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Back 4.4.2017

New Zippcast Explores Biomimicry as a Catalyst of Innovation

Zipp engineers pioneered biomimicry-guided innovation in the cycling industry with the development of the 454 NSW Carbon Clincher wheelset.

In this new ZippCast, we chat with Zipp advanced design engineers David Morse and Ruan Trouw about the role of biomimicry in designing the 454 NSW. Biomimicry is the process of looking to natural systems for design cues to human design challenges. We also interview noted biomimicry expert Dr. Frank Fish, professor of biology at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. Zipp engineers studied Dr. Fish’s research on the tubercles of humpback whale fins while working on the 454 NSW.


Below is an edited transcript of the ZippCast conversation with biomimicry expert Dr. Frank Fish:

Tell us about your interest in biomimicry and specifically about taking design cues from tubercles on humpback whale fins.
My interest in biomimicry goes back a ways when I first started looking at various animals and then seeing what we could actually find from them. … One of the first things I examined was the humpback whale. I was interested in why the humpback whale had these particular knobby bumps along the leading edge of their flippers. … These flippers are essentially wing-like structures that the animal uses to turn and maneuver under water. These are probably one of the most graceful animals despite the fact that they’re of fairly large size, about 60 feet long.

I was interested in these bumps along the leading edge because if you look at wings, like looking at the wing of an airplane, you don’t have any knobby bumps on the front of the wing. Rather, it’s a nice smooth edge.

If you look at the pattern of barnacles that were also on the flipper, what you found was the barnacle were located in particular places. They were only located right on the bumps but not between the bumps. Because barnacles attach to surfaces such as ships or even whales, they do it under conditions of very low flow. So having a sort of descriptive maybe faster flow over particular parts of the flipper where barnacles were wouldn’t tend to settle was an indication that something was going on hydrodynamically.

What are some of the more amazing movement abilities of the whales you’ve studied?
The flippers are like taking your hand and sticking it out the car window. If you have your palm flat toward the road, what you feel is a push back on your hand. But if you give it a little angle, cant it just a little bit to the wind, you start to feel what we call a lift force. The whales are actually using this lift force to maneuver. Humpback whales are considered to be the most acrobatic (we could also say aquabatic) animals in that not only do they leap from the water and then do these amazing breaches in which they spin and then fall back in the water. But also under water they’ll do rolling maneuverers in which they’ll tightly turn. This is much better that what we see in whales that are related to them, animals like the blue whale in fin whale.

What do you see as the potential for biomimicry?
Biomimicry is probably a fairly innovative approach that is being applied in engineering, but to say that it is a new approach is not entirely correct. Biomimicry actually goes back quite a ways. … The Wright brothers were looking at bird wings when they were trying to figure out how to control their flying machine…. So biomimicry has been around but now we have a more directed approach.… I’ve also been involved in looking at the dynamics of swimming in animals such as the manta ray and applying that to robotic systems. The next generation of what are called autonomous underwater vehicles will probably utilize lessons that we learn from animals and apply it into a bio inspired design. … We’re also looking at how dolphins swim and trying to apply the lessons that we learn from looking at the movements of their (tail) flukes.

You also draw cartoons of animals. What do most people not realize about animals or the natural world?
We don’t quite appreciate animals. We look at them. We go to zoos and aquariums and sort of look at the animals but we don’t necessarily understand in general how the animals are all put together. It takes an eye and some knowledge. Much of what I have learned about animals came about because when I was a graduate student I started reading books on hydrodynamics and then started applying that to what I was learning.

For instance, I used to talk along the campus that I was at. There would be a river and every spring there would be a mother duck and her baby ducks and they’d be swimming along the rider with the baby ducks in single file behind the other. People would just say, we’ll they’re just following the other because the mother knows where it’s going. But I looked at it from a different point of view and say, ‘no I think there’s something different going on with the hydrodynamics of this system, that the baby ducks are drafting in the same way that bicycles will form a paceline and draft.
It’s a different way of looking at things. We have to tune our mind to distill out what may be important and not just necessarily accept what we see and then make a sort of cavalier assessment of it.


The Zipp 454 NSW Carbon Clincher features Hyperfoil™ nodes along the inner diameter of the rim that were designed using biomimicry in the engineering process. Photo by Beardy McBeardy