Blog: Five things origami can teach us about sustainable engineering

Tue Beijer, CTO and co-founder of STILFOLD looks at how the ancient Japanese art of Origami can be applied to modern engineering materials and challenges.

Tue Beijer, CTO and co-founder of STILFOLD
Tue Beijer, CTO and co-founder of STILFOLD

‘Origami’, the ancient Japanese art of paper folding, has been around since the 1500s. In the 1920s and 30s, Josef Albers - the father of modern colour theory - taught origami at Bauhaus, where his methods involved folding paper into spirals and curves. Fast-forward to today, and we’re using curve-folding techniques at STILFOLD to engineer everything from our first electric motorcycle to the world’s first electric car. 

The goal of origami is to transform a flat sheet of paper into a finished sculpture using intricate and strategic folds. But paper isn’t the only material that can be used for origami. Many different materials - from steel to plastic - can be manipulated and folded to create new structures using minimal component parts.

Using strategic folds can enable you to build strength using fewer materials and components

There are a number of things origami can teach us about how to build structures more sustainably and create less waste. These are some of the most valuable lessons origami has taught me.

The process has to be perfect 

Origami is all about the process. In order to get the perfect end result, you need to have your folding instructions nailed down with millimetre precision. 

This is an important lesson to apply when it comes to sustainable engineering: every step in your supply chain and design-and-build process must be rigorously tested and assessed for climate impact, so you can ensure everything you do is as sustainable as possible. And where you’re not quite hitting the mark on sustainability, it’s back to the drawing board to work out how you can make that part of the process cleaner. 

It’s not always possible to achieve ‘zero-waste’ or zero-emissions engineering. But a watertight process that clearly prioritises sustainability throughout will help you reduce waste and build structures in a greener way.

Paper prototypes are cheap to build but have immeasurable valuable  

Prototyping can be expensive and labour intensive. The process often involves multiple iterations and refinements, so often companies will outsource prototyping to specialised firms. Large-scale projects with more significant technical challenges will likely have higher prototyping costs. Depending on the materials you use, these prototypes will also have an environmental impact.

Enter: paper. Paper is the primary material used for origami. And it’s a valuable resource for green engineering and prototyping.

Building prototypes out of paper is incredibly cheap. But it can be a great way to get a feel for a product’s design and work out how you might be able to build it sustainably. You can map out the construction process cheaply and effectively, both on a small scale and a larger scale, conserving resources before prototyping with more expensive materials. It’s a step in the process many engineers overlook.

Your choice of material is everything

Paper is the perfect material for origami. It’s flexible and malleable, yet holds its shape and can become stronger through multiple folds, without the need for glue or additional parts. It’s also sustainable to source, use and dispose of. These are properties we should be looking for in the materials we choose as designers and engineers. 

Identifying sustainable and robust materials is everything. It’s also important to consider what your material is made from and how it is made. At STILFOLD we use recycled austenitic steel from Outokumpu which is made from scrap metal. According to the World Steel Association, every tonne of scrap used for steel production avoids the emission of 1.5 tonnes of CO2. 

Materials are a critical and powerful choice when it comes to engineering products and structures sustainability. We should all be striving to use materials as flexible and sustainable as paper.

Welding isn’t the only way to create strength 

So much of engineering involves welding, stamping and screwing things together. But what origami teaches us is that welding isn’t the only way to create strength and join multiple surfaces. Using strategic folds can enable you to build strength using fewer materials and components, thus reducing the climate impact of your work.

At STILFOLD, our first e-motorbike requires 70% fewer components than a traditional plastic scooter, as we fold steel over curves to create surfaces and build strength, in place of traditional joining. Because the metal is folded and bent into shape rather than being cut and welded, the resulting structures are sturdy and resilient. A life cycle analysis showed that the climate impact of our bike is 50% lower than that of scooters made using traditional methods and materials. The proof is in the pudding.

Building from flat materials powers sustainable shipping  

Shipping products around the world isn’t great for the environment. But shipping flat materials, to be folded (or constructed) close to the end consumer, is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, whilst making it easier to distribute and scale production across different markets in a sustainable way. Consider how you’re going to source your materials, where and how they can be assembled, and what you can source locally near your site, to reduce the environmental and financial shipping costs associated with big engineering projects. 

Solutions to reduce the climate impact of engineering are all around us: in nature, in design and in art. Origami is at the centre of our sustainable engineering ethos at STILFOLD. Perhaps it could become part of your ethos, too.