Learning from Nature Fuels Aerospace Innovation

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

Imagine a trans-Atlantic flight in the future: you’re sitting on seats whose fabrics resist dirt, the way lotus flowers remain clean and dry in a wet and dirty environment. The plane’s exterior is covered with tiny ridges, like sharkskin, which reduce drag. The plane is part of a scheduled V-formation, which saves fuel.

Icarus donned man-made wings in Greek mythology. Leonardo DaVinci drew flying machines. “In the 21st century, we’re not just trying to emulate bird-flight, but trying to understand how birds are so successful,” says Norman Wood, an expert on aerodynamics and flow control at Airbus.

Flying bee

Imitating nature has a name: biomimicry. It has three aspects, Dr. Wood explains.

First is nature as a mentor. We observe how living things succeed and understand what they’re doing. “It’s the art of the possible,” Dr. Wood says. “If we want aerospace vehicles to improve, we can say, ‘Insects can do it—so why can’t we?’”

Second is nature as a model. “We can ask, ‘How do insects fly—and can we transfer their approach into aerospace vehicles?” he says.

Third is nature as a measure. Simple calculations show that bees shouldn’t be able to fly and yet they are extremely successful. “Using the techniques bees use to achieve flight, we can measure how successful we could be ultimately—and how much further we could take a technology if we were to be as efficient as nature,” Dr. Wood says.

Nature by definition is successful,” he says. “So it’s an extremely good benchmark. We’re now moving into a deeper investigation, known as biomimicry, understanding the details of what nature can achieve and using that to fuel our innovation.”

Nature by definition is successful Tweet: “Nature by definition is successful” – @Airbus learns from nature to fuel innovation: http://ctt.ec/f425O+ via @Dassault3DS #biomimicry”

Take sharkskin, which is covered with rough, dermal denticles (hard, tooth-like scales) that decrease drag. Transferring that technology on to aircraft would cut fuel-consumption and thus reduce emissions.

Shark skin

Airbus has developed an aerospace surface with “riblets” that resemble shark skin.

Small patches of sharkskin-like material are currently undergoing tests on Airbus aircraft in commercial service in Europe, to see how it stands up to rain, hail, cleaning, ground contamination and other challenges.

Birds are an obvious model for aerospace biomimicry. Hawks survive thanks to their ability to execute extreme maneuvers in woodlands, or over cliffs, in order to catch their prey. They do it by maneuvering at or very near to their “maximum lift” condition. For aircraft, maximum lift is the point at which they can no longer stay in straight and level flight and stall, experiencing a sudden decline in lift.


Pilots, aircraft owners and makers are legally required to maintain a safety margin from that condition occurring.

Many birds fly near maximum lift by using feathers on the top of their wings to detect when the airflow over the wings reaches that condition. The bird has evolved a nervous system that enables it to quickly modify its wing shape to manage the flow near maximum lift to maintain safe flight and maximum performance.

Airbus is looking at how to use surfaces on the wing to replicate the control demonstrated by birds.

Can we react quickly enough to define how we can make small changes to the wing and not go beyond a safe condition?” says Dr. Wood. “Our aspiration would be that we create an aircraft in the future that has its own nervous system. A bird doesn’t think, ‘oh, I’m at maximum lift and I have to do this.’ It makes the change automatically.”

The result could allow lower approach and takeoff speeds, as well as lighter wings, saving weight and therefore fuel.

Not all biomimicry involves new technology. Migrating birds fly in V-shaped formations partly because birds behind the leader can save a lot of energy, by flying in its wake.

Geese in flight

Transferring that to aerospace was assumed to require that aircraft fly close together, presenting traffic control, piloting and safety concerns. However, “as we get more understanding as to how and why birds do it, we find that the flapping of their wings destabilizes the wake behind them. So they have to fly close together to gain benefit.”

