Industrial origami

Hayley Everett

How can a new origami-inspired manufacturing technology make heavy transportation greener?

According to recent statistics from the UK Government’s Transport and Environment department, heavy goods vehicles (HGVs) are responsible for almost a fifth of domestic transport emissions in the UK, while market data provider Statista estimates such vehicles account for over a quarter of transport emissions across the whole of Europe. New research by Swedish technology and design start-up Stilride, however, suggests that constructing HGV semi-trailers using a unique manufacturing technique inspired by origami - the Japanese art of paper folding - could significantly reduce the environmental impact of heavy transportation around the globe.

The company’s proprietary sustainable manufacturing technology, Stilfold, involves the use of robotic arms to fold steel over curves in order to form light and strong new structures while using minimal component parts. If used to build semi-trailers, Stilride estimates the technique could remove the need for around 360,000 HGV journeys to be made each year and prevent up to 12,000 tonnes of CO2 from entering the atmosphere, by increasing the load capacity of HGVs by 5% and therefore making semi-trailers more efficient.

“We are always looking for new ways to advance our Stilfold technology and reduce the automotive industry’s impact on the planet,” says Jonas Nyvang, CEO and co-founder at Stilride. “Heavy goods transportation accounts for a significant proportion of transport emissions in Europe – and so it’s an area we’ve long been interested in tackling.”

How Stilfold works

Stilfold is built upon sustainable metal manufacturing and fabrication methods, using advanced robotics and proprietary curve folding technology to reduce both component weight and material wastage. The technology’s intelligent Stilware software defines and creates effective and efficient geometries for folding along complex and curved lines in order to utilise the full potential of flat sheet metal. The firm’s Stiltool technology then transforms CAD data into CAM instructions for automated robotic folding and forming, after which its Stilworks tool enables local manufacturing and production within existing ecosystems across the globe, with the ambition to enable fully equipped modular pop-up production cells in relevant and remote locations.

“Stilfold has huge potential for vehicle manufacturing,” continues Nyvang. “Not only does it significantly lower the environmental impact of producing vehicles, but it can also speed up the manufacturing process and produce lighter vehicles that are easier to recycle at the end of their lives. We do this by folding steel over curves to form intricate, strong and lightweight new structures using locally-sourced materials and minimal component parts.”

According to Stilride, the technology is capable of delivering weight reductions of 40% while using 70% fewer components. Material costs and labour costs are also slashed by 20% and 25% respectively, offering manufacturers the possibility to optimise their material usage while improving the performance of their parts.

Improving HGV efficiency

In order to reach its improved efficiency estimates for HGVs, Stilride’s design team first worked out how they could build a semi-trailer using Stilfold technology in order to decrease the trailer’s total weight and simplify its construction. In the design, the team reimagined the traditional ladder frame used in semi-trailers by creating an exoskeleton using origami-inspired steel folding. The outer shell is composed of two steel sheets with one main weld and eight strategically placed folds to give the trailer its necessary structure while keeping weight down.

The designers then focused on making the semi-trailer more aerodynamic and improving its material efficiency to make it strong yet light. The Stilfold trailer requires 90% fewer component parts compared to traditional models, can be constructed using 30% fewer materials, and would also weigh an estimated 2000kg less than traditional models, at 6000kg. The team aimed to simplify elements of the design and use fewer materials while retaining the trailer’s structural integrity. As a result, the design would improve the trailer’s performance by reducing the HGV’s fuel consumption and enabling it to carry heavier loads.

Nyvang adds: “The technology could enable weight reduction for HGVs by reducing the weight of the semi-trailers. This could enable the trailer to carry heavier loads, which means fewer journeys would be needed to transport the same amount of freight.”

Analysing the data

To work out the impact the new design could have, Stilride’s researchers analysed Swedish transportation data with a focus on the construction and mining sector. The data shows that in Sweden, 44 million journeys are made by HGVs annually, with over 494 million tonnes of goods being transported over 3.4 billion kilometres. Based on average maximum load limits and capacities, the company calculated that around 48 million tonnes of material are being transported by trailer in the mining and construction sector each year.

Noting the Stilfold trailer weighs two tonnes less than the semi-trailers currently in use, if just half of the 7,346,000 yearly journeys within the industry gained two tonnes of load capacity each year, this would create a load increase of 7,346,000 tonnes, representing 5% of the total yearly tonnage transported within the mining and construction sector in Sweden. On this basis, the company’s researchers estimate that this load increase would prevent 360,000 heavy load journeys each year.

“As this new research shows, our technology has the potential to significantly reduce HGVs’ impact on the planet, by rethinking how semi-trailers are used and produced through innovative design,” Nyvang adds. “This use case shows that by embracing change and innovation, it is possible to transform how heavily polluting industries operate, improving performance and efficiency whilst reducing emissions.

“Our immediate focus remains on bringing our first electric motorbike to market – but in future we hope to bring innovations including a sustainable steel semi-trailer to market.”

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