Biomimetic file 169: Robot Sea-Snake!

Why routines rather than punctual inspections can greatly reduce corporate risks

skynet snakeImage source: Kongsberg Maritime/Statoil. A catastrophic failure* is a sudden and total failure from which recovery is impossible. Catastrophic failures often lead to cascading systems failure. The term is most commonly used for structural failures, but has often been extended to many other disciplines in which total and irrecoverable loss occurs…

Highlight: “The Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Kongsberg Maritime, and Statoil are developing  Eelume, a self-propelled, aquatic, mechanical serpent… Perfectly adapted to swimming through the water – rather like a real sea snake – it is designed to examine submerged equipment, regularly inspecting it for damage and undertaking simple maintenance tasks using inbuilt pincers and other small tools. If they’re in a hurry, they can use on-board thrusters for a speed boost…”

Insight: We know more about our solar system then about the deep parts of our own oceans! Attempts to explore the deeps have so far failed due to far too expensive technologies and difficulties to overcome the challenges, namely intense pressures and darkness. Rather than sending people in outdated submarines, the solution is clearly going towards automated unmanned vehicles. Because the current unmanned vehicles designs are limiting in movements and lifetime of the batteries it seems logical that the ultimate exploration devices would in fact mimic natural species living in these ecosystems in order to maximize the efficiency of movement but also to blend-in among other life forms. Perhaps in a near future an array of snake-like robots would be constantly patrolling the world oceans building up a world database (perhaps even discovering new species in the process) and mapping the reefs and seabeds. A new challenge for Google?

The above point of constantly patrolling can be applied to business. Failures in businesses rarely happen as the result of a sole mistake but are often an accumulation of failures (catastrophic failure*) which under specific unlikely situations can rapidly escalate to dramatic outcomes. The best way to prevent such an unwanted outcome is through routine checks.

For instance lets imagine the following scenario: a small airplane company in South America operates a fleet of Dorniers (a two engine small-medium airplane carrier). Because of the small size of the company and very remote location in the Andes, this company is rarely subject to third party inspections in line with international aviation safety regulations and has developed a “relax culture”. The planes operate on a daily basis smoothly without issues until one day one plane undergoing a dawn flight suffers from an incident involving low visibility and unreliable instrument readings forcing it to undertake an emergency landing in a forested terrain. The outcome is severe: 10 dead and 15 survivors. After the crash inspectors from the US aviation Safety board NTSB are brought in to investigate the causes. After a few months the report comes out highlighting the obvious reasons for the crash: despite regular checks, this company has failed to implement discipline of its staffs to conduct consistent verification on its planes before all flights in accordance with regulations. During a recent overall checkup which was completed the day before the flight, sticky tapes were put to cover certain atmospheric pressure sensors on the left side of the aircraft and have been left behind after. On the morning of the flight, the technician on duty did not do a routine check which should have spotted the tape neither did the pilot. This simple sticky tape blocking air intake of the sensors has resulted in invalid information being sent to the cockpit instruments during the climb with regards to altitude and speed which has led the pilots in the limited visibility conditions to take the wrong decisions. In this case the series of events leading to the catastrophic failure can be summarized as: omission to remove a simple tape during routine maintenance; failure to undertake a routine check before the flight (2 times in a row from the technician then the pilot); bad weather and thus poor visibility; pilot errors in reaction to the unfolding events. All however relate back to this simple mismatch of a forgotten sticky tape which initiated this series of unfortunate events. It is no hazard that airline pilots undertake predefined checklists at different stages of the flights…

Are you involved with projects that require serious safety checks. If so, perhaps make sure that the most critical aspects undergo predefined stringent routine checks rather than once in while unplanned checks. This simple formality could avoid a catastrophic outcome…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species or natural systems on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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http://www.bluestrike-group.com/

Biomimetic file 164: Hydrogels in robotics

Why being adaptable is becoming a key requirement for businesses

de6041a3-1acf-4968-b6e3-4f38c780a003

Image source: materialstoday.com. A soft business* model is here defined as a business which does not resist to change but on the other hand one which adapts by following the evolving trends.

