Faced with a tough engineering design challenge? A similar problem may have already been solved. And not by someone who owns IP on the idea. I’m talking about Mother Nature.
The earth has had 4.5 billion years to come up with some pretty clever—and often remarkably efficient—solutions to some very complex and fairly difficult problems. Many of the problems we face as engineers and product designers may have a parallel in the natural world that we can draw inspiration from, especially if we’re stumped on a tough challenge. Echoes of nature’s engineering might at first be more apparent in fields like biomedical sciences and pharmaceuticals, but the natural world has encountered its fair share of design challenges, and has evolved plenty of great solutions that those of us in product development can respect—and in fact, many have inspired products that exist today.
One of the most well known examples is Velcro. Inspired by burrs, a type of seed, the straps that held your light-up shoes on your feet when you were six years old use the same technology that enables certain plant species to latch onto the fur of passing animals. The hooked teeth on burrs latch onto fibers or hair to entangle themselves in fur, allowing the plant’s seeds to spread via bypassing wildlife. In 1948, George de Mestral noticed the strong hold the burrs had on his clothing and his dog’s coat during a hunting trip, and took advantage of the technology to invent Velcro.
A similar example—though earlier in its design stage, currently—is Geckskin. Also dubbed “Gecko tape” by some, the technology is an adhesive that takes advantage of the sticking properties of the limbs of one of the world’s best climbers. Geckos have millions of tiny flexible bristles on their hands and feet called “setae.” When the gecko walks, the setae contact the walking surface with such close proximity and with such a great surface area that noticeable Van der Waals forces are present, allowing the gecko to climb up vertical walls. Geckskin uses the same principles by mimicking the properties of the setae synthetically to create a tape that can withstand hundreds of pounds of force, but peel off without any residue. A word to duct tape: beware.
Applied solutions inspired by the natural world don’t only happen on physically small scales. In fact, they can be as big as a train—the Shinkansen Bullet Train. The engineers at Shinkansen Lines in western Japan had an issue. They had built the world’s busiest high-velocity train. Then they got it to travel at over 200 mph. But this high speed has an effect when traveling through tunnels, specifically when exiting—a massive sonic boom. Not a pleasant commuting experience. A bird watching engineer at Shinkansen noticed the grace with which Japanese Kingfisher birds dive into the water with nary a splash, and was motivated to turn the nose of his train into the shape of a Kingfisher beak. Not only did the noise significantly reduce, but the trains also became over 15% more efficient.
Lastly, we can find nature-inspired tech combating bacteria and health risks via the products from Sharklet Technologies. The skin of their namesake species contains a microscopic, diamond, scaly pattern of “dermal denticles.” This pattern prevents bacteria and other microorganisms from making a home on the shark’s skin. The company now employs this technology as a treatment or surface finish for products in the medical industry, to reduce health and contamination risks.
So, trying to solve a tough design problem? Try taking a hike or going for a swim, and appreciate the ingenuity of nature. You might find inspiration from the world’s oldest, and best, R&D department.
All images courtesy of the Wikimedia Foundation.
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