Part 2: Companies using biomimicry to their advantage
The three companies that were interviewed for this report in a questionnaire format are Balance Inc., Sharklet Technologies Inc., and PAX Scientific Inc. René Polin, president and founder of Balance, was the first contact found for this report. René has worked on hundreds of successfully marketed products as well as multiple utility and design patents (Balance Inc., 2015). His recent 2015 TEDx talk in Cleveland was actually the inspiration for this report (TEDx Talks, 2015). In his speech, titled “From spider webs to elevators: leveraging biomimicry,” he and biomimicry PhD candidate Daphne Fecheyr talk about the conceptual spider-web inspired elevator lift design that they created (TEDx Talks, 2015). While René and his design team only collaborated with Daphne–the biomimicry expert–on a conceptual product for a fictitious project, René still brings a necessary and interesting perspective to this report. It would be unbalanced if only companies who have had previous success with a marketable biomimicry product were interviewed.
Sharklet Technologies Inc. was the second company reached out to. According to their website, this firm has “the world’s first technology to inhibit bacterial growth through pattern alone” (Sharklet Inc., 2015). The micropattern they use on their adhesive film mimics the shape and pattern of the dermal denticles seen on sharkskin. They decided to copy this diamond-like micropattern observed on sharkskin because it inhibits bacteria from attaching, colonizing and forming biofilms. Because their product contains no toxic additives or chemicals, and uses no antibiotics or antimicrobials, it is seen in the medical-device world as a cleaner way to reduce surface bacteria. Since environmental contamination contributes to an estimated 20-40% of all hospital acquired infections, and there are many multidrug resistant organisms, a multipronged approach to controlling infection is necessary (Mann et. al, 2014). As Bryce Stevenson, Project Manager at Sharklet, has explained, their adhesive film can act as a supplementary technology to fill in the gaps between existing technologies like cleaners and bleaches.
Finally, PAX Scientific Inc., a leader in the biomimcry world, and created by the visionary Jay Harman, was contacted for this report. Taken from their website, “PAX Scientific is an engineering research and development firm that specializes in finding innovative, streamlined solutions for fluid-related industrial problems” (PAX Scientific). Since its inception, the company has grown so large that it now supports four subsidiaries: PAX Fan, PAX Water Technologies, PAX Mixer, and PAX Pure. While many aspects of biomimcry are incorporated into PAX Scientific’s products, the design they seem to be most known for is their PAX Water Mixer and its “Lily” impeller. PAX Water claims to have the industry’s most powerful and efficient mixing system, which, according to their site, is “able to circulate 10 million gallons with the same energy footprint as three 100-watt light bulbs” (PAX Water Technologies). This “Lily” impeller design was inspired by the geometries that natural whirlpools create. Through the use of 3D printing, they were able to mimic these geometries to create a streamlined, very high efficiency flow (The Fermanian Business & Economic Institute, 2014). Francesca Bertone, Chief Operating Officer at PAX Scientific, was kind enough to represent the company by filling out a questionnaire.
Questionnaires and discussion
The questionnaires used for this report were designed to be fairly similar to one another, with each one incorporating the same general themes in a 10-question format. These themes include trust in the use of biomimicry or a biomimicry expert to create a marketable product, the environmental sustainability of biomimicry designs, and the level of importance biomimcry holds in their firms and should hold for all other companies in the future. Francesca at PAX Scientific and René at Balance Inc. filled out their questionnaires in written format, and sent back their responses through e-mail exchange. Bryce at Sharklet Inc. was interviewed over-the-phone, with his responses later transcribed into the questionnaire Word document.
When asked why biomimicry was initially used in their designs, both Francesca and Bryce had similar responses. Jay Harman, PAX Scientific’s original biomimcry expert, and naturalist at heart, had always observed that the spiraling forms found in nature seemed to be far more efficient designs than human-designed systems. Later in his career, he was able to actually apply and measure these observations to prove nature’s flow geometries reduce friction and drag in flow structures. A similar pattern of observing nature first, and then bringing those observations to the lab can be seen from Sharklet’s micropattern discovery. When asked why biomimcry and the shark-inspired pattern was initially used, Bryce said that “it was kind of discovered by accident….the product he (the materials-scientist who discovered it) was going after wasn’t even designed for this purpose.” So, both of these companies had someone out in nature, observing natural designs and their functions without any initial plans to actually create a product. René, who designed a conceptual product with the biomimicry expert Daphne, had a different story to tell. He said that a professor from the University of Akron approached him to see if he’d be interested in working with some of his biomimicry PhD fellows on a real world project. René agreed to work with one because he thought it would be a challenge for his designers to “incorporate a new problem solving tool into their arsenal.”
