The plant holder you see below is made of acrylic, and it's been laser cut with a standard 100 watt laser cutting machine. But the process by which it was cut is far from standard. Instead of cutting several sheets of plastic and then assembling them using joints and glue, researchers at the Hasso Plattner Institute's human computer interface lab have developed a way to coax a laser cutter to produce a completed (and complex) 3D object right out of the cutting bed. They call the process LaserOrigami.
The process, as you can infer, involves folding and stretching sheets of laser cut plastic while the sheet is still in the machine. This is accomplished in a few ways. One method is to put the sheet on a raised platform, and program the cutter to not make incisions through the entire sheet. Instead, edges of plastic are heated just enough so they bend and fold down with the force of gravity. The researchers have experimented with using a cutting table that raises and lowers and sheets depending on how much the plastic needs to fold.
Another method is to affix the sheet to a servo mortor, which can rotate the sheet as edges get warmed up so that, once again, gravity does the folding for you while the sheet is still in the machine. In one demo, this was used to create a business card holder by bending flaps of plastic over a center plate. The precision by which the plastic can be heated is obtained by defocusing the laser's power across a wide surface area.
Like traditional paper origami, LaserOrigami requires a strong grasp of the spatial relationships between the parts of a 3D object so that it can be created by a singular sheet. The researchers are using custom CAD templates to make conceptualizing the folds easier, and their goal is to let users pull from a library of shapes to design their own objects.
Watch a video demo of the LaserOrigami process below.