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Drawing inspiration from nature for novel design concepts is one thing, but turning those gems into something resembling a workable product is quite another story, especially if it involves particularly complex shapes and structures.

The practice of biomimicry, officially coined in 1997 by American biologist and author Janine Benyus, is the idea that natural elements can serve as the muse to help engineers solve common design problems. Using nature as a springboard for innovation helps engineers and designers zero in on organic shapes that are lighter weight and more aerodynamic or come up with lattice structures that have comparable or better weight-bearing ability compared to traditional solids.

Festo’s bionic handling assistant, modeled from an elephant’s trunk.

The sticky point with all of this Mother Nature-inspired innovation is how to translate all these good ideas into a design that works under real-world conditions and that can be produced efficiently at a reasonable cost. There’s also the very real challenge of getting engineers and designers, trained in systematic design processes, to be receptive to new ways of thinking and to be open to alternative interactions and inputs that will make biomimicry design practices a success story—not a distraction or wild goose chase.

With that in mind, here are a few ideas for getting started with biomimicry, including best practices to make the philosophy work in real-world engineering settings:

Clearly define the benefits. As with any core strategy, pursuing biomimicry practices for the sake of being on the cutting-edge is not going to do much to win over engineers. R&D leaders and engineering management need to come together to play up the benefits of biomimicry practices as a viable design strategy, providing tangible examples and evidence as to why it’s important to the company’s objectives and core mission.

One of the best ways to do that is to go beyond the research world and showcase real-world examples of companies that have applied biomimicry principles to product design and scored big results. Take Festo, a worldwide leader in automation technology. The company launched a proof of concept in 2010 of a robotic arm influenced by an elephant’s trunk. The Bionic Handling Assistant, classified as a biomechatronic handling system (see image above), ensures that direct contact between machines and human operators is no longer hazardous and the robot offers smoother operating motions and more degrees of freedom than previous handling system designs.

Take a multidisciplinary approach. Engineers are experts in engineering concepts and principles, but they aren’t necessarily biologists nor do they have particularly deep insight into other sciences. Organizations serious about embarking on a biomimicry strategy will often bring biologists or other natural scientists into the picture to infuse their understanding of nature into the design process. Barring the ability to augment your staff, get creative on how to draw from other resources to gain that multidisciplinary perspective. In one example, Benyus’ Biomimicry Institute offers AskNature, a curated online library that’s packed with free information on bio-inspired applications.

Invest in the right tools. Traditional parametric CAD tools and manufacturing practices can be a bottleneck for translating the biometric-inspired design into a real product. Many of the shapes and structures that will evolve from nature-inspired design have curves or complex lattice structures that are hard to reproduce using feature-based modeling practices or subtractive production methods for manufacturing.

Specialized modeling tools, like those available with PTC Creo can solve a lot of those challenges. Consider work done by Boston Engineering on a U.S. Navy project to create an autonomous unmanned underwater vehicle called GhostSwimmer. Using PTC Creo, the team designed the “tuna robot,” which has a single oscillating foil and appropriately placed fins to swim efficiently at a variety of speeds. In particular, PTC Creo’s Interactive Surface Design Extension (ISDX) helped the team build curves in multiple planes simultaneously while adding other surfaces until they came up with the design they liked. PTC Creo’s simulation capabilities were also instrumental in calculating forces and trajectories.

Beyond modeling and surfacing tools, 3D printers can be a real asset in a biomimicry-driven design process. Most of the organic shapes and lattice structures can’t be effectively produced with traditional manufacturing methods. But with 3D printing, engineers can replicate complex, one-off structures, including intricate lattice designs. 3D printing can also be a more cost-effective way of producing these structures since oftentimes you only use a single material—plastic—and even then, only the material that’s required to get the job done.

Biomimicry will certainly do a lot to advance innovation and foster creative problem solving, but embracing the principles without advancing design practices is a sure way to keep Mother Nature’s secrets a science project instead of the real McCoy.