BYU researchers turn science fiction into reality

BYU Mechanical Engineering Professor Larry Howell and students explain developable mechanisms and how they work. (BYU Photo)

Think Iron Man.

That’s what BYU research team members were thinking when they revealed a new class of mechanical devices called “developable mechanisms.” These mechanisms are similar, in some regards, to those used in Iron Man’s suit.

“You see this sort of thing in science fiction all the time, but sometimes those things have not been possible. This gives us the ability to do complex things and make them very compact,” said engineering professor and researcher Larry Howell.

While the researchers find the idea of science-fiction becoming a reality fascinating, their goal is to benefit the world by implementing these discoveries in surgical tools, rockets, airplanes, drones and vehicles.

According to Howell, the team is working to move these mechanisms forward to be used in commercial products.

“Imagine a surgical tool that can go through a very small incision in the body, but yet have multiple functions,” Howell said. “Imagine a surgical tool that’s like a Swiss Army knife. It has everything integrated into one device.”

This surgical tool implements the technology available with developable mechanisms. (BYU Photo)

Professor and researcher Spencer Magleby said the new technology allows the team to build complex mechanisms into an exterior without taking up any valuable real estate inside the structure itself.

“We are pretty inspired by what’s the next cool and innovative thing,” Magleby said. “We were inspired by Iron Man’s suit. We used things like that to drive our thinking.”

Magleby said restrictions can inspire creativity.

“You put yourself in a tighter and tighter box, and that forces you into new ways to get out of that box,” Magleby said. “You have to force yourself to think out of the box.”

This developable mechanism, created by a BYU research team led by Professors Larry Howell and Spencer Magleby, applies origami principles. (BYU Photo)

Magleby said with limited space on the mechanism itself, real estate becomes very valuable.

“I’m left with the real estate itself because it can’t be sticking out or inside the tube,” Magleby said. “So we pushed ourselves to say, ‘What can reside on the tube itself?’”

Howell said these developments come over time and it is a continual process.

Howell mentioned the team discovered curve folding while working with origami-based devices that can maneuver complex motions while also being compact.

“We began to discover that we can apply some of our origami principles that had been flat to these curved surfaces, and that led to this next step which was developable mechanisms,” Howell said. 

Professor Larry Howell shows how a developable mechanism functions in different scenarios. (BYU Photo)

According to BYU News, Howell and Magleby worked in collaboration with origami artist Robert Lang. Their work has generated national and international coverage ranging from solar arrays for NASA to bulletproof barriers for police.

Howell and Magleby also expressed their appreciation to the students for putting in time and effort into researching and making these discoveries.

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