Each interviewee responded differently to the question regarding how much trust the design team had in either the biomimicry expert, or biomimicry in general. When asked how much trust, on a scale of 1-10, his design team had in Daphne (the biomimicry expert) initially, René said “probably a 2 out of 10.” Interestingly, he goes on to say “Once she got involved in the project and proved that she could go well beyond the purely conceptual in thinking, they got closer to 7 out of 10.” Francesca’s responses regarding trust in biomimicry show a more experienced perspective when compared to René’s. When asked how much other designers and employees trusted the use of biomimicry when PAX was still in its youth, she responded with: “The team had great trust in biomimicry’s ability to create better products, and that trust has not been disappointed….Trust: 10 out of 10.” Bryce at Sharklet seemed to answer a different question instead of the one regarding trust, probably due to miscommunication during the interview, so his response will not be discussed here.
All interviewees confirmed that the use of biomimicry led their product (or concept) to be more environmentally sustainable. René, who could only say so much due to the conceptual nature of his project, explained that the elastic band conveyor system would likely allow the product to be more environmentally sustainable due to the “lower part count in the bill of materials as well as the possibility of the reutilization of stored energy.” However, he makes it clear that this would have to be measured against the life-cycle impacts associated with the materials. Bryce said in the interview that products or surfaces, when combined with the Sharklet adhesive, enable a more environmentally sustainable life-cycle due to limiting the need for cleaning sprays and toxic anti-bacterial liquids. Francesca, when asked if PAX Water’s “Lily” impeller mixer is more environmentally sustainable than other similar products on the market, said, “It is far more energy efficient than comparable solutions – using 80-90% less energy than the conventional method of resolving stratification in water tanks.”
When asked if they think biomimicry experts should be incorporated into every design firm, all respondents had enthusiastic responses about the idea. René said that biomimicry experts should be used at the corporate level “as another way to increase ‘design thinking’ and provide much needed innovation.” After acknowledging the importance of biomimicry experts in firms, Bryce said “instead of dumping resources into trying to figure it out from scratch, we can just look at what’s already been done [in nature] and see why it works and if we can apply it towards ourselves.” Francesca believes biomimicry experts should be used in every design firm, and on a scale of 1-10 (10 being absolutely necessary), rated the importance of biomimicry to create products that are benign to the environment a resounding 10. For this same rating of importance, Bryce couldn’t put a number on it, but still said “pretty high.” When René was asked to give this rating of importance, he gave a 5 out of 10. His reason for the neutral rating is seen in his response: “The evidence of the genius of nature and its ability to thrive and adapt is enough to give businesses a reason to try this, but the field is still very young.”
All of the respondents’ answers lead to an interesting discussion surrounding biomimcry and its use in design firms to create new products. First off, it appears that biomimcry, even if used in a conceptual project like the one René and his team worked on, can supply innovative solutions that otherwise would not be accessible to a traditional firm. René and Bryce both bring up points about how biomimicry can be used to enhance design thinking and incorporate new techniques at solving a problem. René’s design team at Balance Inc. may never have thought of a passive-energy design that utilizes an elastic band conveyor system if it weren’t for the elasticity inspiration from a specific spider’s web that Daphne brought in. Bryce explains that the Sharklet adhesive micropattern would never have been used or even thought of if it weren’t for the original scientist “accidentally” discovering that a shark’s skin prevents bacterial growth. If there’s one thing absolutely certain about the use of biomimicry in product design, it is that it can open doors to out-of-the-box techniques for solving problems. Before the Sharklet technology was discovered, no one thought of using merely physical shape and form to prevent bacteria growth on surfaces. This is the type of paradigm-shifting innovation that biomimicry has the potential to harness.
It seems that from the questionnaires and responses, the use of biomimicry, whether realized by the initial discoverer or not, generally leads to a more environmentally sustainable product. Why this is so could be analyzed and discussed in future research. Is this due to nature’s keen ability to use the least amount of materials necessary for a required function? Nature cannot afford to waste energy, so are most of its designs inherently energy efficient machines? Does nature usually go for shape and form of materials to give a design a specific feature like skin that prevents bacterial growth? Answers to these questions are very important, however for this report, we are simply concerned that biomimicry does seem to supply us with more environmentally sustainable products. In Part 3, we will see how future research can measure just how environmentally sustainable a biomimcry product may be.
René and Daphne’s TEDx video: “From spider webs to elevators: leveraging biomimicry”
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