Lessons from Spiders and Mussels on Manufacturing

We live in a world of manufactured things. In the developed world we are surrounded by more mass-produced material goods than any other society at any other time in human history.

For many of us in this increasingly urban world, our daily environment is almost completely manufactured. At no time during a typical day do we step onto the earth, touch a plant or look at a view that is not dominated by the products of technology. 

While this technology has brought wondrous things, it has also brought destruction and waste, and thoughtful designers are considering anew the manufactured consequences of their ideas. To be sure, this will not be sufficient to halt the degradation of our planet. I believe a change in the growth-at-any-cost paradigm is required for that. Rethinking the methods of manufacturing, however, executed with wiser decisions about how to distribute those goods, will be essential to allow future generations to share our world. 

Ironically, nature has quite a bit of advice to offer the technological society that has so abused her. Her rules are different, and her agenda inscrutable, but learning a few simple lessons could reap great rewards for technology while sparing the earth its usual ration of abuse. Understanding how nature is built is a promising pathway to innovation that should not be ignored. Understanding how nature builds, however, may be more important. 

Professor Julian Vincent, retired director of the biomimetics and natural technologies program at the University of Bath's Department of Mechanical Engineering, believes that the biggest benefit from bio-inspired design lies in improving manufacturing methods. “Developing new material processing techniques based on bio-inspired processes - that’s where the progress will be…always has been,” he said. 

Vincent has spent a long career looking at natural materials for their best advantages, investigating everything from how pine cone bracts might inspire smart clothing, to leaf folding as a model for deployable structures, to the mechanical efficiencies of jumping robots.  

He has also spent a great deal of time comparing natural and technological methods for solving design challenges, and has been an advocate of TRIZ, a Russian typology of problems and solutions, as a framework for transferring lessons from nature to technology.

He co-authored the Journal of The Royal Society paper “Biomimetics: its practice and theory” in 2006. Using the TRIZ system, he and his colleagues compared six parameters used to solve problems across scales, first in technology and then in nature. Their conclusion was that there was only a 12 percent overlap between the two approaches and that the technological approach predominantly used energy to solve problems (particularly at the smaller scales) while nature more typically used information and structure.  

Vincent continues to be most intrigued by the search for a theoretical framework for biomimetics and is busy writing an ontological treatise on biological functions and design processes. To date he has looked at approximately 280 of these functions and 80 criteria within the energy parameter alone. The goal is to create an ontology that can identify industrial applications and match them with biological solutions. 

If his Royal Society paper suggests a veritable gold mine of new and unique energy-saving solutions available to the designer, why haven’t we seen more bio-inspired solutions within our sustainable designs? I imagine that the explanation lies in the word “translation.” Vincent notes that while the two approaches may share general functional categories, like adhesion, they are wildly different in their material components, how these materials are made and how they are structured and arrayed. 

Natural organisms build principally with two polymers (proteins and polysaccharides), a couple of minerals (calcium and silica) and occasionally throw in some metals like manganese, zinc or iron for hardening.

Proteins make up a lot of the tough, durable materials organisms need to bend, flex and resist stress. Spider silk, collagen (tendons, skin), elastin and keratin (hair, horns, nails) are examples. Polysaccharides include materials like chitin (lobster shell) and cellulose (wood fiber), relatively hard materials that provide stiffness, as well as gels and fillers. All of these materials, importantly, are produced and maintained in a water environment, something that technical processes often avoid as degrading. 

Several characteristics distinguish these natural materials, making them both frustrating to replicate and full of tantalizing promise. Since they are made from only 20 amino acids, for instance, proteins share a common base and chemical conversance. Their shape, moreover, determines their wide diversity and the specific information embedded within. This allows creatures like the spider or the mussel to create a full range of proteins in silk or byssus to suit the demands of the environment or the needs of its life cycle.