CitationDownload as .RIS
Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2013, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Article Type: Editorial From: Rapid Prototyping Journal, Volume 19, Issue 3
The Centre for Biomimetics at the University of Reading defines biomimetics (sometimes called biomimicry) as the “abstraction of good design from nature”, i.e. learning from nature to help us solve problems. This has been done for many years and has resulted in products such as Velcro and “shark skin” swimsuits. To some extent, the ability to mimic natural design has been limited by the materials and manufacturing methods at our disposal. Single material parts shaped by the removal of chips of material are never going to reach anywhere near the complexity of even the simplest biological organism. However, new developments in composites and nano-composites are offering additional material capabilities that get us part of the way there. Additive manufacturing has also revealed itself as a great tool for biomimetics since it can create complexity of shapes that are impossible (or prohibitively expensive) with conventional technology. Imagine trying to create a faithful copy of a human skull using machining or casting! Certainly, some designers are making good use of AM to create nature-inspired products and application areas include personal protective equipment, light-weighting of aerospace components and organic lighting. If complex multi-material AM systems become a reality then we might see a whole new dimension of biomimicry, i.e. artificial tissues. I know it was the aim of Vladimir Mironov to “bioprint” a human kidney several years ago. Personally, I am convinced that this will become a reality some day. But, in the meantime, is there anything else we can be doing with AM to help us emulate the design efficiency we see in nature? Copying natural geometric structures is just one element of this and I believe that great strides are already being made in this direction. But how about an organism’s ability to adapt to the environment, like a chameleon changing its colour or a tree growing its root structure to fit between the rocks in the soil? Can we use AM to manufacture components that adapt over time? I can imagine a part that will “grow” during its use to take up wear in a mechanical system. I am sure RPJ readers will be able to imagine much more ingenious possibilities. I guess that AM processes may have to develop greater capabilities to be able to realise some of our ideas but I believe the really difficult part might be coming up with the design processes in the first place. Trying to mimic nature is not that simple, consider the computational complexity needed to develop a weight optimised structure to support even a single load. We can of course use a very complex system to develop highly ingenious designs, that is, our brains! This will enable us to generate the concepts but the detail design will require the help of computers. And so there needs to be a clever combination of human and machine to push the boundaries of biomimetics. The algorithms required will no doubt be very clever, but the human intelligence needed to write them will be even more impressive.