Biological Transformation of Manufacturing


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At the end of June 2018, the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft in Berlin hosted thelaunch of the new international science conference series „FUTURAS IN RES“.The theme of the event was biological transformation in production. A lookback over two days, full of innovative ideas, amazing practical examples andbold visions of the future.

There was a lot of activity under the impressive glass dome of the Axica.
With white conference folders under their arms, people hurried across the bridges totheir seats, gathered at the coffee bar or engaged in lively conversation in small groups.Meanwhile, there was also some scurrying under the glass in the adjoining room:hundreds of ants flitted through tubes and across bridges from one display case to thenext with pieces of rose petals in their pincers. They gathered on a large mushroomthat served as their breakfast before they busily continued on their way.

The first conference of its kind

The ants were part of the accompanying exhibition of the FUTURAS IN RES conference. At the same time, they served as a symbol for the theme of the first event of this series, "Biological Transformation in Manufacturing", to which the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft invited guests on July 28th and 29th.
In Berlin, Fraunhofer President Prof. Reimund Neugebauer welcomed the 35 speakers from five countries as well as almost 300 guests from the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft environment, from business, science and politics. The big question that they all shared was "How can we learn from nature to become more efficient, sustainable and effective?" Although business and science have long been oriented towards living nature and have already successfully copied a great deal of biological principles - keyword bionics - only through the rapid advances in digitization, new technology and biological knowledge have previously unimagined possibilities developed. In his speech, Dr. Georg Schütte, State Secretary of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), highlights how significant the biological transformation will be as the next revolution: it will have a major impact not only on production, but also on the labor market, education and politics. Schütte announced that he would continue to include the topic on his agenda in his ministry and, according to the coalition agreement, develop a cross-departmental agenda "from biology to innovation".

A new era?

Afterwards, the first of a total of six sessions began in which biological transformation was examined and discussed from different perspectives. Under the title "Is a new era upon us?", this conference section was devoted to the definition of drivers and potential. Prof. Neugebauer first explained the central term: "Biological transformation is the increasing utilization of materials, structures and processes of living nature in technologies with the goal of sustainable added value." The fact that the theme as a whole is still in need of explanation can be seen in the course of the conference, mainly in the speakers' various definitions. However, everyone agreed that sustainability is the most important driver of biological transformation and that we need to transform not only our technology, but also our thinking in order to be successful. Looking ahead into the not-so-distant future, Rob Carlson, Managing Director of Bioeconomy Capital, predicted the first DNA-based data centers for 2020.

What does the future of manufacturing look like?

In the second session, addressing the topic "Future Manufacturing – disrupted or disruptive?", Professor Gerald Byrne of the University of Dublin stated that the manufacturing industry has the best prospects for innovation through completely new socio-technological connections and the convergence of the physical, digital and biological worlds. Dr. Jan Mrosik, CEO of the Digital Factory at Siemens AG, provided specific examples with two biologically inspired innovations from his company: a particularly light aircraft nose with a honeycomb structure that has for the first time been able to be shaped like a cone, as well as a burner system which has a fennel-bulb structure that has been created using an evolutionary process, costs 60 percent less in production and is significantly more efficient. In the discussion that followed, it became clear that the Biological Transformation is not a "big bang", but rather a continuous development, even a cycle: we continually understand nature a bit more, have to analyze a lot of data, draw conclusions as a result and apply the findings, which in turn leads to better understanding.

Do boundaries dissolve?

Following the lunch break, the third session sparked a heated debate about the question of whether boundaries in future production technology and processes would dissolve. With inspiration, integration and interaction, Prof. Thomas Bauernhansl from the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA first showed the three stages of bio-intelligent manufacturing. And together with Prof. Heiko Zimmermann from the Fraunhofer Institute for Biomedical Engineering IBMT, he designed interesting scenarios for what could be possible in the future: from bioelectronic medicine ("electro-ceuticals"), degradable short-term implants and needs-oriented, decentralized food production to completely flexible stem cell factories.

The interesting lecture by Osh. Agabi, who already synthetically produces living, large-scale, programmable cells with his Koniku company, was also futuristic. In the future, for example, computers equipped with olfactory cells should be able to "smell" explosives at airports. Barry Canton of Gingko Bioworks also presented a platform for the mass production of tailor-made living organisms that could, for example, heal diseases as a living medicine.Other examples from this session included an exoskeleton that uses a combination of biological and mechanical forces to enable disabled people to walk, a virtual "human-on-a-chip" with 23 organs to test drugs and individual therapies more quickly, as well as the efficient production of pluripotent stem cells.

