Bionics - the technical 'imitation' of material properties, designs and modes of operation from nature - is still relatively new as a scientific discipline. Nevertheless, thanks to the combination of biology and technology, there are already important advances to report in the field of automation - and that is precisely what makes this topic of the future so exciting.

No matter how much effort you put in and how much time you take: When it comes to getting work done, mobility and transportation issues, and even safety and security, nature always seems to be one step ahead of technology. Nature solves these problems more efficiently, more effectively - and somehow more effortlessly.

The wild and nimble flight of the swallow, the extremely useful and versatile tentacles of an octopus, the agility and speed of a seal in the water, the protective properties of many plants - most living creatures are so good at their job that we humans could take a leaf out of their book. And that's what we do: Of course, we at LEWA Attendorn are not the first to notice Mother Nature's skills - and that's precisely why the field of bionics, the combination of biology and technology, exists.

What is bionics already doing today?

Already today (and for quite some time), bionics can do a lot. Many everyday products take nature as their model:

  • Particularly well known: The water-repellent lotus effect of some surfaces was - of course - inspired in name and function by the lotus plant.
  • Many particularly stable high-tech fabrics take the especially tear-resistant silk of caterpillars and spiders as their model.
  • The Velcro fastener has its mode of operation from the burdock.
  • Nanostructures for adhesive-free adhesion function similarly to the feet of geckos.
  • Some solar panels placed in the desert remove deposited sand on their own via special grooves, just like many desert dwellers that burrow into the sand. For example, the apothecary skink, also called sandfish.

In a study, the automobile manufacturer Mercedes-Benz developed a bionic vehicle (2005) with a Cd value of 0.19, which is sensational even by today's standards (cf. Golf VII: Cd 0.27).

  • Design inspiration from the boxfish ensured the car's particularly aerodynamic shape.
  • Lightweight optimization with the SKO process modeled on bone.
  • Thanks to the CAO process, the stress peaks of the design proposal were removed from the SKO process.
  • The combination of both processes resulted in a strong, yet lightweight frame.

Ryan Somma, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

What can bionics do in the field of automation?

In general, bionics is not only about solving new problems, but also - and perhaps above all - about optimizing existing solutions. In the field of automation, too, bionics can optimize many things in the coming years, above all the speeds, energy efficiency, flexibility and safety of existing systems.

Higher speeds thanks to perfected insert weights

Some of our solutions at LEWA Attendorn are already close to the theoretically possible optimum weight. For example, our specially developed gripper bodies and gripper arms have been calculated and optimized using the finite element method so that they have a very low dead weight and thus allow high speeds.

However, even the FEM method has its limits - and it is precisely these limits that bionics may be able to break through. For example, diatoms, the main component of phytoplankton in our oceans, were the inspiration for the foundations and support structures of offshore wind turbines off the German coast. Maximum stability and speed with minimum use of materials is also an extremely important factor in the tools of automated machines and plants.

Flexible production with lower quantities and more variants

The automotive industry in particular is currently undergoing a profound transformation, which is manifesting itself in very different ways. We are not just talking about the switch from combustion vehicles to electric cars. We are also seeing a change in the structure of the product portfolio: the trend is away from offering many different models and toward fewer models - but with more different equipment variants.

Back in 2017, Ralf Bechmann of the auditing firm Ernst & Young predicted that the entire production method of the automotive industry would change with the triumph of automation: "In the next few years, we will see a move away from line assembly in the automotive industry toward modular assembly," Bechmann told Wirtschaftswoche at the time. "In concrete terms, this means, for example, that every location of an automotive group will be able to produce every vehicle in the future, not just individual model series and derived variants."

Flexible manufacturing is therefore one of the most important topics in the automotive industry of the future. This also means that changeover times for machines and systems will become an even greater brake on productivity than they already are today. This is where discoveries from the field of bionics come in: For example, two grippers from the German automation company Festo take models from nature.

The FlexShapeGripper is a gripper modeled on the way a chameleon's tongue works. A handling system guides the bionic gripper over an object, the gripper deflates its upper pressure chamber filled with compressed air, whereupon the second chamber, permanently filled with water, pulls inward. The handling robot guides the gripper with its flexible outer shape further and further over the object until a form closure with negative pressure is created - which enables the gripper to safely pick up and move very different component geometries.

The TentacleGripper from the same company, on the other hand, takes a marine creature as its model: the bionic gripper looks and functions like the tentacles of an octopus. The gripper is probably not quite as versatile as the chameleon gripper in terms of component geometries, but it works with a combination of frictional connection and vacuum, which gives the gripper not only its flexibility but also improved safety at the interface between man and machine. Keyword: Cobots.

Cobots: More safety in handling collaborative robots

The term cobots refers to collaborative industrial robots that perform their work together with humans in the production process without the need for humans to be separated from the robot by a protective device.

In order to be able to ensure the necessary safety for humans at all times when working with a robot, there are approaches such as the tentacle gripper described above. However, this is not the only safety-relevant bionic approach. Several companies are working on industrial robots whose mode of operation is based on the muscles of mammals or even on the human arm: As with human muscles, bionic industrial robots have extensors and flexors, agonists and antagonists for the individual joints. The drive pairs are based on chambers filled with compressed air. These not only enable the robot to make particularly precise movements, but also adjustable force potentials and degrees of stiffening. The individual degrees of stiffening make it possible for the robot to automatically yield in the event of a collision with an employee, thus reducing the risk of injury to a minimum. Employees can therefore stay in the same cell as the working robot without any problems - making cooperation between humans and robots not only efficient, but also safer.


Conclusion

Things will remain exciting in the future! The findings and inventions from bionics have been helping to shape our everyday lives for some time now - and their influences can also already be seen in the field of automated manufacturing. Because bionics as a scientific discipline is still quite young, it can be assumed that the number of innovations in this field will continue to increase in the coming years - with clearly perceptible effects on productivity, profitability, efficiency and safety.

LEWA Attendorn is helping to get these innovations off the ground: With continuous innovation work on our automation solutions, we ensure that bionic structures can also be used in automated series production. After all, industry and production are constantly on the move - and LEWA Attendorn keeps pace.

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