Some time ago, [Trammell Hudson] took a shot at creating a tool that unfolds 3D models in STL format and outputs a color-coded 2D pattern that can be cut out using a laser cutter. With a little bending and gluing, the 3D model can be re-created out of paper or cardboard.
There are of course other and more full-featured tools for unfolding 3D models: Pepakura is used by many, but is not free and is Windows only. There is also a Blender extension called Paper Model that exists to export 3D shapes as paper models.
What’s interesting about [Trammell]’s project are the things he discovered while making it. The process of unfolding an STL may be conceptually simple, but the actual implementation is a bit tricky in ways that have little to do with number crunching.
For example, in a logical sense it doesn’t matter much where the software chooses to start the unfolding process, but in practice some start points yield much tighter groups of shapes that are easier to work with. Also, his software doesn’t optimize folding patterns, so sometimes the software will split a shape along a perfectly logical (but non-intuitive to a human) line and it can be difficult to figure out which pieces are supposed to attach where. The software remains in beta, but those who are interested can find it hosted on GitHub. It turns out that it’s actually quite challenging to turn a 3D model into an unfolded shape that still carries visual cues or resemblances to the original. Adding things like glue tabs in sensible places isn’t trivial, either.