Many marvelous and mundane inventions credited to humans actually were invented by nature. Post-it Notes, which seemed almost magical when developed by 3M scientists, mimic the adhesive pads on lizards’ feet that enable them to run up vertical objects (Bhushan 2012). Similarly, Velcro was based on plant burrs equipped with tiny hooks. Through billions of years of evolution, nature figured out elegant designs for its organisms and natural materials. Therefore, when humans need to solve a problem, it makes sense to look to Mother Nature.
The practice of applying nature-made designs to human problem-solving is known as biomimicry (Biology Dictionary 2018). Janine Benyus (1997), who popularized the term, describes the concept this way: “In a biomimetic world, we would manufacture the way animals and plants do, using sun and simple compounds to produce totally biodegradable fibers, ceramics, plastics and chemicals. Our farms, modeled on prairies, would be self-fertilizing and pest-resistant. To find new drugs or crops, we would consult animals and insects that have used plants for millions of years to keep themselves healthy and nourished. … In each case, nature would provide the models: solar cells copied from leaves; steely fibers woven spider-style; shatterproof ceramics drawn from mother-of-pearl; cancer cures compliments of chimpanzees; perennial grains inspired by tallgrass; computers that signal like cells; and a closed-loop economy that takes its lessons from redwoods, coral reefs and oak-hickory forests.”
Biomimicry rarely recommends copying nature’s designs directly. Instead, it encourages inventors to identify a problem, look to nature for a comparable solution and adapt the design to solve that problem: “Biomimicry provides a methodology for finding proven solutions that already exist” (GaleWyrick 2018).
Solving industrial problems
Humans are looking to nature for inspiration to improve materials. A research team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is examining bones, shells and deep sea sponges to find natural materials that can be used as alternatives to portland cement. The researchers are studying the connection between microscopic structures and their macroscopic properties. Then, they can understand how the microscopic arrangement within cement affects the strength and durability of concrete structures (Koroluk 2016).
Another research team, at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, is trying to mimic the arrangement of fibers in tree limbs and bones to add strength to 3D-printed objects. The team invented a process that uses a nozzle capable of varying rotation speeds relative to the 3D printing speed to control the fiber orientation within a polymer matrix (Francis 2018). This results in materials optimized for stiffness, strength and damage tolerance. The rotating nozzle concept theoretically could be used with any material extrusion printing method. Different fillers, such as carbon, glass, metallic or ceramic — as well as matrix combinations — can be used to yield a range of properties in the 3D-printed objects.
Nature also has inspired improvements in product design. Parker Hannifin was tasked with creating a pipe for one of its customers to transport raw material through a factory (Hessman 2014). The material was so abrasive that production was shut down twice a month to repair or replace the pipe. Engineers observed flexible and armor-plated animals, such as worms, fish and snakes. Settling on snakeskin as a possibility, Parker Hannifin designed a hose lined with a series of interlocking ceramic hexagrams separated by thin barriers of rubber. After six years, the hose is still in operation with no visible signs of wear.
One of the more famous applications of biomimicry is the design of Japan’s bullet train, which travels faster than 200 miles per hour. The original design created a sonic boom when exiting tunnels at full speed, disrupting homes and businesses for miles around. To correct the problem, engineer — and bird watcher — Eiji Nakatsu redesigned the train nose to resemble the bill of a kingfisher, which can dive seamlessly from air to water with hardly a splash. According to Tom Tyrell of Great Lakes Biomimicry, the result not only eliminated the sonic boom, but also increased the train's speed and decreased fuel consumption by 15 percent (Hessman 2014).
Some approaches to biomimicry are a bit more direct. Previously, the bottoms of ships were coated with toxic substances to prevent the buildup of barnacles. However, this approach poisoned water sources. Sharks provide the answer. Their tiny, ridged scales inhibit the growth of biofilms because bacteria can’t get a good grip on the uneven surface and, without the bacteria, other organisms can’t grow (GaleWyrick 2018). When this approach is applied to ship hulls, it reduces drag and avoids pollutants.
Mother Nature’s architectural skills also offer insight. Robert Lamb (2018) notes that builders looking for less expensive ways to cool buildings should examine a termite’s method for beating the heat. “Certain African termite mounds must maintain a constant temperature of 87 degrees Celsius (189 degrees Fahrenheit) in order for the fungus crop to survive,” he writes. “To achieve this, they construct air vents that constantly move air throughout the mound, cooling or heating it to the same temperature as the mound itself.” This could be especially useful for controlling temperatures in large office buildings or apartment complexes.
Nature is a very efficient user of resources. “One organism’s waste is food for another, and nutrients and energy flow perpetually in closed-loop cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Understanding these regenerative qualities empowers us to recognize that all the materials we use as designers — even highly technical, synthetic materials — can also be seen as nutrients. Just as nitrogen, water and simple sugars nourish new growth as they circulate in nature, so too can our materials regenerate natural and human systems. Textiles for draperies, wall coverings and upholstery fabrics can be designed as biological nutrients, which naturally biodegrade and restore the soil after use, while technical nutrients, such as nylon carpet fiber, can provide high-quality resources for generation after generation of safe, synthetic products” (McDonough and Braungart 2002).
