Biomimicry – Natural by Design

5 Jul 2018

Humankind has evolved by learning from the mistakes and experience of previous generation, adapting and improving engineering concepts and machinery that have revolutionised the world we live in. Whilst learning through iteration has proved successful thus far, perhaps instead of looking backwards to human experience, we should instead be looking at the here and now, our surroundings, nature and the environment for inspiration and solutions.

Nature has endless examples of iterated solutions, evolved over millennia to create perfect answers to many of our current design quandaries. Therefore, it would be logical to turn our attention to understanding natural design to see where and how it can solve tomorrow’s problems. The process of looking to nature for design inspiration is called ‘Biomimicry’ or ‘Biomimetics’. It is the interlacing of biology and technology to cultivate a resolution.

The concept of biomimicry is not new, it has been used in a myriad of areas from air travel with planes that mimic observations of bird flight, to the Japanese bullet train that derived its aerodynamic cockpit shape from a Kingfisher’s beak. Arguably, the data processing or machine learning machines have been designed to follow systems similar to the neural networks of the brain. In addition, ventilation systems created by termite mounds were the inspiration for engineers and architects of a commercial center in Zimbabwe that applied the same principle to a building’s engineering, improving its energy efficiency by 10% compared to traditional air-conditioned systems.

One of the challenges the fourth industrial revolution presents is how to truly integrate technology with the human experience. Biomimicry offers significant potential in this challenge as if technologies are to be embedded into our surroundings, then they should create a natural fit and not require fundamental shifts to facilitate adoption.

Key to the seamless adoption of a fully interconnected world, as 4IR dictates, is consideration of the fundamental development structure for technology. This includes the framework a devices or system is designed around, the materials used, and the methods of manufacture undertaken to produce it. If we consider natural structures for future physical and digital devices, we are able to generate an entirely new way of looking at design. A new approach to from conception to production must be taken, where emphasis is placed on examining which structure would work best for the intended use, considering the material and assembly process secondly.

In contrast to the current human approach of creating materials to suit specific requirements, nature implies that fewer types of materials are required for a multitude of applications, suggesting a material’s property is defined by its structure and its own composition. For instance, colour is not key to natural design, instead, to generate different aesthetics, nature has engineered material surfaces into intricate micro and nano structures that interact with light in defined ways, appearing as different colours depending on the structure. An example of this is the tail of a peacock or wings of a butterfly, what gives the beautiful colours is the texturing of each feather or wing cell, not a new form of feather or cell.

By the same token, micro or nano texturing can change a material’s reaction to water. When structures are pillar-like, such as the arrangement of the cells on the surface of a leaf, water is repelled and rolls right off, whereas some insects use different cells structures to attract water for hydration. Once we understand how and why a natural phenomenon operates as it does, we can use the same principles for design in the human world. For example, in 2008, the swimming suite giant Speedo managed to replicate sharkskin textures into their swimsuits using denticle-like structures to reduce drag. The design was so effective that the Olympics Committee banned the swimwear, believing it gave an unfair advantage to those wearing it.

The principle benefit of using biomimicry in design is its sustainable properties. Evolution has ensured that there is very little waste through what is essentially the natural version of the ‘additive manufacturing’ process. To this day, most of our products are built using a ‘subtractive manufacturing process’, using milling machines and drills to produce a structure from a larger material, whittling it down to the desired size or shape. This generates copious amounts of waste material and is significantly contributing to the carbon footprint the global manufacturing sector generates. However, greater awareness of the environmental impact of waste is leading to a shift in behavior and approach. The very recent move towards 3D printing, for example, is encouraging a bottom-up approach to production, adopting one of the timeliest manifestations of biomimicry in manufacturing technology.

There is much debate as to why Biomimicry is yet to become mainstream, especially given its environmental advantages. It is thought that much of the hesitation stems from the knowledge gap in the biology behind natural systems and structures. Once a biomimetic designer has put together a solution, the design requires significant resource to implement the manufacturing process that is able to mimic nature efficiently. Mainstream manufacturing processes remain fairly inflexible and therefore if a biomimicry design requires new machines and processes in order to truly replicate the desired design. In essence, we simply don’t yet have the technology that can deliver the design as required, particularly at a price that makes the process feasible. 

Whilst biomimicry is in its infancy, the sustainability benefits are enough of an incentive to be attracting R&D attention. In the future, it is likely that much of our world is constructed using systems and materials that are built to adapt to their changing surroundings, provide flexibility and even have the ability to self-heal as plants do.

The fourth industrial revolution is defined by connectivity, creating networks of smart and responsive objects and it is only a matter of time until these digital ecosystems take on more characteristics of the natural world. We are already seeing increasing synergy between manufacturing and technological solutions, whilst also reminding people of the significance of natural processes.

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