Move over Ikea: Space-saving foldable furniture may be just a mouse click away

PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 June, 2015, 8:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 June, 2015, 10:11am

Here comes a space saving tip for urban dwellers. A joint research team from Canada and China has developed the first automatic algorithm to help tell whether a piece of furniture could be foldable, and how.

The algorithm could help furniture designers or even ordinary people to come up with space saving furniture designs quickly and easily.

Give a computer a 3D model of a piece of furniture and tell it which direction you want it to fold, and the algorithm would then produce a collapsible design at minimum cost and without the need for major modifications.

The algorithm can be used with a 3D printer. The researchers printed a dining table, a work desk and a bed in parts and assembled them with hinges, and they found the computer-generated designs achieved space saving ratios of up to 88.9 per cent.

The project was led by Li Honghua at the Simon Fraser University in Canada (SFU) and the National University of Defense Technology in China and Hu Ruizhen with SFU, Zhejiang University and Shenzhen Institute of Advanced Technology under the Chinese Academy of Sciences. It was detailed in a paper, Foldabilizing Furniture, which has been accepted by the SIGGRAPH, a top annual conference of computer graphics experts to be held in Los Angeles in August.

“Space-saving furniture designs are ubiquitous in our daily lives and workplaces. Effective space saving does not depend on downscaling, but on smart ways of collapsing a piece of furniture or making it more collapsible,” the paper said.

But making things foldable is not an easy task, requiring delicate spatial reasoning and a keen foresight to adapt to the dynamic changes to the shape configuration as folding sequences proceed, the paper said, noting that humans, while good at pattern recognition, “are not as skilled at precise 3D manipulation while relying solely on visual guidance.”

It was not an easy task for a computer, either. As the object changed in shape, the quantity of possible solutions increased exponentially, so finding the optimal design could become quite costly due to the enormous amount of computational resources needed.

The researchers found the computer’s workload could be significantly reduced after being given the direction of the required fold and being allowed to add hinges to places it deemed necessary. Most results could then be obtained in less than a second on a desktop computer.

To test the technology’s potential, the scientists used 3D models of furniture from the internet and used the algorithm to analyse them. But the computer was not always better than the human brain, they said. The algorithm could not produce solutions for furniture with irregular lines and shapes with extremely sophisticated structures.