For Japan’s manufacturers, way forward is back to nature

As fierce industrial competition pushes conventional product development to its limits, Japanese companies are once again taking hints from the world’s longest research and development pipeline: evolution.

Biomimetics — the practice of modeling products on living organisms — is back in vogue. Creators of everything from construction materials to consumer appliances are searching for new design concepts beyond the confines of the laboratory, studying what birds, insects and plant life have learned over eons.

A major manufacturer’s Kanagawa Prefecture plant went modern with its parking-lot design this spring, installing a guard station faced in stylish wood-effect concrete. The carved-in pattern aside, the building’s surface is a smooth, even gray, unmarred by the holes and pits that cover many of its kind — compliments of the lotus, by way of contractor Shimizu.

Despite growing in bogs and ponds, lotus leaves remain miraculously pristine. Minute structures on the leaves’ surface limit contact with water droplets to just a few points, keeping them spherical and letting them roll right off, taking mud along with them.

Shimizu has reproduced this effect on wood, which it uses to make so-called art molds. Their surfaces repel liquid concrete just as well as water, letting it spread smoothly along the wood’s surface to form an ultrasmooth finish.

Concrete poured into a traditional mold sticks to the wooden surface, trapping air bubbles that are evident when the material dries. But with Shimizu’s art molds, “a quick knock is all it takes to bring air bubbles to the surface” and prevent them from appearing in the finished product, said Masato Tsujino of Shimizu’s Center for Construction Engineering.

Such smooth concrete is in high demand as a stylish design material. “We’ve received a quite a number of inquiries from people who want to use bare concrete,” Tsujino said.

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Evolutionary innovations are at home in consumer fields as well. Sharp released in April an electric fan that takes hints from two types of butterfly. This product has found a strong following among some consumers despite its hefty 25,000 yen ($244) price tag.

The fan is Sharp’s second incorporating a butterfly wing blade design. Its precursor included the waved wing edge seen on a species noted for its energy-efficient wing beats and habit of traveling distances of 2,000km or more. That and other features slashed energy consumption by two-thirds.

The new fan keeps those features while adding the notched, tail-like wingtip of the swallowtail butterfly. “I’ve heard the formation adds stability to the butterfly’s wing beats, as a tail stabilizes a kite,” said Masaki Ohtsuka, a leader on Sharp’s technology development team. When added to fan blades, the structure raises air flow 16% and creates a smoother airstream.

Sharp began working with biomimetics in its home appliance operations a decade ago. Ohtsuka, who was then struggling to make the company’s offerings more efficient, was inspired to model air conditioner components on albatross wings after attending a biology seminar. The tweak cut power consumption 20% over existing units.

Since then, Sharp has produced 26 different products taking hints from 22 different organisms — a vacuum cleaner compressor unit modeled on a cat’s tongue, for instance, and a washing machine agitator with a design based on a dolphin’s tail fin.

Natural selection has given organisms out in the world “clever, finely honed capabilities,” in Ohtsuka’s words. Sharp has set a team of about 10 researchers on the hunt for such features that have something to add to the company’s lineup.

Outside the lab

The biomimetics concept is not itself new — Leonardo da Vinci, after all, dreamed up flying machines inspired by birds. In more modern times, “constant attempts to match the characteristics of silk or wool” have propelled the development of Japan’s synthetic fiber industry, said Sukefumi Fukunaga, head of clothing-materials development at Teijin Frontier, a unit of Teijin.

Now, “we see companies and research organizations turning their attention to biomimetics once again,” said Takashi Masuda, chief economist at Toray Industries unit Toray Corporate Business Research. Better electron microscopes and improvements in the ability to conduct analysis using information technology have helped drive that trend. The mindset of the R&D world has played a key role as well.

With developing nations securely in the lead on cost competitiveness, companies elsewhere must innovate to remain globally relevant. The precise, component-based development Japan is known for is nearing its useful limit. Researchers have thus begun to look beyond industry to the natural world for where to go next.

The notion that Japan’s ability to create world-class technologies has dulled is well-worn at this point. But all is not lost: The key to regaining manufacturing supremacy could be close at hand, waiting to be found in the sea, the sky and the trees.

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