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Traces – Physical programming of freeform folding in soft matter


Created by Dana Zelig, Traces project explores the concept of programming everyday materials, a form of “physical programming”, where objects are “made to act” by re-forming following a set of specific instructions.

The research is presented in collaboration with Department of master’s degree in Industrial Design, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. and with Dr. Ido Bachelet from Faculty of Life Sciences and Institute of Nanotechnology and Advanced Materials, Bar-Ilan University, Israel.

To explore this idea, Dana developed 12 processed-folding objects series, using custom built software in Processing and various physical techniques – printing, twisting, laser-cutting, knotting and framing. Both the digital tools and the physical techniques were used systematically in order to explore spatial, structural & geometrical conditions, leading to the emergence of prototypes. Dana used sheets of “Shrinky-Dinks”, a shrinkable pre-stressed polystyrene sheets that are used commercially in kids’ creativity kits. After creating various black and white patterns in Processing, she printed them on the sheets in black, using a simple desktop printer, and then induced folding by placing the sheets under an IR light bulb at a set distance. The printed sheets folded repeatedly within seconds upon exposure to the light, according to the black-line patterns. The energy from the light gets absorbed preferentially by the black line, which acts as a hinge because it converts the light effectively into heat. The heat relaxes the polymer directly under the hinge region in a gradient across the sheet thickness.

Letter size polystyrene sheets 8-1/2” x 11” were used, and the experiment sizes that were cut from the sheets vary between the size of a business card to the size of a postcard. In order to retain clarity, legibility and consistency, she used a minimum size of 12% the width of the format (A5, A6, 5.5*8.5cm). The optimal thickness of the black line varies between 0.5mm – 2mm. A thinner line is usually not effective, while a thicker one demands more time under the light which eventually causes the polystyrene to burn.

Dana used Processing as a drawing tool, working with primitives (lines) and more complex curves. The patterns were then exported as vectors in Adobe Illustrator to eliminate unwanted glitches/errors. Variables include Size, Location, Area Symbols, Orientation, Thickness, Leading, Texture, Lightness, Time, heat. The effectiveness of this limited palette was used to depict light and space, mimic 3 dimensionality, and allow for a greater focus on form and line.

This research is based on the article “Self-folding of polymer sheets using local light absorption”, Michael D. Dickey et al. The Royal Society of Chemistry 2011. The code originates from the Generative Design publication examples available on GitHub.

Credits: Dana Zelig, Hadass Jessel and Ido Bachelet
Photos: Daniel Shechter
Video: Editor | Vova Kozorovitsky, Director of Photography | Misha Kaminsky, Music | Ire’ne Schweizer, Piano Solo Vol.1 – 08 Look In

See also Hydro-Fold by Christophe Guberan and some of his more recent work here.

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