How Manufacturers can Learn from Mother Nature

From management strategies and competitive tactics to designs and the use of materials, nature can offer some valuable lessons for manufacturers.

Many new things like computing powers, imaging, 3D printing, and materials are rooted in nature. Much like animals and foliage must continuously evolve to survive changing conditions, manufacturers must evolve to solve problems in the market and to survive in an increasingly competitive landscape.

When Airbus Group SE and Autodesk sought to re-engineer a divider for jetliner cabins, they found inspiration in slime mold and animal bones. Designers eventually created a complex lattice structure based on animal bones. With 60,000 tiny metal bars, they were able to create a lighter 3D printed version of a partition mounted to a curved cabin wall that supports fold-down seats for flight attendants.

“It turned out it was a good way to solve the problem, even if you couldn’t care less about biology.

“It turned out it was a good way to solve the problem, even if you couldn’t care less about biology,” said Autodesk team leader David Benjamin.

Engineers are using these technologies to develop bionics, or biomimetics, which is derived from the Greek word “mimicking life.” The growing applications of 3D printing are allowing a number of products to be constructed much the way trees and bones grow, cell by cell with minimal waste.

As far back as the Wright Brothers’ experimental planes in the early 1900s, humans have looked to Mother Nature for inspiration and guidance. Recycling and many sustainability efforts used by manufacturers are directly taken from a page from nature. Companies recycle and reuse plastics and metals much like nature recycles dead leaves and matter to fertilize new growth.

Now the natural inspiration is taking a stronger hold in manufacturing. Researchers are also designing new photovoltaic systems that harvest energy more effectively like leaves do. And Julia Schmidt-Petersen, an engineer with 3D metal printing pioneer EOS GmbH, recently presented a design for an airplane-cooling valve modeled on shark gills. Peterson, who also studies marine biology, said “growing—in nature—is an additive process.”

Organizations are even learning strategy and management tactics from Mother Nature. Jill Cohen, a business strategist and consultant in Philadelphia, Pa., said that much like crops grow best in different landscapes, organizational structures must be tailored to achieve business goals. Businesses also need to know when to plant and when to “prune” like the way trees drop dead branches and leaves.

“In the same way, there are times when the best plan for the health and productivity of the business is to ‘cut’ something away,” said Cohen.

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Craig Guillot
Craig Guillot is a business writer based in New Orleans, La. His work has appeared in Wall Street Journal, Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com and CNBC.com. You can read more about his work at www.craigdguillot.com.

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