German automation company looks to nature for inspiration

The German industrial control and automation company Festo today discussed its adoption of principles found in nature in manufacturing.

Elias Knubben, head of corporate bionic projects at Festo, spoke at SolidWorks World 2013 of the company’s innovations through its Bionic Learning Network.

The division’s work involves “looking to nature, searching for a biological role model,” while researching technical solutions to customers’ unsolved problems. “Researching for technical solutions for problems for our customers,” often prompted innovation, said Knubben, whose group includes biologists.

“Then we discuss concepts with our customers… Nature is highly adapted to its surroundings through millions of years of evolution and there’s such a diversity of very cool solutions. So we look also in nature and get fascinated by elephant trunks or fish fins or something like this.”

SolidWorks’ director of product innovation, Rick Chin, offered that “nature is an almost infinite test tube. And it’s been doing trial and error for a few hundred million years. I would kill for a design budget like that.” 

The BLN’s work, through links with universities and institutes, has produced projects including AquaJelly, AquaPenguin and the SmartBird – demonstrated at SWW – since 2006, as well as more factory-applicable solutions such as the FinGripper.

The FinGripper, inspired by fish tailfins, is made using an additive manufacturing process involving selective laser sintering lightweight polyamide, and is used on a variety of the company’s machinery that handles delicate materials.

Festo’s SmartBird is – Knubben later admitted – industrially irrelevant but of no less interest to today’s audience.

“In 12 years of attending #sww13 I have never seen a standing ovation before,” Tweeted audience member Lou Gallo.

The SmartBird, which features a carbon fibre body, electric motor, and uses an “active articulated torsional drive unit” that allows its wings to twist as well as flap up and down, moves in a way that is modelled on the herring gull.

The SmartBird taking flight


Photo: Nick Palfrey, NZ Engineering News

Manufacturers’ Monthly is attending SolidWorks World 2013 as a guest of Dassault Systemes.

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