Manufacturing of the Future by the Biomimicry Innovation Lab

What is biomimicry?

Richard’s ambition was based on his will to solve problems while improving and helping the planet. For this, he turned to biomimicry. But, what is biomimicry?

Biomimicry is a “super discipline” to shape the future. It gathers mathematics, chemistry, biology, physics, engineering design and even art, all of this mixed together. At the beginning, the Innovation Lab was aimed at discovering how nature solves problems in manufacturing all around the world, how academia and industry have been developing new ways to design, create processes and materials for the future and how it can shape the world for the next ten years and predict the future. Early civilizations, for instance, learned from nature.

“Our mission is to inspire and share how the natural world can deliver unique solutions by radically reducing the need for resources.”

Biomimicry Innovation Lab does consultancy, research and analytics, focusing on systems and processes and specializing in project for clients related to cities, manufacturing and food systems. Research is one of the key activities. Academics look into trends and into investment.

History of biomimicry

Biomimicry has been tested in different places in the world, Richard gives the example of a smart cities project, in Africa, located in Ghana. In the UK, much research is dedicated to developing products towards industry.

The Schmitt trigger was quoted as a famous example: of a comparator circuit invented from the study of the American scientist Otto H. Schmitt on neural impulse propagation in squid nerves.

About manufacturing, they have been interested in industries that make products from raw materials by the use of manual labor or machinery, which is usually carried out systematically through the division of labor. “But it is not just how we make things, it is also: where the materials are coming from. How they work? What design of software.  What is the easiest or the most effective way to solve problems?”

Looking for innovation in Nature

Dr Rupert Soar, one of the advisors of Richard, once said “innovators look around for fresh ideas, with advances in technology we are able to understand the natural world like never before”. For that, there is a need for more and more research centers, MIT labs, technology, nano-skills, high-record systems, human-body research, etc.  What is created today is linked to industry, manufacturing process that makes individual materials. But modern technology has to be inspired by nature or what we are made of.

“Look at your hands, look at your skin, and compare to the room you’re in, the materials, the windows. Lots of material in the home are single-use. Nature does not do that, everything is about multifunctionality because resources are hard to find so it needs to find resources that can easily be used in a multifunctional manner.

Simply put, biomimicry is all about how nature makes things, by using gravity, genetics and more. Green chemistry has been explored a lot in some cities like London and Boston. It is important to prove that nature can help at creating new technologies. It is not just about the physical factory. Even for business there is an added value as biomimicry seeks to create the exact same thing but by using less (e.g. bones/materials) and reducing the cost of advanced manufacturing.

The Future of Biomimicry: Make the World more Sustainable

Nowadays debates about recycling and plastic impact have become very important. How can we use fewer materials or less chemicals but keep it strong? Biomimicry points to one idea: looking to our trees. The main question here is how can we make biomaterials which do not degrade?

One of the key concepts would be exploring how far we can go and if we can replicate what nature does by observing nature-built self-organization. Robots, IoT and smart buildings which will be everywhere have to be adaptive to changes like nature . Moreover, advanced manufacturing is built on materials, structures and shapes. Ideally, we would shift to using more biomaterials. We need to move on to the next level combining computer and natural processes.

Combining nature and technology

Termites are continually adapting their processes working on the fungi found in their mounds. They work by changing the pressure, temperatures of the gases within the mounds to get it to the right humidity allowing them to function properly and even to regulate the fungus they eat. This is a potential model for the future.

Finally, biomimicry goes together with the principles of the circular economy, recycling and reuse. Natural ecosystems (plants, plankton, etc.) must be combined with human skills to build up an eco-friendly society. Fortunately, more and more companies are going in this direction. The ecosystem is a large community of living organisms (plants, animals and microbes) in a particular area. The living and physical components are linked together through nutrient cycles and energy flows. Ecosystems are of any size, but usually they are in particular places (interest for local level). Humans have to pay more attention to forests, trees, different materials, the edges between different habitats. How each element could be used and be part of our manufacturing processes? “Not everything will be relevant or possible for us, concludes Richard, but we have a fascinating world and we should look at new environments and sustainable solutions.”

Richard’s favorite quote by Don Campbell goes “If you want to make small changes, change the way you do things. If you want to make major changes, change the way you see things.”

Q&A

Biomimicry is source of innovation. How to connect biomimicry and sustainability?

