Taking Design Cues from Mother Nature

They say Mother Nature knows best, and when it comes to product design and engineering, that is often the case.

Taking cues from nature has a long connection to product design, going back as far as Leonardo da Vinci, who studied bird flight as inspiration for his proposed “flying machines.”  Centuries later, those designs were refined by the Wright Brothers, who also looked to nature—in their case, observing pigeons in flight—to come up with their transformational innovation, which eventually became the modern airplane.

Wilbur Wright executing a turn using design inspired by pigeons.

Velcro is perhaps the best known and commercially successful example of a nature-inspired design. On a hunting trip in the Alps in 1941, a Swiss engineer became intrigued with the burrs that attached to his dog and his socks leading to the discovery of the simple system of interlocking hooks. That inspiration led to a design concept, which eventually became a patent and in time, the commercial product Velcro was born.

Tiny hooks can be seen covering the surface of this burr. The design of Velcro imitated this natural mechanism for seed dispersion.

The nature-led design concept got an official name and mass introduction in 1997 by way of American biologist and author Janine Benyus, whose pioneering book, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature,” kicked off a whole new way of thinking. Central to the idea now called biomimicry, is that 3.8 billion years of evolution has given birth to a natural world of forms, systems, and processes that can be emulated to help solve human problems. The practice of biomimicry, as Benyus explains it, isn’t rooted in learning about the natural world, but rather in learning from it, borrowing and applying its time-tested patterns and strategies as a springboard for new innovations.

In a TED talk on the topic, Benyus says engineers and designers can draw inspiration from nature for common design objectives like making things waterproof, more aerodynamic, or making use of alternative power sources like the sun. After all, she and other biomimicry proponents contend, animals, plants, and microbes are the consummate engineers.

There is also big money to be made from biomimicry as a design best practice. A 2013 report (pdf) by the Fermanian Business and Economic Institute, projects that biomimicry practices will account for approximately $425 billion of U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) by 2030 and as many as 2.4 million jobs.

As proof of the concept’s relevance to the engineering and design world, the non-profit Biomimicry Institute, founded by Benyus and others in 2006 to promote biomimicry concepts and design practices, offers plenty of examples with AskNature, a curated online library, serving up free information on bio-inspired applications. Here is a quick sampling:

Termite mounds, which have some sort of self-cooling mechanism that maintains internal temperature to within one degree during temperature swings, day or night. They served as the model for an air conditioning system for an office complex in Zimbabwe.

A kingfisher beak, used as inspiration for the front-end of the Shinkansen Bullet Train, which could travel 200 miles per hour, but produced thunderous noise due to air pressure changes. By modeling the train after the kingfisher’s beak, the new design resulted in a quieter train that used 15% less electricity while traveling 10% faster.

Humpback whales, which have irregular bumps called tubercles on their flippers that give them tremendous dexterity moving through the water.  In wind tunnel testing, models of the humpback fins showed extreme aerodynamic advantages with the tubercles, including an 8% improvement in lift and 32% drag reduction.

In addition, there is an ample body of case studies that show the potential for biomimicry practices to create better, more efficient products. To name just a few:

  • A team from the University of Florida as well as at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University are exploring how to unlock the secrets of a shark’s skin to advance aerodynamics properties for applications in shipbuilding as well aerospace.
  • Mimicking the properties of shark skin (specifically these teeth-like structures called dermal denticles) was also the muse for Speedo’s infamous full-body LZR swim suit, won by the preponderance of Olympic medal winners in the 2008 games (including Michael Phelps).
  • WhalePower harnessed the innovative design of the humpback whale’s fin to come up with its Tubercle Technology that it licenses to manufacturers, including those in the industrial fan and wind turbine industries. Envira-North Systems rolled out the first fans based on the technology, which the company claims are 25% more aerodynamically efficient than its predecessors.

These examples just scratch the surface of what’s possible with biomimicry. In a follow-up post, we’ll examine how to get started with the practice and explore what kind of design tools can help engineering teams get the best of what Mother Nature has to offer.