The role of biomimicry in furniture design

It’s not easy being green – but furniture businesses must face up to the challenge. In the fourth of an exclusive series of articles exploring the whys and hows of becoming a more eco-conscious furniture business, Richard Naylor, group sustainable development director at Hypnos, outlines the potential of applying biomimicry to the manufacturing process … 

Did you know that in 1941 a Swiss electrical engineer, George de Mistral, when taking a constitutional walk through the Swiss Alps (as you do) was inspired to develop a product that so many manufacturers in the furniture industry use today? 

During his rambling he noticed that burdock seeds clung to his woollen socks, coat and his dog, Milka! As an engineer, it naturally poked his curiosity button, and he wondered if this physical action could be turned into something useful. So, he strode purposely back to his home and began investigating. 

Under the magnified lens of a microscope, George observed that tiny hooks on the ‘burs’ were attaching themselves to the looped fabric of his knitted socks. Inspired by this nature-based solution for the dispersal of seeds, George developed a man-made process that mimicked this action, which he eventually patented in 1955. 

Refining the manufacturing process, George launch his new product in the late 1950s under his new company name, Velcro – the Velcro name itself being a lexical blend of the French words ‘velours’ (velvet) and ‘crochet’ (hook), inspired by the hook and loop action that he adapted from nature.

Essentially, nature was his muse – and in contemporary philosophical terms, this is known as ‘biomimicry’. I have to declare that this approach to the design and development of products is somewhat of a fascination for me, and hope in some small way that my editorial ramblings stimulate others to explore this approach to sustainable innovation!

Why biomimicry?

Cambridge Dictionary defines biomimicry as “the practice of making technological and industrial design copy natural processes”. Essentially, the core idea behind biomimicry is that nature has already solved the challenges that we are trying to solve today. As humanity, we have embraced modernity. We desire the latest gadgets, devices and solutions to making human life better, and have consequently built a physical world based on human inventions. 

This focused (and, some might argue, selfish or developmentally naive) approach has had catastrophic ecological consequences, which have laid waste to natural ecosystems, replacing them with fundamentally unsustainable human designs. Biomimicry is the belief that nature has the answers to some of the challenges we face from embracing modernity. Typically seen as just a design strategy, biomimicry can be so much more. 

Is it time for the revolution? In my humble opinion, yes! We can choose to engage more with the natural world and learn from its millions of years of evolution, to radically change the way we approach design.

It is certainly easy to write about theory – but how can the furniture industry engage with biomimicry interventions and use nature as a mentor? Here are five examples, showing how nature could inspire how to design products or use materials – inspired by shrimps, spiders, waterflow, bacteria and our oceans!

Wood into plastic

The University of Wisconsin-Madison have engineered a bacterium that converts lignin, a component of wood, into a material that could replace oil-based plastic. This is a low-energy consumptive process that delivers a material applicable to packaging, a polyester replacement, and fabric yarns that can break down naturally in the environment.

Ocean microorganisms to plastic

AirCarbon from Newlight Technologies uses ocean microorganisms to convert CO2 into PHB, a readily usable bioplastic. The process uses ocean microorganisms to break down excess methane-containing greenhouse gas emissions. The gases are dissolved in saltwater, and the organisms naturally produce PHB (polyhydroxybutyrate) as a by-product. 

The PHB can then be used instead of synthetic plastic in extrusion, blown film, cast film, thermoforming, fibre spinning, and injection moulding applications. The microorganisms can out-compete the production of oil-based plastics, such as polypropylene and polyethylene. If the material ends up in the ocean, it naturally degrades within a year and can be re-consumed as food by microorganisms.

Shrimp inspiration

Helicoid Technology uses an innovative helicoid design to increase strength and toughness while using less materials. The technology mimics the ‘helicoid’ structure found in the incredibly strong and lightweight mantis shrimp club (forelimb). By incorporating this design into composite materials, companies can create products with reduced weight, increased strength, increased toughness, and improved impact resistance – all while reducing material costs. The technology works seamlessly with existing manufacturing processes, allowing any composite industry to use less material while making a stronger product.

Spider fibre

Spider silk is often cited as one of the strongest biological materials in the world, and scientists have long been searching for a way to artificially synthesise this silk for human use as a textile fibre. Spintex Engineering has finally cracked the spider’s code, and has developed a solution that mimics a spider spinneret’s ability to spin fibre at room temperature without harsh chemicals, from a liquid gel. By mimicking how a spider spins silk at room temperature, Spintex creates high-performance, sustainable textiles that are 1000 times more efficient than an equivalent synthetic fibre, and water is the only by-product.

Healthy hemp

Cultivating hemp for textile fibre is an ancient practice. However, with the advent of modern agriculture and the invention of synthetic textiles, the processing required for hemp meant it could not compete economically with these alternatives. 

Renaissance Fiber has developed a degumming method based on the natural degradation of plant fibres observed in tidal streams, using far less energy than traditional hemp processing and creating hemp fibre that is more affordable and higher quality than other fibre types. At the same time, their process sequesters carbon in the effluent, which can be returned to the ocean as a natural carbon sink.

Some of the challenges we face with biomimicry intervention surround scalability, cost, access, culture and knowledge. However, in my opinion, it is certainly worth our industry exploring. The outputs should be ecologically responsible, but equally they should be good profit drivers, delivering sustainable products that provide brands with credibility and uniqueness. 

So, please consider joining the revolution, and make our industry a shining beacon of hope for people, planet and profit!

Pictured: The octopus has inspired technologies related to camouflage, suction and robotic arms (photo courtesy iStock/chang)

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