BioBrainstorming: A Biomimicry Tool

The adult citrus root weevils feed citrus leaves, but the larvae do the most damage. USDA photo by Keith Weller.

Adult citrus root weevils feed on citrus leaves, but the larvae do the most damage. Can biomimicry help control crop pests? USDA photo by Keith Weller.

I just started a fun and challenging project: Acting as the consulting biological researcher on a project that will use biomimicry. Because part of the reason I’m writing articles for Make: is to tell you about what biomimicry is and how it’s done, you might enjoy a walk through the BioBrainstorming process. If you are looking for innovative or more sustainable ways to do 3D printing, network with other people, incorporate feedback loops into your electronic projects, and more, then you’ll want to try BioBrainstorming to find inspiration.

Yes, BioBrainstorming is a made-up word. It involves coming up with a lot of biological models that might inspire ideas for solving the client’s challenge. And by “a lot,” I mean 30 to 70 potential models, which later I can narrow down to the most valuable strategies for further research. In my first Make: article, I explained biomimicry and talked about how AskNature is organized by function: “Doing biomimicry requires understanding not what your design will be but what it needs to do. Therefore, we organized nature’s strategies according to functions that innovators might want to accomplish. So when people come to AskNature, they’re looking for the answer to ‘How does nature______?’”hownature_frog_make02

Therefore, what I need is a quick list of organisms and ecosystems that are doing what my client wants to do. I can’t share the client’s name or what the challenge is, so I’ve made up a challenge that’s related to the upcoming Biomimicry Global Design Challenge. (I’ll write more about that in January.) What my fictional client wants to do is find ways to control crop pests, specifically insects, without using chemistry that is harmful to life. Here’s how I would approach this challenge.

One of the first things I’ll do is visit AskNature. I’ll want to state my challenge in functional terms, so that I can use the Biomimicry Taxonomy (you can see the Biomimicry Taxonomy when you click on Explore on the AskNature home page).

Biomimicry Taxonomy results from

Biomimicry Taxonomy results from

  • How does nature protect from insects? (In AskNature, I’ll have to look for strategies under the function “protect from animals.” That will give me a lot more strategies than just protecting from insects, but that’s OK because sometimes we find inspiration from other organisms’ strategies.)
  • How does nature capture organisms?
  • How does nature do biological control of populations, pests, or diseases? (This is in a section of the Biomimicry Taxonomy on providing ecosystem services.)

OK, simple enough. Next, I want to take some indirect approaches to my question, because those often stimulate ideas I wouldn’t have thought of.

  • How does nature attract insects? (Maybe I can attract insects away from my crops.)
  • How does nature maintain diversity? (As an ecologist, I know that diversity is important for maintaining balance in a system, e.g., a balance between insect pests and their predators.)
Mimulus flower photographed in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right) showing a nectar guide visible to bees but not to humans. Photo by Plantsurfer, CC-by-SA.

Mimulus flower in visible light (left) and ultraviolet light (right) showing a nectar guide visible to insects but not humans. Could we learn from insect attractants to lure insects away from crops? Photo by Plantsurfer, CC-by-SA.

Besides using AskNature, I can also do some other things besides sit at the computer. I can go for a walk outside with my challenge and my “How does nature____?” questions in mind. I can visit a botanical garden, find an entomologist who loves to ponder these types of questions, and watch nature videos about insects while I munch on popcorn.

Another trick is to type my function into Google Images and see what photos come up. Here’s what I found when I searched “capture insects”: Spider webs, insect-eating plants, ant lion sand traps, a variety of predators like birds and wasps, and a product called a pheromone trap that uses a chemical that attracts insects. When I entered “attract insects,” I found some other interesting ideas: Glow worms that use light to attract insects, lights in general attract insects (Duh! Even little kids know that. And those swarming insects at lights also attract their predators, like bats.), and that some plants attract insects more than others. Wondering why that is can lead you to look into it more for potential solutions.

Through this process, if I’ve asked the right “How does nature. ____?” questions, I should easily come up with 30 to 70 organisms. From there, it’s a matter of narrowing down the list and organizing it in a way that the client can use to select the best ones for further research.

You can try this BioBrainstorming with your own projects. Let’s say you’re interested in learning about feedback loops in nature. You could start by asking, “How does nature use feedback loops?” However, there is no function in AskNature about feedback loops, so instead you should try searching for the term “feedback” on AskNature. Then, you can get creative on other functions that could fit your challenge, including:

  • How does nature sense signals/environmental cues?
  • How does nature respond to signals?

I’d also try this one:

  • How does nature coordinate activities?

Once you get good at asking the right question, you can find many models in nature to choose among. Here’s one of my favorite strategies, that just happens to fit both of these challenges. It’s about how the leaves of an acacia tree release a distasteful chemical when browsed on by herbivores. Not only that, they send a signal to other trees nearby, which also release the chemical, thus protecting themselves from browsing. How cool is that? Playing around with that strategy could lead to some innovative solutions to the pest control problem.