Highlight: “The mimic octopus is a truly bizarre dweller of the deep. It possesses the ability to rapidly change its skin color and texture in order to camouflage itself against its environment. In addition, it can imitate the behavior of several different animals, allowing it to run, slither like a snake, and even act as a jellyfish…Now, a team of robotics engineers at Cornell University have developed an artificial skin that can stretch and change color in much the same way. As their pioneering study in the journal Science reveals, this could transform the field of robotics – particularly in the field of health care…Soft robotics is a particularly new form of engineering, based around the idea that all of the components need to be flexible. These types of robots will theoretically be able to move around in restricted spaces using a variety of locomotion methods, but before they become a reality, their basic construction materials need to be developed…”

Insight: In a similar way then moving forward with soft robotics, business models also need to transform themselves to become more “soft*”:  being reactive and adaptable.

Societies are transforming themselves faster then at any given time in modern human history but despite this obvious change many businesses are still stuck with outdated models and mindsets. Particular sectors such as virtual reality, cloud technologies or 3D printing are in the midst of transforming our societies economical models. Many small and large companies are struggling to keep afloat in these transition times and it is expected that many will fall as a result of their incapacity to react fast enough to the change. Soft models are the best defense against change and there are many examples in natural systems that illustrate this point…

A good case study is a company (not difficult to guess which one), that was leading in the field of photographic films. Some time in the late 20th century, digital camera technology started to come out and within a few years only had completely overtaken the market of photographic cameras including traditional films. This company is notorious for having failed to adapt and follow the trends fast enough by instead having hold on to their business models. They have now recovered but with much damage endured to the company which almost collapsed…

Besides this specific case there are many other examples of companies which have failed to identify changing trends in the market place and have not adapted fast enough. Some sectors which are still struggling would include:

  • Airline companies and their budget competitors;
  • Retails and online sale sites;
  • Hair dressers and instant barber shops (the 10 min type);
  • Website developers and online site self-design tools;
  • Movie rental shops and online movie servers (also worth mentioning is the transition from cassettes to dvds)…

The internet is a major disruption to business models which for a long time have predominated. Businesses in various fields have seen progressive disruption but it is only the beginning, 5G technology for instance will soon see a new wave of disruptions by allowing services which were before not practical…

Do you have a well established business model? If so, beware of falling into the comfort zone of being so confident that you may miss-out on developing trends that may quickly become serious risk factors to the survival of your business. Keep track, prepare a defense and react if necessary..

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

bluestrike logo

www.bluestrike-group.com

Biomimetic file 153: fire retardants

How to re-design effectively without crossing the safety boundaries

_dsf7571Image: Creative commons. Product safety*: Under the ACL, Commonwealth, state and territory ministers can regulate consumer goods and product-related services by issuing safety warning notices, banning products on a temporary or permanent basis, imposing mandatory safety standards or issuing a compulsory recall notice to suppliers.

Highlight: “Researchers at the University of Texas in Austin have developed a new flame-retardant substance based on a natural chemical used by mussels. Flame retardants are a coating added to manufactured materials that can stop or delay the spread of fire. They are used in the textile, computer, and construction industries, but most traditional flame retardants are highly toxic. This study, published in Chemistry of Materials, is an important breakthrough in creating non-toxic flame retardant materials…”

Insight: A common dilemma in products development is to come-up with functional efficient products but at the same time not to compromise safety for human usage. It can often be a challenge as toxicity is a common outcome of improved efficiency especially when dealing with chemicals (e.g. the Superglue). Nature often provides solutions because efficiency within organisms can only be within certain limits that prevents the species from destroying themselves. Examples would include self physical protections against the toxins (e.g. Puffer-fish contain very toxic substances but these are confined within organs layered with special coatings to neutralize the toxin) or self immune compounds (e.g. venomous snakes)…

Businesses are constantly pressured to innovate in order to remain competitive which sometimes puts products safety* in the balance. By wanting to develop better user experiences it is not difficult to compromise safety which should of course never happen. The trick is to adapt and evolve safety standards along with product design enhancements and not to assume that a previous version safety measures will necessarily continue to apply to the upgraded product…

