From nature to technology
Under the catchwords "biologization of production" and "biointelligent production", numerous activities of the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft aim to develop more efficient and sustainable production processes by systematically transferring biological characteristics and processes. One component of these activities is the lead project EVOLOPRO, which focuses on increasing the flexibility and self-adaptability of production systems.
The Fraunhofer research team is addressing the question of which general principles contribute to the ability of living things to adapt to changing environmental conditions. In doing so, they were able to identify six universal design features. These are found at all levels of biological organization - from single cells to entire ecosystems - and for all forms of adaptation, whether evolutionary over generations, in the course of a creature's physical development, or in behavioral adaptation through learning. These six design features are referred to as the "elements of flexibility."
The elements of flexibility at a glance
A module is an easily replaceable, frequently used unit in an overall system that performs a definable subtask in the overall system. Modular systems can adapt more easily to new requirements because only individual units need to be replaced.
Hierarchical systems consist of nested subsystems of decreasing complexity. The term hierarchy is often associated with rigidity and inflexibility, but this view falls short: Hierarchy can promote flexibility because it allows stable transitional stages and necessary changes are directed to the right place in the system.
Weak regulatory coupling
Weak regulatory coupling refers to a set of principles for how biological modules communicate with each other at the cellular and molecular levels. Applied to engineering systems, this can be understood as a principle for designing interfaces that allow modules to be recombined as easily as possible to achieve new system functions.
Exploration involves the open-ended exploration and collection of solutions. In production, exploration is a complex, cost-intensive process. However, used at the right time and in the right place, it contributes, at a reasonable cost, to a massive increase in the flexibility of the overall system.
Two modules in a system are said to be degenerate if they behave the same under certain conditions but differently under others. Under unchanging requirements, degenerate modules do not contribute to system resilience any differently than redundant modules. However, under changing requirements, degenerate modules provide different solutions.
Weak links between components of a system are not significant when considered individually. They are the opposite of strong links, the severing of which would immediately lead to system failure. The set of weak links within a system and the way they are distributed, on the other hand, can have a strong influence on how quickly a system can reconfigure itself to respond to a new requirement.
Considered individually, most design features can already be found in technical systems today. However, technical and biological systems differ significantly in the variety in which the six elements of flexibility occur as well as in the complexity of their interaction. In the EVOLOPRO research project, production systems are analyzed with regard to the elements of flexibility and their interaction. Within the framework of the three pilot chains Aviation, Optics and Automotive, the research teams identify the potential for transferring the elements and implement them in a targeted manner using digitalization tools. The aim is to increase the flexibility and self-adaptability of these production systems.