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INTERNATIONAL DESIGN CONFERENCE - DESIGN 2014
Dubrovnik - Croatia, May 19 - 22, 2014.
BIO-INSPIRED DESIGN CHARACTERISATION
AND ITS LINKS WITH PROBLEM SOLVING
P-E Fayemi, N. Maranzana, A. Aoussat and G. Bersano
Keywords: Biomimetics, Design methods, Bio-inspired Design, TRIZ
Design activities have a significant influence on human health and quality of life. It requires a certain
knowledge to perform a design process. This knowledge may come from various sources such as people
designers, experts, etc.), products or processes, and can be different in its nature [Hatchuel, 2003],
making their aggregation more difficult to designers. Those bits of knowledge and their wider scope of
points of origin lighten the current dissolving of the scientific disciplines, combined with the
development of highly specialized domains [Kostoff, 2008 ;Schöfer, 2013].
The efficteveness of use of biology knowledge, often combined with other scientific disciplines, as
source of innovation, has been demonstrated throughout history of mankind [Simon, 1983]. In early
times, human beings observed animals and mimicked their hunting, shelter and survival behaviors. In
Renaissance times, Leonardo da Vinci already tried to mechanically understand how birds fly to design
his first flying machine. Bio-inspired design enjoyed a new boom in the 50’s thanks to aerospace, marine
and automotive industry and, to a minor extent, cybernetics and complex system modelling. During the
80’s bio-inspired design has grown on micro and macroscopic levels in the light of biotechnology
[Schmitt, 1960; Steele, 1960; Gleich et al., 2010; Bar-Cohen, 2011]. Keeping these facts in mind, the
transfer of principles from world of living organisms towards technology is, therefore, by no means a
new phenomenon. However, streamlining the approach, defining bio-inspiration as a scientific
discipline, a method, or a philosophy crystallises the novelty. Bio-inspiration, as a contemporary
concept, defines itself as an attempt to develop innovations by combining biology and technology. Its
theoretical base takes advantage of the optimisation of biological structures, functions, processes and
systems by successive evolutions which characterises living organisms.
The article will firstly raise issues upon definitions and conceptual boundaries of the terms related with
the bio-inspired design. After the presentation of biomimetics case studies, the focus of the article, driven
on a theorical level, will be set on the generation of a generic problem driven biomimetic process. The
tools and methods than BID can reap advantage from will therefore be addressed.
2. State of the art of semantics
Bio-inspiration is a domain with a proliferation of terms. It is therefore interesting to take a closer look
at them. The first term to appear in modern literature is “biomimetic” which according to the Oxford
English Dictionary is indexed in the volume 132 of Science, published in December 1960. The index
refers to two published articles, defining the term as devices which simulate biological functions. It is
also in 1960 that the term “bionics” is used for the first time, in a scientific article [Steele, 1960], without
being explicitly defined. Still in 1960 the Merridian Webster Dictionary defines bionics as a “a science
concerned in the application of data about the functioning of biological systems to the solution of
engineering problems”. Biomimicry emerged much later, in 1997 [Benyus, 1997] as the eco-design part
of bio-inspiration. It emphazises the resilient aspect of provided solutions. Combining the prefix bio-,
from greek “bio” meaning life, and the suffix mimesis from the greek “mimeisthai” meaning imitate.
By its use from environmental lobbies, the biomimicry term enjoyed a strong position, especially in the
United-States, where it has its origins, and it is now the most commonly used term among bio-
Reading all these definitions consecutively brings their lack of clarity to evidence. That lack of well
defined boundaries between terms leads to redundancy of concepts and confusion of goals and aims.
Nowadays, as acknowledged by Vincent [Vincent, 2006], biomimetics tends to become a synonym of
biomimicry, biomimesis or even biognosis, whereas they are all equivalent to bio-inspiration. This
situation leads to an inappropriate use of terms and contributes to “green washing” in this emergent
A cross analysis of the literature, partially carried out within a standardization committee, leads us to
propose the following new definitions:
Biomimetics: Interdisciplinary creative process between biology and technology, aiming at solving
antrophospheric problems through abstraction, transfer and application of knowledge from biological
Biomimicry/Biomimesis: philosophy that takes-up challenges related to resilience (social, environmental
and economic ones), by being inspired from living organisms, particularly on an organizational level.
