How Kingfisher inspired a bullet train: Innovation lessons from nature.

Japan is the birthplace of high-speed bullet trains.

It all started on October 1, 1964, when a very sleek blue and white bullet train “Shinkansen,” began operations running east to west from Tokyo to Osaka initially running up to 200 Km/hour, sealing its place in history.

This became a defining symbol of Japan’s amazing recovery from the destruction of World War II. In the 57 years since the first train ran, the word “Shinkansen” has become a synonymous byword for speed, modernity, and travel efficiency.

In 1890, the travel time from Tokyo to Osaka was almost 17 hours, but the opening of Shinkansen drastically reduced it to just 3 hours in 1965. When the train first started, its high speed caused an atmospheric pressure to build in front of the train, which would get amplified when it would travel through tunnels causing extreme disturbance to residents staying adjacent to the tracks. So, something has to done without compromising the USP of the train, its speed.

The team came together to solve the problem Eiji Nakatsu was the GM of the technical department. The challenge was enormous because there were many variables that led to the booming noise. The loudest noise came from overhead wire connections called pantographs and the exit of the trains from the tunnels. Of the two reasons, the pantograph noise was the loudest.

Eiji was an avid bird watcher. He started to look to birds for some solutions if any. Being a bird lover, he has observed on one of his trips that Owls can fly almost quietly, courtesy of their feather structure, which acted as a noise dampener. He immediately asked his team to make prototypes that mimicked the owl feather.

Inspired by the insight the pantograph was replaced by a swing shape. By shaping the overhead wires this way, the team was successful in solving the problem, as the air rushing over the wires was turned inside enabling an almost noise-free movement. This not only solved the problem but also led to an increase in the speed of the train and also meet the stringent 70-decibel noise standard set by the government.

Still another challenge of the booming sound caused by the exit of the train from the tunnel remained as it is. This sonic boom problem turned out to be much more complex. Whenever the high-speed bullet train entered the tunnel, it created air pressure waves that soon reached the end of the tunnel. The air exited from the tunnel in low-frequency waves that that produced a large boom sound and vibration.

On close examination, the reason for this booming noise was found to be the high speed of the train and the geometry of the tunnel. Since it was not possible and feasible to change the structure of the tunnel, the only solution left was to re-design the shape of the train engine. But, where to look for inspiration.

Eiji once again decided to look to the sky. He started scanning his experience of bird watching and in an a-ha moment remembered the Kingfisher, a bird that dives down at very high speed from a medium (air) to another denser medium (Water) without making a splash sound.

His observation and further exploration made him realize that it was the shape of its beak that allows it to achieve the feat. He soon took the beak design to his drawing board. Soon, the kingfisher secret was out. The reason why the kingfisher was able to hit the water surface without any impact was the unique shape of the beak, which steadily increased in diameter from the tip of the head.

Soon the new train was re-designed with the front of the train nose mimicking the shape of the kingfisher beak. It was a huge success. Not only it helped noise reduction but also allowed the train to travel 10% faster and using 15-20% less electricity. Finally, the train was able to run at 300 Km/hour maximum speed which was a world record then, and also meet the stringent noise standard.

This Shinkansen innovation story is a perfect example of the power of observation and how we can look to nature and surroundings to make our innovations. How if we develop the art of observation, can we seek answers to questions and solutions to problems from even a totally non-related field.

This phenomenon is known as, “Biomimicry.”

It is the design, production, transportation, and distribution of products, services, structures and systems that are inspired and then modeled after natural organisms and biological processes. Biomimicry and biomimetics is the science that studies nature and biology as a source of inspiration for the design and production of innovative products and solutions to solve human problems and answer some unsolved questions.

Janine Benyus is an innovation consultant, author, and biologist who popularized the word Biomimicry in her 1997 book, “Biomimicry- Innovation inspired by nature.” In 1998 she co-founded the world’s first bio consultancy BM 3.8 and in 2006 she co-founded the Biomimicry institute to make biology a natural part of the innovation and design process.

Use nature”, she says, “as our blueprint for design.”

Can nature offer us solutions and answers? Yes, nature is very efficient, imaginative, and innovative. Nature is way ahead of humans, thanks to its existence millions of years before we walked on the earth. In fact, Nature’s lab has 3.8 billion years of experience and through all the trial and error, it has learned what works and what’s right for existence. Somehow nature seems to have time-tested solutions for all the life problems.

Just look at the animals and plants who after 3.8 billion years of R&D have discovered the secrets of survival. Scientists and architects have been using nature as a source of inspiration, but now it’s time for businesses and entrepreneurs to benefit by imitating nature.

Companies are increasingly looking at ways to produce designs inspired by nature.

Next time whenever you take a walk in nature, don’t look down or into your screen but look up at the trees and notice how water travels down the leaves, how light passes the leaves. If we learn to tune in to nature and appreciating the ecosystem, we can make Biomimicry a part of our everyday life and business.

An amazingly simple and beautiful way to solve a business problem, ask: “How would nature design this”?

“Learning about the natural world is one thing. Learning from the natural world that’s the switch.” – Janine Benyus.

Let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section below!

Long Live Biomimicry!

Happy Innovation!

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