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INNOVATE

Stealing Design Ideas From Mother Nature
 

How do you build a printer so that the ink doesn't dry up? Researchers find inspiration for this and other design problems in unlikely places.

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It's not often that someone comes up with a brand new idea. More often than not, entrepreneurs look around to see how other people do things and steal a few pointers. There's no shame in that. In fact, the next time you're really stumped by a design problem, try stealing from the most elegant problem solver of all: Mother Nature. 

Finding inspiration from how the natural world has managed to engineer through millions of Darwinian years is called biomimicry, and it can offer great insights into commercial product problems that have to be solved in a matter of months.

What the Eye Teaches Us About Printers

One great recent example is what University of Missouri researcher Jae Wan Kwon did when trying to invent a way to prevent ink jet nozzles from clogging. Dried ink can cover the nozzles, forcing the user to run a cleaning cycle that only wastes ink.

Kwon thought of how the human eye can remain open without drying because glands secrete a film of oil that the eyelids spread. The oil helps seal in tears, preventing the eye from drying.

He thought that a film of silicon oil could do the same thing for an ink nozzle. Because the nozzle area is so small, mechanical methods of spreading it weren't practical. So Kwon uses an electric field.

More Borrowed Ideas

Biomimicry isn't a new concept. Velcro is an example of a product that came from research investigating the natural world. In that case, a Swiss engineer looked under the microscope at the burrs from weeds sticking to his dog's fur and saw the hook-and-loop mechanism in action.

Nature has been the inspiration for materials that can heal themselves, too. When cut, these materials ooze a resin that forms a scab, much as platelets do for the human body when skin is cut. Qualcomm's Mirasol displays for mobile devices imitate butterfly wings to deliver bright colors, even when the ambient light would wash out conventional displays. Silk worm research may have revealed ways to store vaccines without refrigeration. Termite mound construction has shown how to build structures that stay cool without air conditioning--even in Africa.

So, the next time you're stuck on how to create or improve your product, take a break and go for a walk in the woods. Not only will you clear your mind, but you may find that nature hands you the answer you were looking for.

Last updated: Jul 18, 2012

ERIK SHERMAN's work has appeared in such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times Magazine, and Fortune. He also blogs for CBS MoneyWatch.
@ErikSherman




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