Bionics: technical discipline that seeks to replicate, increase or replace biological functions by their
electronic and/or mechanical equivalents.
Figure 1. Bio-inspiration and linked concepts boundaries map
These new definitions, in a more precise way, define the conceptual boundaries of each term, as shown
in fig.1. However, they do not allow to overcome interpretation issues, even if they are reducing them,
with the areas in which they apply.
3. Biomimetic cases studies analysis
Theorised by Janine Benyus [Benyus 1997], bio-inspiration could be achieved according to three levels.
The first one comes down to mimicking form. The second level overcomes form to reach the
mimicking of natural proceses, where focus is set on mimicking structures and functions. The third and
last level concerns mimicking the strategies of the living. Its goal is to reproduce the relationships of a
mature ecosystem in constant interaction and dynamic homeostasis with its environments.
In this section 3, biomimetics case studies, considered as classics in BID literature, will be presented
according to their level of inspiration and their methodological output analysed.
3.1. Inspiration of form: Shinkansen
The Shinkansen, also called the Japanese bullet train is the fastest railway train in the world, travelling
at more than 300 km per hour through urban areas. Sudden changes of air pressure combined with its
high speed cause a thunder clap every time the train emerges from a tunnel. That noise and the proximity
of the railway lines to residential areas was a significant issue. Eiji Nakatsu, Director of theTechnical
Development and Test Operation Department of JR-West, was in charge of dealing with this noise
situation. Infatuated with ornithology, he drew inspiration from the sharp and longilineal shape of the
Kingfisher's head, able to glide through the air and precisely dive into water to snag fish with no splash.
The fundamental problem is the same in both world, to make the transition from a low pressure
environment which is air for the Kingfiher, to high pressure environment which is water for the
Kingfisher. Several other inspirations from living organisms were used trying to improve the
Shinkansen’s impact on surrounding homes. The first one was serrations from Owl’s primary feathers
as source of inspiration to limit vibrations of the pantograph. The second one was the spindle shape like
the one of the body of the Adelie Penguin, used to reduce the degree of wind resistance of the supporting
frame of the pantograph.
By combining all these different inspirations of forms from living organisms, the West Japan Railway
Company reduced the energy consumption of the train by 15%, while travelling 10% faster within
existing acoustic standards.
This example shows that when the required technical expertise and biological knowledge are
concentrated in a single person, the biomimetic process does not seem more complex than a classic
3.2. Inspiration of process: Gecko tape [Geim, 2003]
That adhesive tape is a material with synthethic nanotubes mimicking the tiny hairs known as setae of
the gecko's foot. In nature, flexible filaments packed at 5,000 per mm2 create Van-der-Waals bonds
that cause a powerful adhesion effect. Expected applications range from undersea to spatial
Following the first attempt, scientists became aware of the significant need of energy to detach their
band from the surface. After several usage cycles, tensions exerted on the nanotubes were so high that
the tape wasn’t able to fulfill its function anymore.The geckno twists its setae when moving, creating
angle and variation in their relative distance, reducing Van-der-Waals forces. With this process, the
gecko is able to run without its adhesion mechanism becoming a constraint. Researchers response to
this issue was to replace polyamide filaments with more resistant polypropene ones. The need of clean
surfaces is another phenomenon that has only been identified following the completion of the study. The
tape tends to rapidly loose its adhesive capacity by amassing dust particles. In the living world, the gecko
keeps its “adhering surface” in operating condition by continually licking its paws combined with self-
cleaning capacity. Scientists have not been able to take up this technological challenge for a long time.
Regardless of the scientific success of this study, the gecko tape case shows that in order to lead to an
industrial success, a biomimetic process must take into account every surrounding element of the desired
function. Otherwise efficiency of concepts developed could be seriously affected or even null, unable to
be transformed into technological successes.