Lets illustrate the above point with the following case study: A large paint and interior finishing company has a well established name in the industry and takes the main share of the market. Over the years they have come-up with numerous variants of their products to fit different customer usages from metal adhesive paints, to rain resistant, anti bacterial, anti corrosive…A new trend lately has to do with Eco friendly products which in the paint industry is strongly focused on VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) control. The company’s research department is tasked with upgrading one of their best selling products to become the lowest VOC containing paint currently on the market. The experienced researchers find a solution and manage to produce a paint with very low VOCs that will meet the requirements of any third party Eco certifications out there. Very pleased of their work the team submits the finding to the management which shortly after gives the green light for commercialization. The product is a big hit and sales very well,  everything goes according to plan until reports of negative consumer feedback start to come-in. Some reports claim that after four months of application the paint starts to suddenly peel-off like a snake skin and that some pieces from the bedroom sealing have unexpectedly fallen into peoples eyes. The company quickly investigates and finds that the new formula despite successful at reducing the VOC content has modified the chemistry of the product which was approved according to previous aging safety and durability tests conducted on the previous composition. Thereafter, the company is forced to remove the product from the market and resume the development to solve the issues and conduct further tests. This case has cost the company over US 30 millions in reclaimed products and law case settlements…

Are you planing to release a product upgrade to meet market demand? If so, perhaps take the time to properly re-test the new upgraded product for safety, user experience and other key per-release tests.  Assuming that the previous batch of tests will suffice could end up being a costly and difficult to recover mistake…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

bluestrike logo

www.bluestrike-group.com

Biomimetic file 152: new materials

Why business size is not necessarily proportional to strength

DandelionPicture source: Boeing. An acquisition* is a corporate action in which a company buys most, if not all, of another firm’s ownership stakes to assume control of it. An acquisition occurs when a buying company obtains more than 50% ownership in a target company.

Highlight: “Aerospace giant Boeing has developed the lightest metal structure ever, which is also one of the lightest materials known to science, called Microlattice.The entire structure is 99.99% air and is comparable to the hollow honeycomb architecture of bone. The structure is composed of a network of super thin, hollow struts. The struts are around 100 micrometers in diameter and have walls just 100 nanometers thick. It’s this design that makes Microlattice 10 times lighter than Styrofoam. However, despite it being insanely light, it is also extremely strong.”

Insight: While our senses mislead us to think that we live in a three dimensional space, we are actually surrounded by multiple dimensions. Indeed, we only see the surface of things when in fact new dimensions start to become apparent with a closer look. For instance a simple fabric may seem like a plain colored surface but zooming in with the naked eye will start to reveal the mesh structure, zooming in further will expose inter locked fibers used to make the fabric and going down even further using technology will reveal hidden dimensions up to the molecular level and beyond.

The simple point here is that we overlook the dimensions of space including within organisms where the very fabric of living tissues and molecular structures are a great source of inspiration in areas such as design or engineering. While some species have been studied for their behaviors, taxonomy, morphology or anatomy, very little work has looked closer into the tissue structures at different scales. Special traits in species (e.g unusual surface strength) should serve as a hint that perhaps elements of their structures could provide applied solutions…

The light/strength property of Microlattice provides a good business philosophy: Common opinions can be misleading, for instance strong material would not be expected to be light but rather heavy, it actually comes as a surprise that a material can be strong and light. Similarly, a strong business would not be expected to be small but rather the larger organizations. There are countless examples of startup companies which rapidly become strong on the global platform sometimes even overtaking the big companies in terms of innovation and expertise; for this reason it is not uncommon to see smaller companies acquired* by larger groups.

Lets illustrate the above point with the following case study: A large diversified industrial group specialized in security systems has been in the business line for over a century. While they haven’t faced mush competition over most of the 20th century, everything started to change with new internet technologies and artificial intelligence making their way into the early 21st century. In recent years a start up company has come up with a completely new idea that makes a much stronger offering to customers in terms of security systems strength. Their system is able to identify threats and self learn to modify itself accordingly in response to the developing threat. The innovation of this small company is groundbreaking and reputation quickly rising as a serious contender to the larger more established organization. They are also praised for their service quality and customized approach which the larger company has been criticized for. Seeing this rising company as a significant threat and opportunity to expend, the large company decides to acquire this smaller company at a very high price for 4 billion USD.