How can we make sure that we are reducing the environmental impact? We have to reduce the cost of manufacturing; cleaning costs are so much higher. We need to focus on sustainability aspects.

There is a limit to biomimicry for bio-based materials which need some improvements, is there the idea to reduce this based on innovation through biomimicry?

The potential reduces this part. Chemists have to look more to the natural world. The solution is an ecosystem approach via biomimicry.

Is Biomimicry  used by corporates such as Airbus, as you mentioned, or more startups or Research Organizations?

There is a lot of research. There is no market for it. In industry, big corporates can deal with it if they have a big R&D department. Innovation is art, biomimicry is art. It is easy to create. Governments can use it too in their Research centers.

Do you feel that there are some sectors where biomimicry makes more sense than manufacturing?

Manufacturing and construction are the two biggest polluters, there is a mass of energy lost, full waste (e.g.: construction waste of materials) and we have to tackle it. We can use other materials or different manufacturing techniques.

What about medical devices? For Covid-19 solutions, biomimicry can be used?

There is actually a huge project of the lab which works on post-Covid scenarios, food, infrastructure… In place for Covid, we have been inspired by shark skin technology since sharks are slow moving animals but they do not generally have a lot of bacteria on them. Their skin has been observed and copied for many uses. We have thought of it for medical devices, to reduce the spread or the growth of bacteria.

 

Biography of the Speaker

This keynote was held by Richard James MacCowan, founder and Creative Director at Biomimicry UK, which is a non-profit startup dedicated to research and development with international collaborators via the Design Society and the ISO Standards in Biomimicry. The goal of this session was to discover bio-inspired innovations and to know more about biomimicry’s potential, especially to solve some of the current and future challenges faced by the manufacturing sector.

Richard is an award-winning designer and has worked around the world in cities, manufacturing, food systems and product design. He has dedicated a significant amount of time to research projects with academics and to develop new tools for the Design Society, new challenges, industry solutions and sustainable construction works. With his rich background, he asked himself how to interconnect all these ideas for a sustainable future. After the global economic recession 12 years ago, he thought of exploring interconnectivity between cities, systems, ecosystems and biological systems.

How deep technologies contribute to positive IMPACT

During Impact Week, 6 great speakers came to share their point of view on this important question: How can deep technologies impact  our future?

Part I: Green Digitization?

What is the vision of the European Commission with regards to digitization and especially the impact of deep technologies, in accordance to the European Green Deal?

Henri Rajbenbach, from the European Commission, explains that the technologies might be deep, but they are certainly very broad. What the Commission calls Key Digital Technologies (KDTs) include many topics such as Nanoelectronics, Bio-electronics, Wearables and flexible printed electronics, photonics and of course the software to run this. One of the challenges is to make the data usable, as they come in real time, as they come from the real world. They should be “good enough” to feed AI and make it as close as possible to the users for various reasons primarily privacy.

They are many shades of green, which makes it challenging to put together Green Transition and Digital transformation. There are two categories: Green KDTs and KDTs for Green.

A new holistic and agnostic approach is needed where the key approach is to start from the function. The idea is to then decide where at best we can develop. This often happens at the intersection of technologies: Post-Moore nanoelectronics; flexible and wearable electronics, and electronic smart systems.

While addressing a greener economy, it is important to bear in mind that manufacturing and use are equally energy hungry, in terms of equipment. One of the issues with this in Europe is sovereignty, and it could be clearly observed with the COVID-19 crisis.

Europe is especially strong in some sectors, many quality intensive ones. They incarnate European values: social values in health system, or human values for privacy, and technology aspect for sovereignty in particular for the defense sector. Key Digital Technologies play critical and complementary roles in digital transformation and green transition. Furthermore, access to leading-edge digital technologies is essential to achieve ambitious political priorities. The European Commission will further support that in Horizon Europe.

What is your vision and how can deep technologies impact our future positively?

Holger Meinel represents EuMa – the European microwave association. It was founded in 1998 and has 5000 representatives worldwide. 75% of those being industrials and 25% of academics. Their role is to foster the strategy of radio frequency-based research. They start to apply the same intersectionality in functional electronics as mentioned before. According to Holger Meinel the broad landscape is allowing to bridge the gap between microwave technolgies and other areas like infrared, enabling new possibilities like pollution control. This is fostered in Europe at very large scale.

