The ancient art of origami could have a future in space.
Sweden’s first astronaut and the European Space Agency (ESA) this week unveiled a new project inspired by the paper folding technique.
The program will use technology designed by Stilfold, a Swedish startup that has pioneered a manufacturing process called “industrial origami.”
The technique uses robotic arms to fold steel sheets over curves to form complex and lightweight shapes.
Stilfold previously used the approach to bridge an electric scooter. According to the company, the techniques resulted in 70% fewer components, 40% reduction in weight, 20% lower material costs and 25% lower labor costs.
The team believes that such savings could be particularly powerful in space, where they could allow it complex structures to be constructed with minimal materials and components. In addition, the method requires no stamping or welding.
Stilfold’s co-founder Jonas Nyvang envisions folding vehicles and food storage facilities into outer space.
“You can’t bring much to the room because it takes up limited space,” he told TNW. “The flexibility of our technology allows you to bring stacked sheets that you can easily store, then create things by unfolding it when you’re there.”
To test the theory, Stilfold will work with Sweden’s International Space Asset Acceleration Company (ISSAC), a new organization backed by ESA and Swedish astronaut Christer Birdsong,
The team will now spend 12 months exploring the possibilities.
Nyvang was formerly marketing director at the fashion brand Björn Borg, where he worked with ESA to develop heat-resistant underwear for steel workers.
After founding Stilfold, he was attracted to ESA’s approach of “spinning-in” space technology to Earth and “spinning out” Earth technology for space.
“What’s great about the space sector is that it’s pushing the boundaries of materials creation for different innovations because there’s such a rigid framework for what you can do up in space.”
NASA has also experimented with techniques inspired by origami, but these projects focus on large structures.
“There is also great potential for smaller structures – and that is what we will explore first,” said Nyvang.
Stilfold also provides an example of how European startups can get involved in spacetech. Stefan Gustafsson, a commercialization officer at ESA, has the following advice for companies looking to work with his agency:
“First, check what a nearby ESA Business Incubation Center can offer. Startups younger than five years can benefit from up to two years of business incubation, with access to technical, financial and IP support, as well as €50,000 in funding,” he told TNW via email.
“Next to this, there are various ESA programs that could be attractive to SMEs, for example the ESA Business Application Kick-Starters, which provide funding to companies that develop space-based applications. ESA has a patent portfolio with technologies that may be useful in another context.
“Finally, ESA’s SME office also has various ways of supporting startups, for example providing training to apply for regular ESA contracts.”
There are no guarantees that they will be supported by ESA, but getting their technology into space doesn’t have to take light years.