Are you part of large multinational? If so, be mindful to keep an eye on what the smaller players are doing as your business model and strength may well be on the verge of being reshuffled because of them…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

bluestrike logo

www.bluestrike-group.com

Biomimetic file 151: Energy Storage

Mushroom inspired batteries can significantly increase their lifetime

Mushrooms_2377969b

Image source: ALAMY

Highlight: “Existing lithium-ion batteries use graphite for the anode, which requires a high standard of purification, accounting for a significant portion of the cost. Graphite anodes also degrade relatively quickly, interfering with long-term storage capacity. The ideal replacement would contain plenty of salt to act as an electrolyte, be porous enough to leave plenty of space to hold lithium and could be grown naturally…A team at the University of Riverside have met success with the skins of Agaricus bisporus…the humble mushroom has been roped into service in one of the great technological quests of our time, to extend the lifespan of batteries…”

Insight: On one hand species can provide solutions to gain inspiration in order to improve current systems. On the other, there are now several case studies that demonstrate that it is possible to directly combine living systems with engineered processes. The concept implies more reliance on ecosystem services in order to achieve better outcomes.

A simple successful example already well established is water purification processes relying heavily on bacterial activity combined with mechanical elements.  A not so successful example is an artificial kidney used in dialysis treatment which is very expensive and far from being as efficient as a natural kidney organ.

This business model provides new challenges such as maintaining the durability and stability of the living part of such systems but also new opportunities to achieve things that are simply not possible or unsustainable given our current technologies. The simple point here is why always rely on technology when complex tasks could be carried out more effectively and at a cheaper cost through available ecosystem services already optimized for specific tasks?

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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www.biodiversity.sg

Biomimetic file 148: “Submerged Dryness”

Why avoidance rather than confrontation is sometimes a better business alternative

140973_505

Image: Creative commons. Metal corrosion is the single most problematic issue for offshore and sub-sea developments.

Highlight: “Objects that are kept underwater eventually succumb to the inevitable decay associated with being submerged – metal rusts, wood rots… These effects could be delayed in the future by a new type of rough coating that “deflects” water…The material uses the same strategy as water-walking insects such as water striders…”

Insight: The potential for water repealing technologies are overlooked. Indeed water corrosion related damages amount in the billions every year in sectors as diverse as static (e.g. Desalination plants) or mobile (Ships) submerged systems. An effective technology that will prevent corrosion will revolutionize these sectors and provide release from an ongoing financial burden. While various innovations have been tried such as keeping surfaces electrified, the problem remains. Perhaps preventing contact of surfaces with water altogether is the solution and nature provides multiple examples of such…

The above point of avoiding contact altogether rather than finding anti-corrosion solutions due to the contact of materials with sea water is inspirational when it comes to business. Indeed, sometimes when confronted with a problem removing the cause of the problem rather than finding a compromise can be a simple solution.

Lets illustrate the above point with the following case study: A well known consulting business is doing extremely well with offices globally. A branch in Jakarta is seeing a fast growing business and the teams operating from this office have become well respected by the clients but also within the global group for their particular expertise in financial risks management. This specific team is headed by a Managing Director to develop the business while the consulting aspects fall under the leadership of a Principal to whom 10 highly experienced staffs have been assigned. One day the Principal who has been in this position for the past five years moves-on with other interests and summits his resignation; pressured to find a replacement rapidly in order to keep the heavy work load of the team alive the MD quickly hires an overseas replacement from the UK external to the company who had prior similar experiences. After about 4 months in the role the MD notices a range of raising issues ranging from poor performances, delayed deliveries and staff problems. After an investigation conducting one-on-one discussions with various team members he soon finds out the source of the problem: The new Principal despite highly qualified for the role  does not integrate with the team at all, obvious communication issues with the team combined with a cultural mismatch leadership style creates tensions. Conscious of the implications and considering the strength of the team assigned to him, the MD after consultation with the COO based in the USA decides to remove the Principal and to re-assign him to the Hong Kong office instead with assignment over a full English proficient team. Thereafter, he promotes a senior manager within the Jakarta team to take over the leadership. In this particular case the source of the problem was very clear and the solution to remove the Principal rather than finding other more complex ways to resolve the situation (e.g. providing language and local culture classes) ended up preventing a disaster.