Aircraft get thrust from engines, not from flapping their wings, so the wake is not so chaotic. “We have the luxury of having fixed-wing aircraft, a structure that allows the benefit to persist, sometimes for many miles downstream, to trailing aircraft,” he says.

NASA recently demonstrated a 5% to 10% fuel saving by flying aircraft in formation up to a kilometer apart. Such a gap eliminates many of the issues of having commercial aircraft flying close together.

Over 400 commercial flights cross the North Atlantic in each direction every day. If even half were arranged into formations, “the impact on fuel-burn on those routes could be significant,” Dr. Wood says. “With no change to aircraft, we can achieve fuel savings. It’s one example where we can potentially exceed the benefits produced by nature.”

For more from Catherine, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join The Future Realities discussion.

How 3D Printing Is a Revolutionary Sustainable Innovation

By Asheen
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3D printingAs a sustainable innovation leader at a technology company, I’m often asked about the implications of recent advances on sustainable innovation. In this article I’ll highlight the potential of 3D printing to revolutionize sustainable innovation.

Three-dimensional printing — or more specifically, additive manufacturing, the term generally used to mean commercial-scale production using 3D printing technologies — is a concept that deserves its geek fandom. But I’d wager that few people have appreciated its revolutionary implications as a sustainable technology. Philosophically, 3D printing is the first technology that has the potential to enable a more biomimetic production model by aligning with one of nature’s fundamental tenets: the tendency to manufacture locally. (These and other deep design principles from nature are collectively known as the practice of biomimicry.)

Why Additive Manufacturing is a Shift

To understand why, consider the difference between how an object is traditionally manufactured and how one is produced additively. Traditional manufacturing methods focus on milling a starting blank — that is, removing material until you’ve achieved the desired shape — or injecting material into a mold. Both types of processes rely on expensive, high-throughput machinery to achieve high economies of scale that minimize costly raw material waste, so such manufacturing is generally performed at a company’s main production facility and then shipped around the world. In an additively manufactured product, in contrast, the product is printed layer by layer, with each cross section stacked on top of the one below it. Since this operation can be performed without huge, high-throughput machinery, it can be performed at hundreds or thousands of remote locations — or millions, if you consider the potential of a 3D printer in every household — with near-zero waste.

This hints at a very interesting shift for commercial product makers: they can focus on designing the best product as the source of their intellectual capital, rather than on how the design can be cheaply manufactured. Imagine, for example, if we could purchase the 3D model of an object we wanted to buy, rather than the object itself, and then download and print it in our home 3D printer. By buying this design from an “app store” of 3D objects rather than a brick-and-mortar shop, and printing it ourselves, we’ve completely eliminated all of the waste of traditional manufacture, as well as 100% of the energy and material normally consumed in transportation and packaging — while enjoying a more custom-tailored and convenient shopping experience.

3D Printing Materials

Sustainable Manufacturing

It’s also worth highlighting the materials that are typically used in a 3D printer — surprisingly, here too we can find a sustainability story. The most common materials used for the printing of plastic parts are acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS) and polylactic acid (PLA). Both are thermoplastics; that is, they become soft and moldable when they’re heated, and return to a more solid state when they’re cooled. ABS is far from environmentally friendly, but PLA is actually a sugar-derived polymer, so it can be made from plants; most commonly, it’s made from corn. (If you’ve ever drunk from a clear plastic cup or used a plastic fork marked “compostable” or “made from corn”, that was PLA.) Provided that we use ecologically sound agricultural practices, we could sustainably grow the feedstock for all of our 3D-printed objects!

