Biomimicry in Intralogistics

Blattschneiderameisen“Biomimicry is based on 4 billion years of evolution and therefore superior to human inventions.” Simply put, this is the opinion of those in favour of biomimicry solutions.

So what is actually behind this buzz word, to which several research institutions dedicated themselves and that also gets mentioned in relation to logistics solutions? Biomimicry is the application of solutions and principles from nature in technology. Products that use the lotus effect are probably the most popular example. This effect protects the surfaces of these products and is modelled after the lotus plant. Lotus leaves have a water-repellent surface that makes water roll off, together with dust and dirt. Scientists analysed this feature and copied it in their labs.

But biomimicry has been around for much longer. The well-known hook-and-loop fastener is also copied from nature – from a group of plants called burdock. In 1951, the Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral had this idea patented.

What does this have to do with intralogistics? Well, distribution centres for example are full of complex and mostly parallel processes. For the outside observer, this sometimes resembles an ant colony. And that is where biomimicry copied the concept of swarm intelligence – from the organisational structure of ants. A single ant has a very limited range of behaviour. But when working as a self-organising cooperation, the ant colony as a whole is able to act surprisingly goal-oriented.

When transferred into the realm of intralogistics, this concepts means that the multitude of orders and tasks within a distribution centre is carried out by several autonomous, machines working in parallel. Just like the individuals in a swarm, these machines would communicate with one another and work on tasks together. The difference to a conventional warehouse management system would be that the machines fulfil their tasks without central supervision, similar to an ant colony or a termite mound. At present, this concept still requires quite a lot of research, but preliminary results seem promising.

KrakeAnother approach tries to copy certain capabilities from humans and other advanced animals. The human hand in particular is almost indispensable in many areas of logistics. Biomimicry has lead to robot grippers mimicking the features of a human hand. Then again, there are robots, whose gripping mechanism is based on the suction cups of krakens. And several computer algorithms for machine vision are also derived from nature.

Does that mean that the distribution centre of the future will be populated by autonomous robots with “natural” vision and grippers?

Possibly.

But we certainly shouldn’t underestimate the achievements of classic engineering. Let me give you an example, with a comparison again taken from nature.

When ranking different species of terrestrial animals with regard to the efficiency of their locomotion, humans only make the upper midrange. At the bottom of the list, with a poor relation between applied energy and covered distance, we would find snakes, for example. Kangaroos are at the top of the list – their leaping makes them very efficient at high speeds. They are followed by animals commonly known for their running abilities, such as horses and wolves, which are also quite economic. And somewhere in between, there’s homo sapiens. But once a human sits on a bicycle, he becomes by far the most energy-efficient of all. And even after 4 billion years of evolution, nature has not provided us with a bicycle or anything similar.

Biomimicry will surely contribute valuable impulses for the development of intralogistics. Nevertheless engineers won’t stop looking for inspiration in other areas as well.

About Dr. Max Winkler

Dr. Max Winkler is the VP Solutions & Technology of SSI SCHAEFER PEEM, the leading supplier for logistics equipment and automation, specialized in order picking applications. He received a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from the University in Hannover, Germany, and has more than 13 years of experience in material handling systems across various industries. He started in the material handling industry at Mannesmann Dematic in Germany. Gaining experience in areas such as product design, manufacturing, QM and strategic business planning then led to the position of Operations Manager at Dematic's main European site in Offenbach, Germany. In 2003 Mr. Winkler became the Project Director for the baggage handling system of the extension of Dubai airport, with over 70 km of conveyors still the world largest baggage handling system. In 2006 he joined SSI Schäfer in Graz, Austria to manage product design and manufacturing. Since 2010 he coordinates the solutions and R&D activities within the global SSI Schäfer Automation group.
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