Larry Howell, Brian Jensen and a team of students reasoned that if the tool itself could be "flatpacked," the incision could be made a lot smaller. Their ingenious research has not only shrunk the size of the tool in both folded and open positions, but has reduced the part count as effectively as any BOM-trolling bean-counter:
These are not, by the way, some pie-in-the-sky concept projects. BYU has licensed a series of technologies to Intuitive Surgical, whom they call "the world leader in robotic surgery."
The researchers say their work is inspired by a need for increasingly smaller surgical tools; the industry has reached the limit to where they can't go any smaller with traditional designs. BYU's team has engineered new design concepts that eliminate the need for pin joints and other parts, instead relying on the deflection inherent in origami to create motion.
"These small instruments will allow for a whole new range of surgeries to be performed—hopefully one day manipulating things as small as nerves," Magleby said. "The origami-inspired ideas really help us to see how to make things smaller and smaller and to make them simpler and simpler."
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Magleby says the work they are doing on medical devices is not much different in principle than the work they've done for NASA to create compact space equipment.
"Those who design spacecraft want their products to be small and compact because space is at a premium on a spacecraft, but once you get in space, they want those same products to be large, such as solar arrays or antennas," Magleby said. "There's a similar idea here: We'd like something to get quite small to go through the incision, but once it's inside, we'd like it to get much larger."
While it's perhaps not intuitive to look at a paper crane, then make the leap to satellites and surgical tools, the key phrase is what the student said in the first video: "You can find inspirations for designs from anything."
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