Lessons Engineers and Architects Should Learn from Nature and Topology Optimization
Shawn Wasserman posted on August 15, 2017 |

Biomimicry Marries Aesthetics and Engineering—Not Just One or the Other

The design inspiration for these pillars at the Stuttgart Airport shouldn’t stump you very long. This arboretum of branching supports is optimized with respect to a strength-to-weight ratio. (Image courtesy of Altair.)

The design inspiration for these pillars at the Stuttgart Airport shouldn’t stump you very long. This arboretum of branching supports is optimized with respect to a strength-to-weight ratio. (Image courtesy of Altair.)

Nature has had millions of years of evolution to optimize structure to best fit their environments.

The purpose of biomimicry is to learn from the way nature has optimized structures, designs and objects for maximum performance so that we can use them to create better solutions.

Considering the strength that nature gets out of lightweight materials, biomimicry can be of considerable use in the architecture engineering and construction(AEC) community.

“For many years,the design community looked at nature and tried to replicate it to copy shapes and colors, but we didn’t copy performances as we didn’t dig into those engineering aspects very well,” said Luca Frattari,global director AEC at Altair.

Frattari’s point is that biomimicry is about marrying performance and aesthetic; technology and design. It’s not about adding a cheetah print to a professional running shoe to ‘scare racing competitors’ into thinking you’re the fastest on the track.This hilariously unscientific claim was made by Nike Director David Schenoneat two separate scientific keynotes (TEDTalks and X-STEM Symposium).

Nike’s attempt to pass 1970s fashion as cutting-edge biomimicry aside, this notion supports Frattari’s claim that engineers, designers and architects need to learn how to mimic nature’s aesthetic to improve performance. Biomimicry is not about marketing adspeak; rather, it’s a tool that can open the door to performance optimization.

For instance, take topology optimization. This technology utilizes a bone growth algorithm to generate designs that maintain a product’s strength with minimal material usage.

“Topology optimization explores the way biological creatures grow,” said Frattari. “It is defined mathematically.We can use that algorithm in software to create lighter products with better performance.”

As seen with Frattari’s Pegasus concept bridge, the result isn’t just aesthetic. It’s functional and it’s optimal. One could call it the product of computer-aided engineering design (CAED).

Frattari ‘s concept walking bridge, dubbed Pegasus,is optimized using topology optimization. The marriage between nature and engineering, and design and performance, is unmistakable. This is true biomimicry. (Image courtesy of Altair.)
Frattari ‘s concept walking bridge, dubbed Pegasus,is optimized using topology optimization. The marriage between nature and engineering, and design and performance, is unmistakable. This is true biomimicry. (Image courtesy of Altair.)

Is this a topology optimized structure? No, it’s a Xenomorph Hive from Alien vs. Predator. But you had to wonder for a bit. There is a reason why science fiction continually looks to nature for architectural inspiration. Now AEC is following suit. (Image courtesy of Sega and Rebellion Developments.)

Is this a topology optimized structure? No, it’s a Xenomorph Hive from Alien vs. Predator. But you had to wonder for a bit. There is a reason why science fiction continually looks to nature for architectural inspiration. Now AEC is following suit. (Image courtesy of Sega and Rebellion Developments.)

This structure doesn’t just look organic. It also looks futuristic. Perhaps this is because we have seen designs mimic nature before, as it is a common practice in film and video games.

“There are a lot of sci-fi movies where the results and design are more organic,” noted Frattari.“In Oblivion, District 9 and Alien, the combinations between form performance and nature is very strong. There is room in the AEC industry to push this forward,” noted Frattari.

This suggests a general acceptance that nature produces optimal designs. But if that is the case, then why has it taken so long for the AEC world to adopt such designs and CAED technologies?

“The fact that this technology isn’t mainstream is because we had no intersections between the expertise,” lamented Frattari. “We were working in different rooms without talking to each other. Now that this is requested by the users and owners, it forces people to work together toward this to make a better process and product.”

Frattari works to increase the interactions between these experts so that CAED technologies like topology optimization and biomimicry can move forward. This is part of his work at Altair and at the solidThinking Converge conference.

Topology Optimization Improves the AEC Workflow

The beauty of topology optimization is that within a few minutes it generates an optimal structure based on a design space, loads (say, wind and weight) and constraints (say, anchors and connections). This lightening fast speed gives AEC practitioners a near-optimal design from which to start.