Atlanta-based carpet manufacturer Interface Inc. has been a leader in sustainability since its founder, Ray Anderson, had what he called an “epiphany” and decided to transform his company into a sustainability-focused endeavor. The company’s carpet is designed to be installed as tiles, approximately 2 square feet in size, for ease of installation and repair (Interface 2017). If one square becomes damaged, worn out or stained, just that one square needs to be replaced. Interface also seeks sustainable raw material sources. For example, it recycles discarded fish nets into carpet material. When a tile reaches the end of its useful life, the fiber is easily separated from the rubber undercoating and recovered for use in weaving new carpet. Anderson also uses nature as his guide for designing a sustainable company. According to Andrew Winston (2009), Anderson asked, “How would nature design an industrial company?” His short answer was that it would be waste-free, cyclical and very efficient. It would run on sunlight, use only what it needed and focus on resource productivity.
A blueprint for collaboration
Along the same lines, nature can augment collaboration and communication. For example, Cullinane and Harrison (2017) suggest the teamwork of bees when building a honeycomb — displaying a hive mentality and aligning their individual objectives to the collective good — could be applied to solve growth and sustainability issues within the oil and gas sector in Australia.
Car manufacturers are taking a cue from schools of fish to inspire inter-vehicle communication. Safe Swarm, recently unveiled by Honda, enables cars to pass information to others in the vicinity. Alerts about an accident miles up the road could be relayed to cars miles back, enabling them to avoid accidents and mitigate traffic (Panetta 2017).
In her book “Biomimicry,” Benyus predicted more than 20 years ago that biomimicry could inspire solutions to many challenges. Today, her predictions are proving to be correct. One estimate of the potential market for biomimicry forecasts that the concept could represent $300 billion of the annual U.S. gross domestic product, along with another $50 billion from natural resource savings and reduced carbon dioxide pollution by 2025 (Hessman 2014).
Hwang et al. offer this optimistic viewpoint: “Biomimetics has developed from mere imitation to a stage where we are using the structures and functions of nature to create. Soon, we will be able to take ourselves to the next stage, where we can apply the newly discovered principles of biomimetics to help us create an economy that better follows natural evolution and development. By building technology in such a manner, we hope to create a more stable and productive future where products are more biodegradable and more compatible with nature, rather than being destructive” (2015).
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Bhushan, B. “Nature's nanotechnology.” Mechanical Engineering 134, no. 12 (2012): 28-32.
Biology Dictionary. “Biomimicry.” https://biologydictionary.net/biomimicry.
Cullinane, Bernadette and Paul Harrison. “A Hive Mentality: Collaboration lessons for Australian oil and gas.” Deloitte, 2017. https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/au/Documents/energy-resources/deloitte-au-er-a-hive-mentality-090517.pdf.
Francis, Scott. “Biomimicry in 3D Printing?” Composites World, March 29, 2018. https://www.compositesworld.com/blog/post/biomimicry-in-3d-printing.
GaleWyrick, Seth. “Biomimicry for Sustainable Innovation: The answers are all around us.” dmi Review 29, no. 1 (March 2018): 30-35.
Hessman, Travis M. “Biomimicry: What Would Nature Do?” Industry Week, December 3, 2014. http://www.industryweek.com/innovation/biomimicry-what-would-nature-do.
Hwang, J., Y. Jeong, J.M. Park, K.H. Lee, J.W. Hong & J. Choi. “Biomimetics: forecasting the future of science, engineering, and medicine.” International Journal of Nanomedicine 10 (September 2015): 5701-5713.
Interface. “Products.” Accessed 2017. http://www.interfaceglobal.com/Sustainability/Products.aspx.
Koroluk, Korky. “Construction Corner: Bones, shells and sea sponges the future of concrete?” Daily Commercial News by ConstructConnect, September 9, 2016. https://canada.constructconnect.com/dcn/news/technology/2016/09/construction-corner-bones-shells-and-sea-sponges-the-future-of-concrete-1018357w.
Lamb, Robert. “How Biomimicry Works.” How Stuff Works. Accessed 2018. https://science.howstuffworks.com/life/evolution/biomimicry2.htm.
McDonough, William and Michael Braungart. “Redefining Green: A new definition of quality empowers the next wave of design.” 2002. http://www.mcdonough.com/writings/redefining-green/.
Panetta, Kasey. “Gartner Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2018.” Smarter with Gartner, October 3, 2017. https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-10-strategic-technology-trends-for-2018/.
Winston, Andrew. “Use Biomimicry to Make Better Products (and Companies).” Harvard Business Review, May 7, 2009. https://hbr.org/2009/05/use-biomimicry-to-make-better.
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Richard E. Crandall, PhD, CPIM-F, CIRM, CSCP, is a professor emeritus at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. He is the lead author of “Principles of Supply Chain Management.” Crandall may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.