Pertti Jauhiainen explains that with all the KDTs, there is a broad ecosystem and we need to make it efficient. There are green networks, and by connecting them it would be more efficient along the value chain, building amazing components, that build networks, devices and more. The use of networks or ICT in investor sectors and society is going to benefit from the green side. The other aspect is the use of ICT technology and the manufacturing of it. The use is even more energy hungry with consumers, networks and data centers.

Patrice Gamand, Business Development Manager at the cluster Alpha Route des Lasers reiterates that the 5 pillars are key: component, flexible electronics, IoT, printed electronics, photonics, and of course embedded software especially the cyber-physical systems. When it comes to green transition, integration is recommended. This means integrating more functions to save  components and power. This is a strategy to be pursued. According to him, everything is complementary so we need a global strategy.

What can you do to make the electronic world a little bit greener?

Neil Armstrong is CEO of In2tec, an SME specialising in one of the key pillars: flexible printed electronics.

In the past, the approach was “How do we reduce the energy needed to manufacture? How do we include some materials that are a little bit easier to recycle?”. Now for a real impact from deep technologies, what is needed is actually a paradigm shift, because we can only go so far down the current road given the law of diminishing returns . At the moment, on a yearly basis, 64 billion dollars’ worth of E-waste could be recycled and only 20% is actually recycled.

The idea is to look at how manufacturing is done. We create a system that is “unzippable”. We can unzip the substrate from the conductive tracks, we can unzip the inductive tracks from the components etc. The holistic approach is the trend we’re looking at here to change people’s perspective whether they are a user or manufacturer. It’s trying to take everything around us to move things ahead. It is complex because of the market’s need for catalysts such as the government or the consumers. The consumer is already going greener, there is a demand. Now, we can take a flexible material, unzip the components, and reuse them on new products. The amount of effort, power, precious metals are used is significant. Nowadays it is much easier to reuse and recycle them.

Circularity is new in the landscape. Are there any plans for the future to include circularity in the new projects from the European Commission? 

The need for circularity is increasing substantially. The first step is awareness at the business level. The reuse of material is important, especially in flexible electronics – the term plastic electronics is not used anymore since plastic isn’t as sexy as it used to be. It’s not really addressed by the projects now, but attention will be given to that in the analysis of proposals.

Part II: Can we afford the Bandwidth?

Wolfgang Templ from Nokia Bell Labs explains that mega trends are changing the world, and the ways we connect with it. There is an exponential increase in traffic, that is going to continue for the next decades. It has been triggered by certain key applications, with the era of discovery, then sharing, and now automatization. All of this needs to come at a moderate cost. There are 3 phenomena: requirement for more bandwidth, requirement for more bits per Hertz, and then to reuse the spectrum. And this is the trend that 5G is following, allied with the use of technologies for things like increasing battery lifetime and flexibility of the network.

Among the various building blocks of technologies, where do we need the most effort?

Pertti Jauhiainen thinks that it might also depend on what is more used. Now, 5G is in its development stages and it is not fully processed yet. Cybersecurity is also a challenge that is getting bigger, because of high data use and how to make it secure as much for personal matter than for industrial use.

We want to have more bandwidth, but at a lower cost. Do you think that thanks to new technologies, maybe with the use of microwaves, it is possible to have the same room for improvement for energy saving?

Holger Meinel thinks that with different materials it is possible to change the need in power consumption, and save energy. The only thing is to decide which frequency will be used for what. Patrice Gamand answers that we have to use advanced semi computer technologies for different reasons. Bandwidth is not a problem itself, it’s more about cost and power consumption. But having a good technology can optimize performance. This is software designed hardware. It allows us to think of concepts to meet the requirements.

In parallel to that, Neil Armstrong explains that the growth of 5G and the utilization to more data fuels the need for more sensors, on vehicle, on body. The consequence is that when more is needed, in the process of manufacturing they need to improve the longevity of the sensors, as well as the circularity especially for devices such as smartphones. It needs to be at the design level. This all comes with new virtualized networks, with a sort of fusion of software and network.

When trying to achieve versatility, speed, and all the other abilities that we need: does adding AI impact energy consumption? Is it possible that through software, we can optimize energy?

Software will help, but it is not the only solution. It is paramount to have an infrastructure which is by design a little bit greener. Henri Rajbenbach explains that on this topic, we should link component and architecture as explained by Wolfgang Templ since it is really at the core of the best use of bandwidth, time wise but also with space and cost.

In conclusion, the solution to achieve impact using deep technologies is through intersecting technology, while staying as close as possible to the user.

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