Sustainability and resilience

The final session of the first day focused on the development of sustainable and resilient systems. Prof. Eugene Cloete from the University of Stellenbosch presented new methods of water treatment, while Prof. Ingo Burgert from the ETH Zurich praised trees as "natural 3D printers" and researches new, resilient, wood-based materials. Mineralization makes wood fireproof, lignin deprivation makes it sturdy, and further processing leads to formable cellulose frameworks, which could find application in the automotive or furniture industry. As Prof. Klaus Kornwachs from the University of Ulm reminded us, though, biological products or sustainable production processes do not automatically produce sustainable products (such as genetic modification) and not every sustainable product is sustainably produced.
From nature as the "living lab" of resilient systems, we can learn new methods to make our infrastructures more resilient and find efficient ways of monitoring and communication in case of emergency, explained Prof. Stefan Hiermaier from the Fraunhofer Ernst Mach Institute EMI. At the subsequent get-together, numerous ideas were exchanged, valuable discussions were held and new contacts were made.

The potential of new resources and new recycling channels

Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze opened the second day with a refreshing speech. In addition to an urgent appeal for society to move away from plastic to bio-based materials, she posed some important questions: what impact does a higher demand for wood and other resources have upon biodiversity? How do we ensure that soils are not acidified by monocultures? And what are the effects upon our food production if, on the one hand, there are fewer insects and, on the other hand, raw materials on fields compete with foodstuffs? A good example is nylon stockings from chicory root, a research project of the University of Hohenheim. Substances from the roots can be extracted that serve as the basis for nylon fibers. For example, farmers could harvest chicory salad in spring and sell their roots in the autumn – an efficient farming model.
Other promising biomaterials were also introduced during the session: synthetic spider silk (AMSilk) – which is used not only in the textile but also in the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries – or materials that change their shape due to atmospheric moisture (Max Planck Society).

However, producing bio-intelligently means not only using new, biological raw materials but also focusing consistently on recycling: Dr. Maria Soliman, Research Fellow at the chemical company SABIC, presented three ways to deal with the global plastics problem: 30 percent could be saved through new material-saving designs or innovative materials, 20 percent through the reuse of packaging and 50 percent through efficient recycling methods. Compostable plastics currently account for less than one percent of the overall market. She also emphasized the importance of cross-company collaboration along the entire value chain of a product, since the recycling concept would have to be considered at each stage. Prof. Eckhard Weidner of the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT underlined this point and identified five Fraunhofer goals for a new circular economy for plastics: new polymers as a substitute for petroleum-based plastics, new elastomers from renewable resources, two prototypes of new packaging and mobility concepts, new recycling technologies, and new assessment methods for materials-cycle management.

Bio-intelligent value-added systems

Swarm intelligence and self-organization were the keywords of the last session on bio-intelligent systems. Prof. Michael ten Hompel of the Fraunhofer Institute for Material Flow and Logistics IML presented the swarm-intelligent transport cell "Protozoon" and provided a look at the new InnovationLab in Dortmund. Here, logistics concepts are combined with augmented reality, facial, speech and gesture recognition or wearables. For example, intelligent drones respond to human gestures and commands. His outlook for the future: "It will become quite normal to talk to a shelf." After a trip to the world of intelligent sensors with SICK CEO Dr. Robert Bauer, Prof. Dario Floreano of the University of Lausanne introduced a new generation of resilient, bio-inspired drones. Like insects, they use visual navigation to land safely and protect themselves against collisions through a rotating frame. In addition to being used in disaster areas, "Delivery Drones" is the next big business model, according to the researcher. Ants inspired Dr. Marco Doringo of the University of Brussels in his robot research. He observed their strategies for finding and transporting an object and transferred these to small swarm robots. Instead of pheromone roads, they follow algorithms, form chains to the object, form teams with different tasks and even transport larger objects with small pincers. As the conference drew to an end, the ants in the next room of the Axica had also worked together to transport all the rose petals to their destination. They were probably unaware that they served as an inspirational role model for excellent research and the next technological revolution.


Boundaries blur, worlds grow together, innovations are created through collaboration – so it is not surprising that FUTURAS IN RES has repeatedly emphasized how indispensable cooperation across disciplines is. The biggest challenge of the biological transformation lies precisely in bringing together different disciplines. There are also other hurdles, though: as diverse as nature is, no bio-based product is like another. The question is: how much freedom do we give the systems and to what degree do we have to control them? Ethical aspects were also discussed: what if the helpful technologies fall into the wrong hands? What precautions do we need to take in this regard? And, last but not least, all progress is also based on acceptance: how can we work with and inform the public so that people also accept the new opportunities? In the end, all of these questions could not be answered in two days, but an important first step was taken with the FUTURAS IN RES conference.


(This article does not claim to list all the speakers and/or presented projects; rather, it provides an overview of the two days of concentrated lectures, ideas and innovative approaches.)


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