Looking Within: Design Inspired by Teeth and Bones

by Adrian Johansen | Originally published on the Biomimicry Institute

It’s easy to focus on the salient features of any living being: the color of a bird’s plumage, an elephant’s immensity, the musculature of the human leg. However, when you look deeper, the incredible durability and structure of bones is an engineering marvel. It turns out bones and teeth are capable of inspiring innovation in a variety of fields, including aeronautics, architecture, and automotive engineering.

Inventors such as Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) and Alexis Duchâteau (1714–1792) imitated the structure of bones and teeth to create dentures and prosthetics, respectively, but there are many more designs inspired by these biological phenomena that aren’t as widely known. Here’s a closer look at how the structures of bones and teeth have influenced a number of incredible innovations.

Lessons To Be Learned

Scientists and researchers have been learning lessons from bones for centuries. More recently, researchers have discovered a direct correlation between bones, stiffness, and strength. By studying birds, researchers discovered that even lightweight, flying animals have great bone density, which maximizes their strength and stiffness without adding weight or volume.

According to the Royal Aeronautical Society, Airbus used 3D printing to create metal cabin dividers “based on cell and bone structures which are 45% lighter than conventional partitions.” And across the North Sea, researchers at the University of Denmark mimicked the interior structure of a bird’s wing to design a Boeing 777 wing that was 5% lighter than a conventional wing.

Aeronautical engineers are learning from bird bones to inform the evolution of flight. By optimizing the strength of an aircraft without adding weight or volume, they can create safer, more secure air travel options.

In the same way aeronautics can learn from bones to create better, more efficient airplanes, the field of robotics can learn from skeletal structures to create more advanced and durable robots. Recently, humanoid robots have seen a greater role in our healthcare systems, including helping with:

  • Patient rounds
  • Cleaning and sanitizing
  • Robotic surgery
  • Visitor assistance

These robots are called humanoids, because their design is based on human bone structure, meant to keep them strong and stable for their various jobs and tasks. The idea is the more “human-like” these robots can become in terms of structure (flexibility, mobility, and perhaps one day even self-renewing), the more they’ll be able to do in the healthcare industry and elsewhere.

Architectural Design in the City of Love

The Eiffel Tower is arguably the most popular landmark in France. About 7 million people visit the structure every year. It’s a wonderful tribute to Paris, and looks great in photographs, but did you know that the human femur inspired the original structure?

Gustave Eiffel was the designer for the structure, built in 1889, and his original tower design was based on the longest and largest bone in the human body — the femur. The femur is lightweight but can withstand a lot of pressure — something the Eiffel Tower needed. Inside the human femur is an organized lattice of bone fibers that give it more structure and stability. Anyone who has ever seen a picture of the Eiffel Tower can see a similar woven pattern within the heart of the landmark, providing that same stability, no matter the conditions it faces.

Image Credit: Kranium

A Helmet Inspired by Birds

We’ve all seen woodpeckers pounding away at a tree, making a hole for a nesting site. Have you ever thought about how they move so quickly and with such force without hurting themselves?

It used to be believed that the small birds had “shock absorbers” in their skulls, preventing them from getting concussions while they pecked. That was later disproved, and it was shown that their small brains prevented concussions.

However, the original idea did inspire one company to create Kranium, a helmet that utilizes a honeycomb structure of cardboard to protect the head. This structure was inspired by what the company thought the skull of the woodpecker did to protect the bird’s brain. Even if the facts didn’t exactly match, this is another great innovation that utilized natural bone structures to create something effective and safe.

Right Image Credit: AudiWorld

Audi’s Aluminum Casings

Audi is one of the most widely-known car manufacturers in the world. What you may not know about the manufacturer is that their lightweight aluminum casings were inspired by nature. One such inspiration was the skull of an elephant. It’s meant to carry a heavy load and is porous while providing strength and stability.

Audi’s cars are designed to have the same characteristics, allowing for:

  • Rigidity
  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • Support
  • Efficiency

This is another instance of bones inspiring strength without adding weight, showing that although bones might seem fragile, they are some of the toughest structures on the planet.

Biomimetic Dentistry

Human teeth have changed the world of dentistry. That may seem obvious, but the innovations involving human teeth have allowed the dentistry industry to provide state-of-the-art, functioning teeth in restorative and cosmetic procedures. Biomimetic dentistry is one of the most innovative and clear-cut ways that teeth have allowed people to live happier, healthier lives.

Biomimetic dentistry relies on the structure of human teeth to replicate them exactly and reduce the likelihood of complications. Preserving the tooth structure allows for pulp vitality. Healthy dental pulp — the mass of connective tissue within your teeth — keeps dental patients experiencing proper dental sensations when chewing, keeps the dentin — the layer before enamel — healthy and intact, and keeps the tooth healthy and alive.

If a dental patient comes to the office with damaged, decayed, or broken natural teeth, biomimetic teeth can be modeled to fit their unique mouth structure. In some cases, removing a tooth or multiple teeth and replacing them with implants or dentures is the best way to go. With perfectly functioning replacements, there will be minimal shifting and less probability of additional oral health issues. Poor oral health is often linked to other conditions, including cardiovascular disease and respiratory infections. Biomimetic dentistry allows patients to reduce their chances of developing these secondary conditions. Human teeth have, thus, impacted a larger scope of their physical health.

As you can see, once again, innovation and nature go hand-in-hand. By looking at a problem and thinking of different routes to solve it, you can almost always look to the outside world for a natural solution that can be adapted to fit your needs. Whether it’s the healthcare industry, a car, or a bike helmet, the innovations inspired by teeth and bones have changed the lives of many, and will undoubtedly continue to do so as more discoveries are made.

Are you curious about other adaptations nature has evolved and inspired other designers to emulate? Head to AskNature.org, and let your curiosity run wild.

Adrian Johansen loves to learn and share knowledge. You can find more of her writing on twitter and contently.

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Biomimicry Institute

The Biomimicry Institute empowers people to create nature-inspired solutions for a healthy planet. www.biomimicry.org