Engineers often borrow from the natural world and biological processes for their work. But there was one natural process engineers could not fathom, or rather failed to take the time to figure out. Why, or how it is that a wombat’s faecal matter is cube-shaped.
The process of copying some of nature’s principles and using them as inspiration for engineering design is called ‘biomimicry’. But how the study of wombat stools could contribute to the engineering industry has not, up until now, been asked.
Patricia Yang, a mechanical engineer, specializes in hydrodynamics in animal bodies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She spoke to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers:
“The first thing that drove me to this is that I have never seen anything this weird in biology. That was a mystery. I didn’t even believe it was true at the beginning. I Googled it and saw a lot about the cube-shaped wombat poop, but I was skeptical.”
Yang and her team embarked on a process of studying wombat’s digestive tracts. What they found was that wombats’ intestinal walls caused the formation of cube-like faeces. They are, as far as humans know, the only animal to produce cube-structured faeces.
The thinking is that engineers could design something that mimics the digestive tract and intestinal makeup of the marsupial wombat to help mould cubic structures.
“We currently have only two methods to manufacture cubes: we mould it, or we cut it. Now we have this third method. It would be a cool method to apply to the manufacturing process - how to make a cube with soft tissue instead of just moulding it.”
Whilst Yang and her team are based in the United States, this discovery is quintessentially Australian. The wombat is found in the forest-covered area of southeastern Australia. Yang explained that the intestines are responsible. Apparently the wombat faeces are in a liquid state early on in the intestine, but become firm and cube-shaped in the final 8% of the intestinal tract. She said:
“Wombat intestines have periodic stiffness, meaning stiff-soft-stiff-soft, along the circumference to form cubical faeces.”
Europe’s largest application-oriented research organization, Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft is encouraging biomimicry with a new campaign entitled: Futuras In Res. They say that innovators should keep using nature as inspiration when they design new products. They make specific mention of salt shakers - modeled after poppies, robot gripper arms - reminiscent of elephant trunks or cameras - like insect eyes. President of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, Professor Reimund Neugebauer says:
“We regard Biological Transformation as the systematic application and combination of processes, principles and materials found in nature to engineering. It will lead to entirely new and more sustainable processes in value creation and manufacturing. By focusing on nature as a driver of innovations, we can use in a new era.”
Biological Transformation and biomimicry is becoming a hallmark of the Industrie 4.0/fourth industrial revolution. The group brought many industries together in June of this year to collaborate and brainstorm on future technologies that could benefit the world.
The main topics discussed were Industrie 4.0, bio-manufacturing, artificial intelligence, biotechnology, bionics, the circular economy and sustainability.
Engineers should look out for opportunities in these cutting edge industries which are innovating and changing the world. But they should also remain alert - sometimes the breakthrough can be something quite surprising and no more sophisticated than the humble wombat poop!
Mechanical Engineering History Timeline - IMechE, www.imeche.org/news/news-article/engineer-solves-mystery-of-cubic-wombat-faeces-to-inform-manufacturing-processes.
“Biological Transformation: Nature as a Driver of Innovations in Engineering and Manufacturing.” Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft, www.fraunhofer.de/en/press/research-news/2018/june/Biological-Transformation-nature-as-a-driver-of-innovations-in-engineering-and-manufacturing.html.