3.3. Inspiration of system: Eastgate Centre [Turner 2008]
The Eastgate Centre in Harare, Zimbabwe, was built in 1996, following several years of study of termite
mounds, lead by the architect Mick Pearce and the scientist Scott Turner. Termite mounds have the
fascinating ability to maintain In a passive way a specific temperature, 31°C ± 1°C, with ambient
temperatures ranged from 3°C to 42°C. Insects achieve this prowess thanks to the thermal capacity of
the mound material combined with fungal-based cooling vents, managing a carefully adjusted
convection current system throughout the structure.
The passive ventilation system of the Harare Eastgate Centre wasn’t a success, temperature could not
be kept steady. Installation of low-speed fans on the first floor of the building resulted in tremendous
improvements. Due to its design, the Eastgae Centre claims a consumption of 10% of a standard building
of a similar size.
Theorically the project failed; design did not succeed in passively controlling the tempature. Practically
the project succedded, owners of the building saved almost 3.5 billions of dollars by not installing a
standard ventilation system, inhabitants rent their accommodation 20% less than inhabitants of the
surrounding buildings. Impaired version of living systems could therefore still lead to impactfull
innovations without matching the ideality of its model(s) of inspiration.
These few examples coupled with other ones described in literature allow us to draw some general
conclusions. Biomimetics doesn’t necessarily imply sustainability. For example, superhydrophobic
coatings based on the lotus effect are still produced from the distillation of petroleum. Some biomimetic
solutions even lead to new technical or ethical difficulties. Spider silk fiber synthesis that may involve
transgenic mammals illustrates this fact.
Some solutions, without breaching their relevance or efficiency, presented as biomimetic are not
legitimate. Energy production from articifial seaweed belongs to bio-inspiration/bio-assistance but not
to biomimetics. Products developed thanks to evolutionary algorithms also do not fit the biomimetics
requirement mentioned in the proposed definitions as they are not inspired from a identified biological
model. Presented solutions for commercial purposes such as current biomimetic cosmetics, as they do
not offer any transfer step, are another typical example of mislabelled biomimetic products.
As a consequence, the definitions presented in section 2 make it easier to determine if debatable cases
are biomimetic or not.
In the search for innovative solutions, biomimetics act as a supplement to the classic methods for
developing new ideas, as a way of approaching scientific engineering work methods. Living organisms
and their amazing adaptations offer a virtually infinite number of potentially relevant solutions from a
technological point of view.
4. Characterisation of a generic biomimetic method
As seen in section 3, what distinguishes bio-inspired real success cases from others seems entwined with
the logical process adopted during design phases. Thus, it is this design strategy that distinguishes bio-
inspired accidents from biomimetic products. It seems thus important, not to let aside biomimetic
methodological aspects when tackling bio-inspiration as a pratical research field of interest.
The number of scientific researchers and industrial practitioners related to bio-inspiration is growing but
transferring knowledge from biology to technology is still a complex process. Methodogy as a starting
point could lead to improvement in simplyfing such approach.
It is then interesting to draw a correlation between this kind of approach and methods and tools from the
“classical” literature of design in order to identify means biomimetics can reap advantages of. Several
design tools and methods exist, Lahonde categorized them into different families [Lahonde 2010].
Regarding table 1 and the purpose of these different clusters, biomimetics coincides largely with creative
methods. Given that creativity tools and methods tend in their purpose to solve a problem, every aspect
of a biomimetic approach could be put in perspective with problem solving theories, methods and/or
tools, which are by far described in more detail within literature of design.