This removal strategy can however only work under certain circumstances and the following two questions must be asked prior to action:

  • Can the problem be attributed to a single source? Often problems are the result of a combination of factors and it becomes difficult to relate to a single source.
  • If the answer to the above is yes, can the source of the problem be removed without destabilizing the situation/system? While it is sometimes possible to simply remove the source of the problem, often doing so could create instabilities or even greater problems.

Are you encountering a difficult to solve problem? If so, perhaps consider the above avoidance approach but ensure that it is in the first place possible by answering the above simple questions. If a problem can be resolved by avoidance, it is a fast and easy solution that is often simply forgotten as an option…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

bluestrike logo

www.bluestrike-group.com

Biomimetic file 144: Robo-Roach!

 Robo-Roach!

VelociRoACH vs cockroach_0

Picture source: Chen Li/University of California, Berkeley

Highlight: “Scientists have modeled a little robot on one of nature’s hardiest insects: the cockroach…it has been retrofitted with a streamlined shell, perfect for helping the bot scrabble through obstacles….The roach uses its natural ‘parkour skillz’, side-rolling to get around barriers it comes across. It is this rotating motion that the team from the University of California, Berkeley, wanted to replicate in their cockroach-inspired robot.”

Insight: As we are only starting the process of replicating natural traits through the use of technology, many aspects of modern robotics have already taken their inspiration from nature. In robotics walking patterns mimicking movements of various animals have significantly contributed to the field should it be through the study of small insects or larger animals such as kangaroos. Other developments of robotics have also made use of simple neuron transmission patterns studied in primitive insects (e.g. cockroaches). From an energy point of view, when studying nature we find that adaptations have often favored developments going towards solutions of lowest energy; in other words species move and behave according to optimal energy efficiency patterns. We should seek more energy efficiency solutions through the study of species…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

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www.biodiversity.sg

Biomimetic file 139: Refrigerant free vaccines inspired from sea urchins

How to protect critical systems from unavoidable risks

Image source: Clip Art image. A critical system is any system whose ‘failure’ could threaten human life, the system’s environment or the existence of the organisation which operates the system. “Failure” in this context does NOT mean failure to conform to a specification but means any potentially threatening system behaviour

Highlight: ” CSIRO researchers have come up with a protective seashell-inspired capsule that could cost-effectively and reliably preserve the key active ingredients in vaccines…It mimics a process called biomineralisation where sea urchins grow a hard, protective shell to safeguard their fragile tissue inside. Applying this concept, has led to a molecular-scale shell that grows around and protects fragile biomolecules such as proteins and enzymes…”

Insight: Energy needs (and its cost) often make the difference between a commercially viable initiative and one that is not. In the case of the pharmaceutical industry, a major part of the cost is often due to energy and transport needs in order to keep the products under safe condition rather than the production cost itself. In nature many species anatomy actually provide excellent insulation against the elements in terms of thermal isolation but also other types such as filtering membranes against certain contaminants. We should look in species more for answers when it comes to insulation for diverse applications ranging from medicines to the construction industry…

The above insulation capsule example can be applied to business strategy: there are parts of businesses which are crucial to operations and simply cannot afford to be damaged (physical or conceptually). While a robust risk management strategy can be developed by understanding the risks and coming up with measures to reduce them significantly, there is no such thing as zero risks. Therefore, for systems of critical importance, there needs to be additional protection beyond risk management. An effective way is the protective shell approach which implies surrounding the system with a layer that in the event of a failure will take the first hit and is designed to be damaged in such a way as to protect the inner more critical system. In other words such systems need to be designed to fail within safety limits. In some systems this could be a real protective shell (e.g. a simple helmet protecting a cyclist head, a car crash proof design to protect the driver) or a more complex protection for instance a firewall which would protect a more sensitive computer coding from hacking, electromagnetic breach or others…

Lets illustrate the above point with the following case study: A powerful government has developed a military system that can launch ground-to-air missiles from any location in the field. This system is powered by an auxiliary power unit which makes all the systems including  launch, guidance and safety operational; it is without saying that there is no room for error and power failure is not an option.  While detailed safety procedures and complex military style hierarchy are in place to prevent accidental launch of the missiles, there is always the very small probability that something else may happen (e.g. a bird crash lands on the power system). In the event of a hit, or other types of system breach a range of safe proof backups are in place:

