Engineers at MIT’s Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab have designed a new technique, based on the Japanese art of origami, to integrate electronics into 3D structures. Known as FoldTronics, the process employs a cutting plotter to create 2D plastic sheets into a 3D honeycomb structure, but before the folding takes place, electronics and circuitry are added. The fabrication process only takes a few minutes, allowing users to prototype functional devices quickly.
“The resulting objects are lightweight and rigid, thus allowing for weight-sensitive and force-sensitive applications. Finally, due to the nature of the honeycomb structure, the objects can be folded flat along one axis and thus can be efficiently transported in this compact form factor.”
Making prototypes using FoldTonics begins by first using the plotter to score and perforate a plastic sheet into the desired origami design needed. After the scoring process, the sheet is placed back into the plotter with a thin layer of copper placed on top, enabling the electronic connections to be written onto the plastic. Once completed, the electronic components can then be soldered onto the sheet before being folded into the desired shape.
The engineers have used this new process to build some exciting prototypes, including a smartwatch with a 2D display when flat, and a 3D volumetric display (3 layers/6 LEDs each) when expanded. They also created a test tube holder with integrated IR sensors to measure fill levels, along with a game controller that can change shape depending on game states- changing from a regular d-pad controller to a gun for example. The engineers plan on using the technology to prototype different IoT devices sometime in the near future.