Table 1. Extract of design methods clusters (translated from [lahonde 2010])
Exemples de méthodes
- Satisfaire les besoins des consommateurs
- Assurer le succès commercial du produit
Enquêtes par sondage
Traduire le besoin du client et des utilisateurs dans
un langage exploitable techniquement
Interne et Externe
- Innover et se démarquer de ses concurrents
- Trouver des solutions originales
Matrice de découverte
- Satisfaire les fonctions dans conditions données
- Maîtriser les risques
Soutien Logistique Intégré
- Prendre en compte l’environnement
- Respecter la réglementation
Analyse du Cycle de Vie
4.1. Steps of a classical problem solving
Problem solving is a cross disciplinary concept. Its terminologies and perspectives may differ from the
domain in which it is applied, for instance, it is a mental process in psychology but a computerized
process in computer science. Either way, problem solving can be described as a logical process that
consists in both sense-making and action-taking. Using a phase or stage description, the problem solving
process consists in a 5 steps process [Massey&Wallace 1996]:
1. Identification: process by which a model is developed by assembling components and
relationships from the stimuli that led to the recognition and identification of the problem.
2. Definition: Process by which the problem is analysed in order to identify the possible causes,
the root causes or the main causes.
3. Alternative generation: Creative process by which unique solutions or groups of solutions are
generated attempting to solve identified causes.
4. Choice of a solution between ideas generated to solve the inital problem.
5. Implementation and testing: Implement the choice of a solution in the initial problem and
resolve issues and challenges underlying. Evaluate the final solution, ensure results achieved
and disseminate related information.
4.2. Steps of a generic biomimetic method
Biomimetic could be used with two separated ways, solution driven method or problem driven method.
The solution driven method assumes a biological system that performs a function that the engineer wants
to emulate as a starting point. The process is focused on abstracting the biological system so that the
designer can then use the functional model to inspire an engineering design concept.
The problem driven method assumes that there is a specific behaviour/function that the designer wishes
to perform. The process is focused on determining the biological systems that need to be considered for
inspiration. The rest of the article will focus now on on the problem driven (PD) method of biomimetics.
The bioinspired problem driven process has already been described within literature. Bogatyrev and
Vincent outline a 6-step process which focuses on extracting essential features from biological models
in order to translate them into technological knowledge [Bogatyrev, 2008]. Helms et al. define a 6 step
problem-driven biologically inspired design process [Helms, 2009] which provides iterative feedback
and reﬁnement loops. This process has been adapted by Vattam et al. to develop the DANE approach
[Vattam, 2011]. Nagel et al. proposed a 7-step process which starts from the identification of the
biological system of reference, and focuses on the functional establishment of a pattern/model of
biological models [Nagel, 2010].
By analysing examples among the bio-inspiration literature from the prism of a cross analysis of the
problem- driven above-mentioned processes with regard to the definitions outlined in section 2.2, a new
logical pattern can be established. This pattern is articulated around 9 different steps:
1. Define the human needs/challenge.
2. Abstract the technical problem by selecting appropriate functions and constraints.
3. Translate the abstracted technical problem into a biological challenge.
4. Identify potential biological models that solve the translated abstract problem.
5. Select the biological model of interest amongst potential candidates.
6. Abstract biological strategies from the selected biological model in order to reduce the number
7. Translate these identified biological strategies into a technological challenge.
8. Resolve issues related to solving the technical challenge of implementing the final solution to
the initial situation.
9. Evaluate the final solution, ensure results achieved match the initial expectations, initiate steps
related to improving the generated design.
Refering to the work of Massey and Wallace, the problem driven biomimetic process could be
schematised as follows:
Table 2. Problem driven biomimetic process in regards of solving problem process
5.Implementation and testing
to the initial
Structured that way, designers are more willingly to understand what is involved in a biomimetic
process. Biologists who experienced bio-inspired design, or intend to, could also correlate the approach
with a classical problem solving process, and its description in literature.
4.3 Link with inventive methods
Having identified the generic steps, it appears that a link exists between biomimetics and inventive
methods and more specifically with TRIZ.
Figure 2. TRIZ process for creative problem solving
The figure 3 presents the classical triz process, illustrated in figure 2, applied to the generic problem
driven biomimetic process.
Figure 3. Link between TRIZ and biomimetics
The outline of the problem driven biomimetic process appears as a double TRIZ cycle, which
corroborates Vandevenne’s proposed SBID approach [Vandevenne, 2013]. The left part of the figure,
the first cycle, focuses on a technology to biology process while the right part of the figure tackles its
way back, from biology to technology.