The other beautiful thing about thermoplastics is that they can be re-melted and reshaped into new objects several times (though not infinitely, as their structure will eventually depolymerize). That means that when you’re ready to change your toy truck into a toy airplane, you could, in theory, toss it back into the 3D printer to be reshaped into the new object. This gets to one of the biggest sustainability challenges with plastic products today: their end-of-life treatment. Putting plastics into curbside recycling bins seems like an environmentally sound idea (and it’s still better than throwing them into a landfill), but once they’re trucked, sorted, cleaned, and usually commingled with lower-value resins, there’s usually not much economic margin to squeeze out of these recycled plastics — one reason why their rates of recycling are so low. In contrast, putting your pure PLA back into your 3D printer eliminates this whole recycling chain — so we can add “end-of-life impacts” along with transportation and manufacturing waste to our list of eliminated life cycle impacts.

Metals can also be made using an additive manufacturing practice called selective laser sintering (SLS), although these “printers” are much higher-end. Once these become suitable for casual use, it opens up a whole new category of objects that can be built. Although in theory metal is infinitely recyclable (its simpler crystalline structure does not degrade with re-melting), the grinding steps needed to reprocess the used metal into powder suitable for sintering would require a lot more equipment and energy, and would likely prohibit the recycling of 3D-printed metal objects in the same printer — even a direct SLS printer (which uses a single material powder).

At the Doorstep of Future Usages

True radical innovation occurs not from new technologies, but when those new technologies enable newly possible business models. Take, for example, the cool modular mobile phone concept called Phonebloks. Imagine that you want that new, higher-megapixel cell camera block that they refer to… so you just buy and download the new block, toss your old one back in the printer, and print up the new model in PLA with a metal layer with the electronics sintered on — all powered by the solar panels on your roof. Now, we’re starting to approach the manufacturing process used sustainably by nature over the last 3.8 billion years. And someday; your house?

Asheen PhanseyAsheen PHANSEY is Head of the Sustainable Innovation Lab at Dassault Systèmes

Executive Perspective: Dassault Systèmes’ Philosophy for Sustainability

By Aurelien
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Thomson Reuters Bernard Charlès Sustainability interviewDassault Systèmes was recently named number 5 in the Corporate Knights top 100 most sustainable companies.  At the center of this achievement is Bernard Charlès, CEO and President since September, 1995, and at the core of Mr. Charlès’ business is a philosophy on what it means to be sustainable.  In his words:  “Imagining sustainable innovations capable of harmonizing product, nature and life is the only way to progress for us, for our customers, and for society at large.”  We sat down with Mr. Charlès to unpack this concept-rich statement, and to try to understand how this vision helps Dassault Systèmes succeed as a business.

Thomson Reuters’ Sustainability: I’d like to start at the beginning, with the concept of “imagining”.  Is that a core part of the Dassault Systèmes’ culture?  Why does it matter for sustainability?

Mr. Charlès: We start with “imagining” because sustainability is about freedom of thought.  It’s about feeling comfortable to move beyond current assumptions around how much energy or raw material or water it takes to make something.  I want my co-workers to feel empowered, even mandated, to look beyond what they have traditionally considered possible, and let go of their imaginations.  I want them to feel they are a part of an important project to make things better, and a first step in that project is discovering their own freedom to think and explore.  From that realization comes innovation, which is the next step, “imagining sustainable innovations”.

TR’s Sustainability: Following from that , what does it mean for innovation “to harmonize with product, nature and life”?

Mr. Charlès: Part of what makes this statement perhaps a bit difficult is that it comes from a concept inspired by my experience of Japanese art.  At its core, its about finding a harmony across the elements of experience which matter most.  It’s about the preservation of things.  For Dassault Systèmes, that means product, nature, and life.  It’s about starting with a product, either existing or imagined, and  then thinking about it from these other points of view.  A product exists within nature, its components come from nature, and it will likely, eventually, decompose back into the natural world.  How much a part of the natural world is it?  How much does creating it, using it, and disposing of it distort or damage the natural world around it?  How much energy does it require across this entire life cycle?  We try to develop solutions to help our customers explore these questions so that they can make the most informed, sustainable decisions possible.

TR’s Sustainability: Is Nature different than Life?

