The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York currently is exhibiting a chair designed by Dutch artist Joris Laarman, but created with the help of automotive engineer Dr. Lothar Harzheim, GM Europe Engineering Center in Russelsheim. The exhibit is part of a special MoMA exhibition, "Design and the Elastic Mind"
To highlight the close relationship between art, technology and nature, exhibition organizers are displaying the "Bionic bone chair" alongside an Opel Vectra engine mounting, both of which were developed following biological construction principles.
The engine mounting and designer chair were created using a special computer simulation process developed in 1994 by Dr. Lothar Harzheim's team to make GME brand cars, such as Opel/Vauxhall and Saab in Russelsheim.
Bionics is a branch of science that systematically analyses the rules of design and growth in nature and how they can be applied to new technological developments. Natural structures are extremely durable and reliable with minimum use of materials.
The automotive industry uses bionics to help make components strong, durable and lightweight - therefore more energy efficient - without compromising on safety. Laarman found he could use this tool to create elegant form without skimping on function.
"Nature is the perfect role model for us," explains Bionics expert Dr. Lothar Harzheim. "Assisted by a computer program that can simulate biological rules of growth, we at the GME can optimize vehicle components in much the same way that a tree supplements areas that come under severe stress with extra bark, or how bones conserve material at low stress points. An artist can use this tool to create elegant shapes that also offer best-possible functionality."
In Laarman's project, the seating surface and backrest's size, height and position were pre-defined, as was the chair legs' contact area. Taking nine load conditions into consideration, GME designers calculated the optimal chair strut structure on the computer. The Joris Laarman Studio in Rotterdam realized the chair out of one single aluminum cast block.
Computer Software Simulates Natural Growth Process
Engineers from Russelsheim designed a special computer simulation program to apply nature's growth rules to component engineering. "The software simulates a natural growth process. Extra material is added where tree branches, deer antlers, animal claws or bones have to be especially robust, and is reduced where they are not exposed to high stress levels," explains Dr. Lothar Harzheim.
GME development engineers used Computer Aided Optimization to simulate how a component's surface can grow according to the rules of biological growth. They used a second method, called Soft Kill Option to remove redundant material in the interior (just like bones) and create a truly lightweight design.
The starting point for the simulated biological growth is a conventional stress calculation using the finite element method. The result of the calculation is used in the growth simulation, which determines how a design should be modified using the biological growth rule. Based on this modified design, automobile experts again evaluate the stress distribution before starting the next optimization cycle. This is repeated until the stress levels are optimally distributed.
The benefits of bionics are clear: Using the same material, an Opel engine mounting optimized by the SKO method is 25 percent lighter and in addition 60 percent more stable, than its conventionally built counterpart.