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Biomimicry in engineering

The Shinkansen bullet train blasts from a tunnel in Japan as smoothly as a kingfisher bird pierces the surface of a lake to capture its piscine prey — barely a sound is heard. 

Japanese engineers modeled the nose of the bullet train like the beak of a kingfisher bird. For both the train and the bird change their medium and with the same explosive speed: the train exits the low density air of a tunnel into the surrounding high pressure atmosphere as the kinfisher dives into the higher density of water.  These design achievements — man's and nature's — appear to justify research in the emerging discipline of biomimicry.  But is the praise premature?

Biomimicry is the science and art of emulating nature's biological ideas to solve human problems. After all, nature's laboratory has been optimizing how it uses resources for millions of years.  There is no doubt about the power of the emerging discipline in fields like agriculture and medicine.  But I suggest an alternative pedagogical justification for biomimicry in engineering.

The analysis of the Shinkansen is complex: it is a multi-phase (solid/fluid interaction) non-linear (shock waves) problem.  Such analyses requires massively parallel computers.   I have yet to see records of such design planning with foresight. I doubt engineers conducted an analysis of kingfisher birds; they simply designed the shape on inspiration, and analysis was a later consideration.

This does not mean we should neglect biomimicry.  Rather, just the opposite.  I see its role — again, I am speaking only of mechanics (and only for the immediate future) — as a kind of salvage operation in the undergraduate mechanical design curriculum. There will always be students of engineering design who, on graduating, have mathematical and analytical deficiencies.  Yet, many of those students go on to great careers, guided by their intuition.  So why not use biomimicry principles to inspire those student engineers who are unable to express their intuitive understanding of mechanics with math? 

This essay calls for learning modules in biomimicry specifically for mechanical, civil and aerospace engineers.  There should be a data base that can be consulted for inspiration when the math exceeds the back of an envelope.

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