Biomimicry – naturally inspired design

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Biomimicry, the use of nature to solve human problems, has become a major influence on new product design. This month Martyn Day goes all David Attenborough on us and finds design inspiration everywhere he looks
As a fan of design, I’ve always been fascinated as to where inspiration for new technology comes from. In school we were taught of Archimedes’ ‘Eureka’ moment in his bath and Newton’s discovery of gravity after being hit by a falling apple. It seems that many of our new ideas come from the world around us – simple observations (and collisions with fruit).

Nature offers designers solutions to engineering problems, which have been refined for millions of years through evolutionary optimisation. Biomimicry, the study of nature’s models, systems, processes
and materials, is a rapidly growing area of applied research and it’s leading to innovative solutions in everything from fluid dynamics, new materials, fabrication, energy production to medical science.

While we have always tried to understand how nature works, in the past research has usually led to invention via serendipitous circumstances over time. The chemical battery is a perfect example.

In the late 18th Century William Nicholson became fascinated by the torpedo fish, which uses electricity to stun its prey. After careful dissection, he discovered it had a novel layered cell structure, which he managed to model with layers of metal and wet paper.

This was perfected by Alessandro Volta who called his layered device an ‘artificial electric organ’, but it was not until many years later until we truly benefitted from battery power.

Natural innovation

As a regular reader of the New Scientist (newscientist.com), I am quite amazed by how frequently contemporary stories highlight nature as the inspiration behind engineering solutions.

This month, a story on how woodpeckers influenced the design of shock absorbers produced some amazing statistics. Pecking at over 22 times a second and pulling 1,200 g the bird suffers no ill effects.

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Using elasticity of the beak material, cranial spongy bones and fluid it manages to significantly suppress the vibration and shock, which would easily kill us.

Designers copied and fabricated a device which proved in tests (being shot from a gun into an aluminium wall) that it could protect electronics from deceleration shocks of up to 60,000 g – whereas today’s airplane black boxes can only go up to 1,000 g.

Weighing just 19 grams a robotic hummingbird can hover and fly at speed using an adaptive flapping wing design

Now I will always think differently about the humble woodpecker, should I hear one tapping away, or, as is more likely in my urban surroundings, drink a pint of its namesake’s cider.

Suitably inspired by this story, I’ve been reading a fair amount on biomimicry success stories. The famous nose of the Japanese bullet train was modelled on the kingfisher’s beak and the hooked burrs on seeds that stuck to the inventor’s dog was the inspiration behind Velcro.

Speedo swimwear learnt a thing or two from the water channeling abilities of shark skin, and we are now taking inspiration from bumps on the fins of humpbacked whales (called tubercles). These significantly reduce drag and increase lift, so we’ll soon be seeing bumped surfaces appearing on turbines, irrigation pumps and sports cars.

There are also many autonomous robots in development that have insect-inspired legs/propulsion systems. Another recent New Scientist story introduced a remote controlled ‘hummingbird’ robot. Weighing just 19 grams it can emulate the bird’s incredible ability to hover and fly at speed using an adaptive flapping wing design (tinyurl.com/D3Dbird).

Why now?

There is a growing mindset to actively seek solutions in nature as part of the design exploration process. And with an increase in the popularity of biomimicry-based design, we are now starting to move from merely observing and learning about nature to applying its environment-optimised solutions.

Polymaths like Volta and Nicholson were inquisitive about how nature worked and while their discoveries and experiments provided important knowledge, it still took decades or longer for others to arrive at productisation.

This time lag has now been significantly compressed, with the results of cutting-edge research finding its way to designers much quicker, through the Internet, scientific papers and a global knowledge-base of patents.

Science also used to be held in silos; physics, chemistry, engineering and the life sciences were segmented and there was less cross-fertilisation of ideas. As we face holistic problems such as climate change and the search for new, sustainable design and renewable energy resources, there has been greater dialogue and combined research to assess environmental impact.

The biomimicry gospel is also being spread by the Biomimicry Institute, co-founded by natural science writer Jeanine Beynus, who has written six books on the subject.

In her work she highlights how nature’s materials, processes and mechanics have influenced sustainable designs; glue from mussels, selffabricating ceramics that form under water like oyster shells, steel-like thread by mixing genes from spiders and silk worms and a film derived from the surface structure of lotus plants that uses rain to self clean buildings.

Of course, technology has a major role to play when it comes to getting the most out of nature. We have amazing remote measurement and capture technology such as laser scanners, MRI and ultrasound to see inside living organisms as they ‘do their thing’ without harming them. And once the complex mechanisms have been identified we can virtually test anything using advanced simulation.

There are even new tools that help designers explore countless forms that would be created by nature, such as solidThinking’s morphogenesis technology based on Wolff’s Law’s pertaining to bone growth.

Conclusion

We obviously have much to learn from the world around us – especially when it comes to making things that benefit us, but don’t harm the environment or have a net negative impact when they are no longer required.

It took years for Da Vinci’s bird-inspired flying machines to be made but now with all this amazing research and technology at our fingertips there’s never been a better time to develop innovative designs by taking inspiration from nature.

Martyn Day finds inspiration for design everywhere he looks


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