How acacias signal to each other when browsed on by giraffes. Illustration by Emily Harrington of eh illustration,, All rights reserved; used with permission.

How acacias signal to each other when browsed on by giraffes. Illustration by Emily Harrington of eh illustration,, all rights reserved; used with permission.

Share Your Idea For A Chance To Win A Dremel Idea Builder 3D Printer!


We’ve been really excited to see a major tool manufacturer like Dremel entering into the 3D printer arena. Their Idea Builder did well in our tests and we can truly imagine it sitting on a workbench in our neighbor’s garage.

We’re especially giddy today because Dremel has offered up one of their new 3D printers as a prize for a contest!

Here’s the topic: Assimilating a 3D Printer.

If you’re reading this, the chances are you already make stuff. You’re probably also very eager to get a 3D printer to play with. While we love 3D printers and put them through their paces regularly, we tend to only focus on what the printer itself can do.

For this contest, we want to see what you can do! We want you to give us a mixed-media project idea — something that uses 3D printing as well as some other form of construction. One example would be a wind chime: The frame could be an intricately printed piece of art and the chimes could be thin aluminum tubing. Another example would be a picture frame: The frame and stand could be 3D printed, but the glass obviously can’t be.


To enter, all you have to do is share your plan with us in the comments. We would really love a picture or a drawing. Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be a perfect schematic, a napkin sketch will do. Hurry though; you have to have your entry in the comments before December 17th, next Wednesday.


The editors at Make: will browse through your entries and find a single one that we all agree is the winner.

We’ll use the following criteria to determine whose is best:

Creativity: Did you come up with something interesting?

Feasibility: Is the project even possible?

Beauty: Every judge has their own opinion of what is beautiful. It may be intricacy, it may be simplicity. This allows the judges to include a healthy dose of personal opinion.

You can download the official rules in PDF form here.

A Beautifully Made Rocketeer Rocket Pack


If you remember the film The Rocketeer, there’s a good chance that you wanted a Cirrus X3 Rocket pack. Unfortunately, a working model isn’t availalble (yet), but Valor Design made one that could almost convince someone that it could take off. From the pictures, it looks flawless.

If you’re considering building one yourself, you might carefully consider how much time you have to invest in it, as it took about 5 months to construct as seen in the linked build pictures. Molding and casting was used, a new technique for the builder. Some interesting electronics round out the build.

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These electronics are used to “ignite” LEDs in the rocket exhaust when the hand trigger is pushed. Rocket sounds, as well as other sound effects taken from the movie are used in this rocket replica. If a reboot of this series is planned (It’s about time, right? No movie seems immune lately.) maybe they’ll contact the maker for some prop work.

If that wasn’t enough, Valor Design also made a helmet to go along with this ‘pack. This looks like a slightly more accessible project, although I’m sure it took a ton of work as well. On the other hand, if you’ve got more money than time, Valor is available for commission, although I can’t imagine work of this quality comes cheaply!

A 3D Printed Centrifugal Puzzle Box


If you’re tired of giving gifts that are easy to open, why not torture entertain the recipient with a present inside of this 3D printed puzzle box by Alex Maund? Of course, if the recipeint happens to have a hammer around, he may find an alternate solution, but the trick to opening it is actually quite simple.

The top of the box has four dials with different letters on them, which one would assume would be the key to opening this contraption. In fact, things are much simpler than trying to guess a combination; the box simply has to be spun. As a clue, if all of the dials are placed in the correct loose position, “spin” is spelled by the letters facing the inside of the present in a clockwise orientation.


Spinning works because it causes the ball bearings locking the lid down to travel outwards, thus releasing the top, via centripetal acceleration. I suppose the clue “rare earth magnet” would also work (use the magnet to attract the bearings to the edges), but that’s not nearly as obvious or easy to spell.

Of course this isn’t the only 3D printed device from “Maundy” that we’ve featured here. This walking machine is totally different than the puzzle seen here, but just as unusual.

How To: Building A Light Table Under $80

As a designer, Stefan Fahrngruber of SFA understands how nice it is to have a light table. I can attest to how nice they are when picking out tiny vinyl cut shapes after plotting. Unfortunately, light tables can be hard to come by inexpensively, and difficult to make. Sure, you can put a light under a glass table, but it doesn’t always work well, the light isn’t distributed evenly, and can still be expensive if you don’t already own a glass table.

Stefan designed a light table that you can make for under $80 using standard decorative LED strips. The idea is to arrange them in a small grid which gives off even lighting while also keeping the construction of the table lightweight. You’ll also have the ability to dim the lights and change the colors.