Between these two parts of the figure lays a pivotal step, the selection of the biological model(s) of
interest. This step seems crucial as it stands as a support for the whole biology to technology approach.
A lack of equivalence between technogical and biological constraints when it comes to chosing a model
of inspiration would more likely lead to unefficient final solutions.
Looking at the major steps of the process, the global cycles suggest that making technologists and
biologists work together, the ones after the others with a translation steps between their output might
appear as the right process. With a closer look, the figure emphasises the intertwining aspect of both
cycles. Each cycle requires knowledge coming from both worlds in its sequence implying technologists
and biologists not only to work the ones after the others but to cooperate. That need of synergy between
biology and technology represents the difficulty in the background of any bio-inspired process. The
current response aims at reducing the need of involved interdiscinirarity instead of facilitating it. For
that purpose, tools such as databases are developed. These databases focus on gathering and formalising
biological knowledge in a way they can be accessible to technicians.
5. TRIZ tools potential use regarding the problem driven biomimetic process
Biomimetics offers a unique possibility, the ability to provide methods, guidelines and tools that could
rely on more than 3.8 billion years history of challenge solving thanks to natural selection. In many
fields, living organisms outperform man-made solutions by far and biomimetic solutions are thus widely
regarded as not only being ingenious, but also being ecologically sound, and resilient. Biomimetics are
not, however, free of weaknesses. Constraints regarding interdisciplinarity in making technical
engineers work with biologic material and biologists, and vice-versa, as mentioned in section 4, are not
easy tasks. Similarly, the inherent need, with intervals of various depth, of fundamental research in
particular during the step of biological strategie(s) abtraction, tend to lengthen the design cycles
compared to non biomimetics ones. Thus, it seems interesting to identify from which tools and design
approaches biomimetics could benefit in order to compensate the weaknesses mentioned above.
With its link to TRIZ, it is now interesting to figure out which TRIZ based tool could be used theorically
at each step in order to fulfill its purpose. Based on Schöfer’s work [Schöfer 2013] which emphasises
Savransky’s [Savransky 2002] and Nakagawa’s [Nakagawa_2003] previous work, we propose in table
2 a mapping of TRIZ tools regarding the problem driven biomimetic generic process steps.
Table 3. Match between TRIZ tools and generic problem driven biomimetic process
Implementation and testing
The theory of inventive problem solving seems to offer, cf. table 3, a wealth of tools which might be
capable of addressing the specific needs outlined. Tools coming from TRIZ tackle entirely the
identification and the definition of problem solving steps. The implementing and testing phase is only
partially addressed. Tools ogirinating from TRIZ only focus the first half of the mentioned phase.
TRIZ listed tools do not seems to offer tools focusing on “alternative generation” or even “choice of
solution” which was define as a critical step in section 4.3.
6. Relevance of TRIZ tools for BID methods?
The choise of tools, according to the process, has been outlined but nothing allows biomimetic designers
to choose which tool or set of tools to use regarding their relevance to the task. For this purpose, we
need to compare tools. It makes no sense to compare tools with different objectives, thus an appropriate
classification has been achieved. Definitions in section 2, indicate that every biomimetic approach
implies abstraction, transfer and application. Therefore, an attribute, “abstraction”, “transfer” or
“application is assigned to each step of the biomimetic process according to its main output step goal.
To match BID literature, another attribute has been added to the ones mentioned in the definition. This
attribute, “evaluate”, classifies tools that analyses the global/whole process and allows designers to
initiate counter-measures or even to loop to another cycle.
Results are shown in table 4:
Table 4. Steps of a generic biomimetic method and their classification
Choice of a
Implementation and testing
It is noticeable that the first abstraction step, the one that occurs in the technical field, includes two
distinct sub-steps, one which deals with identification aspects and the other involving abstraction. The
abstraction step intervening in the biological field involves exclusively abstraction. Sub-targets and
means involved to achieve these steps differ, even if concerned parties share the same overall objective.