“A lot of analysis is done at the end. Now, virtually we can do a lot more analysis in the first week of design,” said Frattari. “That can help you to plan which designs wear better. Even similar designs can have catastrophically different performance when assessed for structure and wind resistance.”

By collecting a handful of output designs from the topology optimization tool, engineers can use these to guide their design exploration,which can then lead to further optimized structures.

A series of designs inspired by topology optimization. The speed with which these design ideas spawned from topology optimization tools encouraged better exploration of the design space. (Image courtesy of Altair.)
A series of designs inspired by topology optimization. The speed with which these design ideas spawned from topology optimization tools encouraged better exploration of the design space. (Image courtesy of Altair.)

“If you have three to four alternatives, you don’t always explore them all as you don’t have time. But, if you have a tool that can do this quickly, like topology optimization, then you can explore all of them and get inspiration fora new technology,” said Frattari.

So, is topology optimization a must for AEC? Not really. If you are designing a typical boxy skyscraper, then biomimicry tools like topology optimization are kind of a wasted effort. Everything you need to ensure the strength and safety of the square design is pulled from a library of parts.

However, when you are aiming to design something optimized that is unique and eye catching, then biomimicry and topology optimization tools can be invaluable.

“If you have a complex shape where there are no straight lines, then where do you start?” asked Frattari. “You don’t know what’s a column or beam or pillar. To do the structural analysis, you need a model, which is hard to do with a free form. That is where topology optimization comes in.”

So, this begs the question, does the CAED software build the building or does the AEC practitioner? This is a complex question. However,the role of the engineers and architects at this point is to provide their intuition and emotion to the design. The software helps in the exploration of the alternatives.

In other words, though the golden ratio has certainly served us well as an algorithm for aesthetics, computers are still incapable of seeing beauty. Humans are still better than machines when it comes to emotions.

“I’m not a fan of machines that build something based on stochastic analysis,” agreed Frattari.“I want to understand and lead the process.Give me alternatives so I [can] find what I like the best.I don’t know if technology will replace engineers and architects one day. I create software, so I trust the code. But I’m also an architect, and I know beauty.”

How Biomimicry Can Inspire Innovative Designs

Frattari explains that there are two main trends when it comes to biomimicry: intersection and exploration.

The intersection of beauty and structure can be seen in these corrugated supports. Much like the seashell, they maximize stiffness and strength while minimizing weight. But they also look beautiful enough to be added to a collection. (Image courtesy of Altair.)
The intersection of beauty and structure can be seen in these corrugated supports. Much like the seashell, they maximize stiffness and strength while minimizing weight. But they also look beautiful enough to be added to a collection. (Image courtesy of Altair.)

Intersection is the marriage between two ideas and practices. In the case of AEC, it’s the meeting of engineers, who want to ensure that structures don’t fall down and can be built, with architects,who want to ensure the beauty of their designs.

“They might intersect or clash,” said Frattari. “The engineer might say,‘You can’t build that.’ We want them to work together to create something that has a quality better than in the past.”

Exploration happens when a new technology is introduced. An example of this is the way 3D printing has affected CAED technology like topology optimization and biomimicry. Topology optimization isn’t exactly a new technology. Its bottleneck to adoption was that many of the designs it created couldn’t be built when the technology first arrived. This caused a clash between the design and construction of these structures.

However, with 3D printing, much of these designs can now be made.All that was needed was the intersection of expertise. The next step was to explore what was possible with the new technology so that you could understand its possibilities as it moved into its maturity.

“If a technology isn’t mature,you will use it to build something you understand well. At first, architects used 3D printing for their presentations of scale models, for instance,” said Frattari. “Now, exploration has moved 3D printing to deliver performance. You want to now produce components to be used in the industry. That pushed us to explore new materials, shapes and performances, like 3D printing of metal for parts.”

To promote exploration and intersection, solidThinking will be holding its second Converge conference on September 13, 2017.

Frattari will be speaking at the conference, where he will discuss the uses of topology optimization, the future of design, and why engineering firms need to jump onto the CAED bandwagon now or risk being left behind.

To find out more about Converge or how you can attend, follow this link.

solidThinking has sponsored this post. They have no editorial input to this post. Unless otherwise stated, all opinions are mine. —Shawn Wasserman

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