Side Note

Self-folding simulation of earwig wing

Buzz Lightyear has nothing on these foldable wings that are inspired by earwigs

The humble earwig has inspired a new design for a foldable wing that its creators say could lead to next-generation biomedical devices, robots and spacecraft modules.

Earwigs are an order of woodland insects known for their pincer-shaped tails (and which, contrary to a common myth, don’t lay eggs in human ears). But it was the bugs’ foldable wings that caught the attention of a team of researchers at Purdue University and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, who wondered whether the tightly-folding wings could be mimicked at a larger scale.

An earwig’s wing, they found, has extraordinary qualities: it’s a flat sheet, but it can spring from a tightly-folded configuration into a rigid shape for when the bug needs to fly. In a new paper, published in the journal Science, the team described how they created “spring origami,” inspired by earwig wings, that use springs to pop into an open position.

Spring Origami in Miura-Ora sheet

A video released with the paper shows a proof of concept that folds over itself just twice. The researchers then used a 3D printer to create a wing-shaped sheet that uses the same technology, but springs out into the shape as an earwig wing.

The work fits into the emerging field of “programmable metamaterials,” which is the study of objects that are designed to change shape because of their physical properties. Because of that capacity for changing shape, the researchers behind the earwig wing call the technique “4D printing.”

Jon Christian is a contributing writer for The Outline.