With these different classes of tools identified, comparing tools from the same category is now possible.
A list of criteria has been established in order to do so.
The list of TRIZ tools shown in table 3 does not offer “application” or “evaluate” tools, therefore the
reminder of the article will focus on “asbstracting” and “transfering” tools.
6.1. Abstracting tools.
Abstracting tools, as mentioned before, due to the first abstraction step, the biological one, pursued two
different objectives: problem identification and problem modelling. To fulfill those objectives from the
theoretical contribution point of view an ideal abstracting tool should
Be able to model complex problems in order to fit as much cases as possible;
Strongly integrate different systemic levels to allow designers to model their problems
Effectively filter information regarding its significance for the problem solving process, to avoid
overflowing designers with information they do not need;
Establish a very strong access to the problem in a generic way in order to allow its translation
into a biological challenge;
Completely maintain specific constraints with respect to the generated generic problem by
avoiding an over generification of the problem which could lead to identification of biological
models that do not solve the original technical problem.
From the practical/operational point of view, an ideal abstracting tool
Should be able to be implemented with very short time;
Could be used instinctively, without need of any training;
Should be as efficient when used as a stand-alone tool than used within other tools;
Could be used in any scientific or industrial domain without need of adjustment;
Should have the same efficiency when used by a single designer than with a group of designers;
Should facilitate the use of subsequent tools by offering an up-stream support of their
6.2. Tansfer tools
The transferring tools, which are involved in translating a technical problem into a biological challenge
and vice-versa, imply idea generation. To fulfill this objective, an ideal transferring tool should
Only point at a unique solution;
Be able to strongly enlarge designer(s) knowledge if necessary;
Allow the designer to completely sub-modularize generated solution(s) to enhance versatility
of the generated concept;
Generate solution(s) with high level of inventiveness.
The practical/operational criteria remain the same as for the abstracting tools.
Although bio-inspiration is a well-known instrument for innovation, the problem-solving process that
leads to the solution has not yet been exhaustively investigated. Thus, each step of a process of bio-
inspiration is quite permissive. The purpose of this article was to understand what bio-inspiration is, by
defining its relative concepts and boundaries. Biomimetics would therefore be limited to the
methodological aspects of bio-inspiration; bionics would define a discipline which seeks to emulate
bioogy through mechanical means; biomimicry would be a philosophy which involves the bio-
inspiration part related to sustainability. Following these statements, the article tackled how bio-
inspiration can be supported by existing problem-solving tools and processes. A general process for bio-
inspiration has been logically extrapolated from literature analysis coupled with several case studies,
and it has been compared with a classical problem-solving process. This analogy allows a generalization
on the use of problem-solving tools to support biomimetics. Using a similarity with the TRIZ way of
thinking, a direct correspondence with TRIZ tools has been presented. Each phase of the proposed
process has been classified according to the type of tool that is needed: “abstracting tool”, “transferring
tool”, “implementation tool” and “evaluation tool”. For the two first class, an ideal set of features has
The analysis detailed in the article could be extended to other TRIZ and non-TRIZ tool, especially to
identify tools that could fulfill “application” and “evaluation” needs that tools mentioned in the article
don’t seem to address. The article focuses on the problem driven biomimetic method, the same work
could be performed with the solution driven method.The addition of a framework aiming at quantifying
synergy between tools would be a great improvement. That framework would allow designers to
identify the number of seqsuential tools needed to fulfill a single step. In the end the work described in
this article could also be used as a template to compare qualitively existing biomimetics tools but also
methods, with methods being an assembly of tools. It could be a way to compare what means are used
and what are their goals. On the bottom line, it could lead to identify biomimetics methodological gaps.
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Pierre-Emmanuel Fayemi Ph.D Student
Arts et Métiers ParisTech, LCPI Active Innovation Management SARL
151, Boulevard de l’Hôpital 7, Rue de la Croix Martre
75013 Paris, France 91873 Palaiseau, France
+ 33 (6) 95 45 94 49