A self-consistent theory is presented which describes the crushing behavior of a class of thin-walled structures. Assuming a rigid-plastic material and using the condition of kinematic continuity on the boundaries between rigid and deformable zones, a basic folding mechanism is constructed. This mechanism closely reproduces all the main features of folds and wrinkles actually observed on typical crumpled sheet metal structures. Calculations based on the energy balance postulate show that two-thirds of the plastic energy is always dissipated through inextensional deformations at stationary and moving plastic hinge lines. The extensional deformations are confined to relatively small sections of the shell surface but they account for the remaining one-third of the dissipated energy. The theory is illustrated by application to the problem of progressive folding of thin-walled rectangular columns. A good correlation is obtained with existing experimental data as far as the mean crushing force and the geometry of the local collapse mode is concerned.

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