Mr. Charles: In one sense nature is a part of life.  But how I mean this in the vision for Dassault Systèmes is that harmonizing with nature is mimicking it, in the sense that what we and our customers create as product borrows from the design wisdom of nature.  Nature knows how to design itself so that it doesn’t degrade its own life cycles.  We can learn so much from closely examining the structure and process of natural things.  Indeed, we can learn so much just by spending time in natural settings and seeing, listening, hearing and paying attention to what is around us.  And so if Nature is the design and process from which we can learn, “Life” in this context is about putting all that in motion.  We learn from natural design and process, and then we live it!  We build it into our workflow.  We build it into our way of being and doing business.  In this sense then, we harmonize with nature and life.

TR’s Sustainability: Could you please give an example of how this happens at Dassault Systèmes?

Mr. Charlès: Certainly.  We have recently decided to invest 350 million dollars in helping mining companies better understand the impact of their operations.  These are tools which will assist with significantly reducing the environmental impact involved with the extraction of natural resources.  This is a necessary industry, and its an environmentally destructive process to extract needed minerals.  By developing this tool set, we can create a solution where one is most needed, and where it can make the most impact on reducing the amount of land, water and infrastructure required to mine natural resources.   This kind of tool will help some in this industry, who choose to, to see a better way of doing things.   And seeing and experiencing is the beginning of understanding and choosing a more sustainable way of doing business. We want to help the world tackle sustainability challenges through Experience – which we call 3DEXPERIENCE. 3D universes generated by visualization tools are the most powerful vehicle for creating the future.

TR’s Sustainability: You then go on to connect this concept of harmony to “progress for us, for our customers, and for society at large.”  Why is it critical to success for business today? and for society at large?

Mr. Charlès: We as a society, and that includes our customers of course, are placing steadily increasing demands on a living planet with finite capacity to sustain itself and us along with it.  We take great risk in the medium and long term if we lose site of this reality.  And this is not always the easiest way to do business.  I’ve passed on many opportunities which would have grown my business more quickly in the short term, but would have created too much risk, been to far out of harmony, in the long term.  At the same time, I like to imagine, to experiment with projects and ideas which may seem unlikely to pay off in the short term, but if successful, will be transformative for us and our customers and hopefully society in the longer term.  So to answer the question, the concept of harmony becomes increasingly important as we put more and more pressure on the fragile systems we all depend on for living.   I believe that if we provide this kind of leadership, we can create a much more sustainable and successful business, costumer and society.  And if we fail, I want to know we had the courage to imagine solutions which could have helped, and that we did what we could to make these solutions a reality.

TR’s Sustainability: I’m now imagining a world in which Dassault Systèmes helps connect a diverse group of innovators, be they in the financial, NGO, academic and industrial communities looking for sustainable solutions?  Is this part of your vision?

Mr. Charlès: I think we can really help provide connective tissue and technological insight for these communities.  With 3D experiences or “universes”, we can help visualize solutions, from which new insight can emerge.  Also,  we may be able to help consumers understand the real cost, from a sustainability perspective,  of what they are buying.  And by consumers, I mean our customers, the consuming public, the investment community, and many other key decision-makers who help determine the viability and quality of our society as a whole.

TR’s Sustainability: Finally, what kind of effect does your leadership and this philosophy have on employees at Dassault Systèmes?

Mr. Charlès: Well, I hope, and I think I see every day, that our employees feel like they are a part of a project which is larger than themselves and even Dassault Systèmes.  I want to be an example of the kind of sustainable risk and entrepreneurship which can make us all successful, and I feel like the employees at Dassault Systèmes can find energy and freedom and creativity in this way of doing business.  Dassault Systemes is not really just a place to work, it’s a place to be impactful.  A place to create meaningful change in the world.  That can be a pretty powerful recruitment and retention tool!

Note: Thomson Reuters Sustainability’s Managing Editor conducted this interview, and can be contacted at timothy.nixon@thomsonreuters.com.

Courtesy of Thomson Reuters.


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