The table is made with an A3 tempered glass cutting mat, size 16.5″ x 11.7″.  Stefan writes that you’ll also need:

-LED strip approximately 10 feet long. Make sure to pick one which generates the light out of one LED surface, really cheap ones use three separate LED’s to mix the light, which doesn’t work at close distances. Also make sure the control unit of the LED strip fits in the box, and the strip is able to be arranged to fit inside your box.

-5 foot LED strip connection wire (those are special wires with four color coded lines in the right distance, you can also buy ready made ones but they are rather expensive)

-2m of wooden rectangular profile in 5x30mm and 5x35mm (actually you can go crazy on the box, I tried to build it as slim and light as possible)

-One aluminum plate 2.5mm thick, 490x310mm (the stronger the plate the better the heat is derived, this has to be metal, believe me!)

-One milky acrylic glass plate (5mm strong, 450x300mm) make sure to plan a gap so the glass falls in place easy. Make the glass at least 5mm so it can support your weight while drawing on it. Thicker is an option, it will make the light more diffused but also weakens the brightness.

-Glue or paste to fix the wooden profiles (fitting the edges with a mitre is nice but more advanced, up to you)

-Small screws to fix the baseplate to the frame.

-Four rubber feet

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Neon Creeper Lights Up the Night


The infamous Creeper is a character from the wildly popular video game called Minecraft, and it chases gamers continuously exploding nearby. Despite their devastating effects, kids of all ages love to hate the character and its logo has appeared everywhere from student sketches to intricate works of art and even tattoos. Now, a mother has created a bright glowing neon sign with the Creeper’s face on it for her daughter. The results are beautifully made.


Dollar Store Hack: The Hunger Games Gold Collectible Plate

Does anyone out there remember the passion people had in acquiring collectible decorative plates back in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s? Names like The Bradford Exchange, The Franklin Mint and Royal Doulton were pumping out limited edition decorative plates destined for the dining room hutch and our parents’ ‘do not touch anything on there’ tables everywhere. Ah, those were the days!

Since that time, collectible plates have lost a lot of their luster as sought after collectibles due to over-production. However, there’s still a unique allure to having a fancy looking artistic display piece you will never ever eat food off of. To me at least, collectible plates still have a niche appeal to them.

After discovering my local dollar store sells real tempered plates for $2 apiece, I decided the time had come to create a one-of-a-kind decorative plate based on a more personalized sense of style, versus the over-produced dust collectors that killed the collectible plate market in the first place.

My first collectible/decorative plate is a homage to The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence’s iconic character Katniss Everdeen.

I will honestly say that I do greatly enjoy The Hunger Games franchise. I was surprised how much I enjoyed watching the first installment after my young niece dragged me to the theater kicking and screaming (I was still traumatized from the forced Twilight movie outing nightmare). But now thanks to my bragging niece, I love The hunger Games and was excited to make my first collectible plate about the strong and respectable Katniss character!

Making a collectible plate is ridiculously easy! Just get a quality dollar store plate (sounds like an oxymoron, but they do exist now), spray paint of the color you want and create an image on your computer. Spray paint the plate and while it dries, print the image, place double-sided tape on the back, cut out and stick down on the plate. Easy-peasy!

The finished plate will look gorgeous and will make a great personalized gift for Christmas. This technique can be used to make a collectible plate about anything your heart desires.

So happy designing and let’s fill that hutch or shelf with some amazing and personalized one-of-a-kind masterpieces!

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Dollar Store Hack: Cardboard Articulating Baby Groot

The world has been enthralled with the emergence of a cute little superhero once considered a cheesy one-time Marvel horror monster from the 60s. Groot has quickly become a fan favorite of comic buffs everywhere and his ‘Baby Groot’ form is even more popular.

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Toys and figurines of Baby Groot have been popping up in marketplaces worldwide. However, instead of buying a moveable Baby Groot, it is incredibly easy to make one’s own with very basic and inexpensive materials. A quick trip to the dollar store can provide you everything needed to create a fun Baby Groot desktop toy.

Forget bobbleheads – 2014 is the year of the moving and grooving Baby Groot!



How-To: Mold Making for a Missing Handle


One day you may find yourself with the same conundrum Nancy found herself facing– having a gorgeous antique furniture piece with one missing handle.

With a trip to the craft supply store and a little advice from the staff, she was able to make a replica handle by molding and casting it in Sculpey oven bake clay.

There are definitely fancier mold making materials out there, and ones that will produce a better long term solution to replacing a piece of hardware. However, for a one-off mold and for the price, I am quite impressed with the results.


Before trying something like this, consider how much the piece will get used. If you will need to pull on it, or is it simple for decoration? All of these factors will determine which materials are right for your project.

To see how Nancy completed her project, check out her blog, Artsy Chicks Rule.