So, you have a problem, and you need a solution. You heard about biologically inspired design (BID) at a recent conference, and while it has piqued your interest, you’re not exactly sure it’s the right approach for your particular challenge. How do you know if you have a “good” BID problem?
As a PatternFox Co-founder, my heart wants to tell you that all problems make good BID projects. But my head knows that isn’t exactly true. BID, like any process, has its own sweet spot for design application. Here are some things I would consider before investing in a BID project:
- Am I stuck between a rock and hard place? The best BID happens in the worst situations. Most man-made designs have at least one trade-off in its functional family tree. Usually many more! In this problem space of competing specifications or antagonistic design parameters, we find animals that don’t give up one function for another. For example, from jet wings to cardboard, many of the materials we use must meet demanding strength requirements while also being lightweight. Increasing pressures to further reduce weight for fuel cost and carbon efficiencies can lead to losses in strength and performance. Biological materials, by contrast, are very efficient in strength to weight ratio. Spider silk is one such material with a tensile strength on par with that of steel, around 1GPa. Examining trade-offs as a design methodology has precedence with design processes, such as TRIZ, which has been used for decades to help inventors overcome contradictions. Water transport speed and retention were a major trade-off in a recent project we carried out for a consumer products company. Here, we were able to identify organisms with the functional capability to “break” that trade-off with totally novel solutions.
- Can I afford to roll the dice? Using a BID process has the potential to increase the value of an R&D project in two ways. The first is by drawing on 3.8 billion years of experimentation to increase the probability of success. We can leverage evolution to guide us to a solution by understanding the ways organisms function, survive, and thrive within similar constraints in our natural/man-made world. Because nature has already prototyped and tested the design, invention begins with breaking down the existing (biological) design and reapplying it to the problem rather than a “blank page” design that won’t be pass/fail tested until after money has been spent for research and prototyping. Secondly, spending time with the problem at the beginning of the process can help iterate to a solution faster. The detailing of goals, specifications, and functional relationships in the problem definition phase not only provides focus, but also uses biology as a “mirror” which can help researchers refine and reframe the problem, creating new perspectives that might lead to entirely new approaches. In work for a consumer products company, for example, a problem was initially phrased as a condensation issue. However after re-examining similar functions of biological systems, we learned that humidity management was at the root of the problem, which opened up several new solution paths. After finding the best functional matches for the “right” problem, you can develop a laser-focused R&D plan with a higher probability for success using principles you know will work (and have worked for hundreds of thousands of years).
- Does my company want to be an innovation leader? Not all companies want to be the first horse out of the barn. In fact, many use a “second mover” strategy to save cost on R&D. Using the BID process is a great way to stand out as an industry leader and create a patent gap between you and the closest competitor. There are statistically significant differences in novelty and number of new ideas generated when using biologically-inspired design. This places BID practitioners at an advantage in identifying patentable, and therefore competitively robust, designs. Developing a pipeline of novel and innovative designs could lead to a significant step-change in product performance or manufacturing costs that could create a gap that would take competitors years to close. At least one competitor rejected Barthlott’s novel ideas on using the lotus effect for surface coating; now, Sto AG has developed a variety of products based on its patents for lotus effect surface coatings. Trends in BID-attributable patents suggest that we are in the early-adopter phase of the product cycle. The number of patents attributable to BID has grown exponentially over the past 3 decades, with nearly 1000 bio-inspired patents issued in 2017 (Helms, 2018). Not only are patents growing in number, they are also constituting a higher portion of total patents; 0.25% of all issued US patents were bioinspired in 2017 which is a 25-fold increase since 1993. As we expect this trend to continue, there is only so much time to beat out the early majority.
So, do you have a “good” problem? If you work in materials development, we know this R&D space has long development times and higher cost research, but yields wider ranging results that are applicable across many end-uses. Leveraging BID can shorten both time and cost to development, and may lead to entirely novel applications. In an industry such as aerospace while bio-inspired wing forms may be “played out”, there are many variations in passively deformable wing functions that can be explored, not to mention dozens of other systems and problems related to vehicles like lightweight materials, fire resistance, landing on uneven terrain, fuel storage, and many others.
Whatever the industry, we’d love to hear about your “good” problems and to help you explore potential biologically-inspired solutions.
 Griffiths, J.R. & Salanitri, V.R. (1980, February) The strength of spider silk. In The Journal of Material Science 15:2 (pp 491 – 496).
 Vattam, S. S., Helms, M. E., & Goel, A. K. (2009, October). Nature of creative analogies in biologically inspired innovative design. In Proceedings of the seventh ACM conference on Creativity and cognition (pp. 255-264). ACM.
 Nelson, B., Wilson, J., & Yen, J. (2009, October). A study of biologically-inspired design as a context for enhancing student innovation. In Frontiers in Education Conference, 2009. FIE’09. 39th IEEE (pp. 1-5). IEEE.