  • 3 backup generators all running on different fuel types and in different locations of the unit;
  • In addition to the strong metal outer shell, inner generators are protected by other shells and at least one of them by an iron Kevlar coating, one by a full fire proof coating and another one by a high shock absorbing and waterproof design.
  • In case of a failure of any of the systems an inbuilt programme initiates a safe auto-shutdown procedure which ensures no electrical leak can transmit to the missiles and locks the system.
  • As well as many other in built backups

Are you managing critical systems that cannot afford failure? If so, perhaps consider the protective shell approach and remember that no matter how good a risk management strategy is there is always the possibility of an unforeseen failure that requires a backup plan…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

bluestrike logo

www.bluestrike-group.com

Biomimetic file 138: Seashell-Inspired Material leading A New Wave Of Safety Gear In Sport

Seashell-Inspired Material leading A New Wave Of Safety Gear In Sport

Picture source: Andy Alderson

Highlight: “Sheffield Hallam University has been developing improved materials for impact protection in sports. The materials have the fascinating and unusual auxetic property (i.e they expend instead of contracting under shock) that can be used in helmets, pads, guards, gloves, mats and barriers…the inspiration for the current work on auxetic materials for improved impact protection equipment in sports comes from the ultimate natural armour protection system: the humble seashell.”

Insight: Some species in the animal kingdom have highly adapted exoskeletons that not only support their structure but also act as a protective armour against the elements and predators. The combination of light weight and strength are two aspects commonly found in species skeleton structures. The properties in certain species structures (down to the molecular level) such as shrimp shells or oysters  have already led to practical innovations in sectors such as aerospace or construction where the strength/weight ratio of materials is a rising challenge. It is likely that the inspirations for future structures and materials will be found within species…

More information: here

What is Biomimetics: the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problematic, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution. This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable…

www.biodiversity.sg

Publication: biodiversity incubators the business case for conservation

See the original post on eco-business: http://www.eco-business.com/opinion/biomimicry-incubators-business-case-conservation/

The business opportunities found in biomimicry – the application of characteristics found in species to human innovation – makes a strong case for biodiversity conservation

biomimicry diagram

Pictures: An extract from Otto Lilienthal’s Mechanics of White Stork flight in his Der Vogelflug als Grundlage der Fliegekunst (1889). Biomimicry is the application of characteristics found in the natural world to innovation for human needs.

Biomimicry refers to the study of species characteristics in order to derive ideas that could serve our everyday applications. More specifically it is the field of gaining inspiration from nature first to solve some of our most difficult challenges. Instead of coming up with our own solutions to a problem, the odds are that species on the planet already offer an ultimate solution.

This simple fact is also another strong case to preserve species at all cost, as the intellectual heritage contained within or through the study of species is both irreplaceable and invaluable. Despite a promising start at the end of the 20th century, the concept hasn’t really been exploited at all to the level it could be: the potential hasn’t been understood.

The analogy between natural and corporate systems

The concept of biomimicry is simple: because species on Earth have been around and evolved for hundreds of millions of years, the adaptations that they have developed over the ages have provided them with ultimate optimization attributes with regards to how they interact with their surrounding conditions.

It therefore makes a lot of sense for corporations and governments to search for answers to a multitude of problems faced in the fields of medicine, engineering, architecture and optimal design, among others, by studying species as it is likely that they hold the answers.

We often acknowledge that time allows for improvement. For instance, in the corporate world, many products such as detergents and air conditioners have slowly improved over time to become more efficient in terms of their usage for a specific purpose, for instance in these particular cases respectively cleaning clothes and cooling the indoor air. We can notice this simple rule in most consumer goods that we buy: products get better over time.

This is also true with species: over time, they become better adapted to their surrounding conditions for the simple reason that if they do not adapt, they end up becoming extinct. It is a simple fact that in an environment free of human interference species constantly compete for survival and this drives adaptive changes pushing for optimisation to surrounding conditions.

In the corporate world, things work in a similar way: agencies gain an advantage by becoming better adapted to the surrounding conditions, which can range from market demand, product design, cost efficiency and other factors, will end up pushing unfit competitors out of business.

