A new innovation from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) could influence the future of design.

CMU developed a computational tool that allows researchers to turn flat pieces of metal or plastic into complex 3-D shapes. The project is a collaboration between Keenan Crane, an assistant professor of computer science and robotics at CMU, and Mark Pauly, an assistant professor of computer and communications sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (EPFL) in Lausanne, Switzerland.

The EPFL and the National Science Foundation sponsored their research.

Crane explains that the tool was inspired by prior work in an area known as computational origami, which takes the art of intricate paper folding in a scientific direction. The approach was used to create solar arrays deployed during space travel, and arterial stents that unfold after being placed in the heart.

“The problem with origami is that you can only get so many shapes,” says Crane. “That’s why we’re saying, can we do these same kinds of applications, but allow more flexibility in terms of what shape you can engineer?”

Crane and Pauly worked with Mina Konakoviæ, a EPFL PhD student who looked at how conformal geometry could map the surfaces of auxetic materials, which are defined by their ability to grow and swell in every direction. Crane says the phenomenon exists in nature with brain tissue and with synthetic materials such as industrial hydrogels.

“We can’t manufacture brain tissues, and it’s hard to manufacture fancy hydrogels, so what we’re going to do instead is take some day-to-day material, like paper or plywood or sheet metal, and cut a pattern in it that makes it behave in the same way,” says Crane.

To achieve this, the tool uses a 3-D digital model to determine the pattern of slits necessary to make the sheet conform to the desired shape. The sheet is transferred to a laser cutter where the pattern is cut out and then manipulated by hand.

The process has been used to make a variety of items, including a woman’s high-heel shoe, a sculpture, a woman’s fashion top and a lampshade. In one instance, the tool placed perforations in a piece of copper that allowed it to be formed into a 3-D mask.

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Copper mask created by CMU’s computational design tool. Image courtesy of CMU.

The research team foresees using the tool in a wide variety of applications in biomechanics, consumer goods and architecture.

CMU will present their method on Wednesday, July 27 at the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques (SIGGRAPH) in Anaheim, CA.