The similarities between the natural and business world suggest that nature-inspired business models should be adopted instead of current frameworks which are clearly unfit for current and future challenges ahead. Indeed, the current business and societal models to not anticipate and accommodate well to the world growing problems such as inevitable global climate change and related changes in Earth systems that societies will eventually have to face and adapt to.

The bio-corporation business model

The idea of “bio-corporations” – corporations which will eventually incorporate a biomimicry approach to the continuous improvement process as part of their core business model – is a potential solution for the concept of biomimicry to take off. The idea relies on a progressive approach to biomimicry, first using universities as incubators before spreading the concept to corporations.

The concept is simple: corporations should include a biomimicry department within their business structure. This department would work closely with other departments such as research and development within the business and would act as a central mechanisms for idea generation from which corporate strategic decisions can be derived. The basic framework is highlighted below:

  1. Species  are studied by biologists who are able to identify traits that could benefit the business. The knowledge of biologists will be handy in identifying potential target species, which could have traits relevant to the core business of the organisation.There are now a multitude of good examples of this such as: a shutter resistant windscreen derived from the structure of oysters; new generations of revolutionary computers utilizing neuronal connections inspired from species brain; new types of light and resistant airplane materials derived from the cell structures of a species of shrimp; camouflage materials derived from species of octopus; a synthetic leaf that is able to produce oxygen inspired from species of plants; a range of robots inspired from a variety of species muscle and walking patterns; the bullet train nose inspired from a kingfishers bird beak; a multitude of nature inspired architectures; and many others.
  2. Once these traits have been identified, they are passed on to other applied departments which will then focus their research on incorporating these traits within the products design. Attempts to translate a species’ trait into a commercial idea could involve chemistry, mechanical design, or architectural planning, among others. Products with these traits would increase the business’ competitiveness.

While it might take years of research to achieve the desired product outcome, the chances of success are far greater than the current research approach used by corporations of trying to improve their products through trial and error, reverse engineering of existing products, and market research. There are so many innovative ideas out there in nature that remain unexplored.

In the end biomimicry processes could potentially save significant amounts of money compared to current research and development practices. But most importantly the risk factor is significantly reduced as well.

The reason for this is that the efficiency of traits within species for a specific application is already proven from the fact that species have survived using these well adapted traits for so long. Extracting these traits will save research development time and is likely to be an innovation breakthrough. In fact if we look at most biomimicry inspired applications they attract a lot of attention for being innovative.

Universities as incubators

Universities provide a unique setting to try out this concept as they have all the attributes necessary for success including the research framework and the different faculties that would in fact mimic the corporate structures with their various departments.

Led by the faculty of biology, identified traits of interest within species could easily be passed on to other faculties such as engineering, medical sciences, chemistry, social sciences and others as needed in order to mimic and adapt the traits for commercial industrial applications.

In addition to the above interfaculty framework, established universities also have the right setting to develop and issue patents and in so doing, bridge the gap between the academic and corporate worlds.

It would be much easier to implement such a concept in a university environment than a corporate one because universities have a mandate to innovate in the first place, which is not necessarily commercially driven.

The challenges faced

There are obvious reasons why biomimicry hasn’t really taken off.

Communications issues: Because biomimicry research requires a very close interaction between multidisciplinary teams of biologists, engineers, chemists, mechanical designers, artists, amongst others. The work of these groups of people does not often overlap; sometimes, they may simply not speak the same “language”. A multidisciplinary approach is key to the success of bio-inspired corporations.

Mind-set changes: Business have been operating using the same old industrial age models and hierarchy strategies for so many years that it has become a great challenge to change people’s mind-sets due to the inertia it has engendered. Business leaders who see the potential of biomimicry are the ones who could make a real change, starting with their own enterprise as a showcase and then spreading the concepts and successes for other businesses to follow on.

The revolution has already started

In 2013 an initiative reflecting this mind-set was started with funding from the US National Science Foundation with the aim to study business pioneers which have started to incorporate biodiversity preservation concepts within their business framework..

Bio-inspired corporations are likely to be the next business revolution, but the concept has yet to be taken seriously by business leaders and government decision makers.

by Sylvain Richer de Forges