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3 Lessons from Foraging Ants; Biomimicry in Business

 

Ants are highly social insects living in colonies numbering in the millions (P1)

Applications of Biomimicry

Biomimicry is an approach to innovation that seeks sustainable solutions to human challenges by emulating nature’s time-tested patterns and strategies. Its influence on product design is clearly explained in our article, “3 Products Inspired by Nature.” This impact, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Insights from nature’s optimised designs can be applied beyond products into product line design and even business operations.

In a previous article we highlighted how a leading Sri Lankan bottled water company emulated nature’s efficient ways of water purification, and went on to achieve international acclaim. In this article we will look at more companies whose operations have been revolutionised by observing one of nature’s smaller species—ants. The industries range from logistics to telecommunications to retail, and the impact they experienced by mimicking foraging ants has been anything but small, as you will find out below.

 
Blue Plane

Simpler, more efficient logistics starts with moving, even if in the wrong direction at first (P2)

Foraging Principles for Logistics

In the year 2000, Southwest Airlines studied foraging ants to enhance their freight forwarding logistics. They discovered that transporting cargo in the flight heading in the wrong direction initially but ultimately in the right direction was better than waiting for the next direct flight. Applying this insight reduced freight transfer rates by 80%, and cut the workload for ground staff by as much as 20%. They were also able to reduce their cargo storage facilities due to the reduced number of overnight transfers. All these benefits gave the airline an estimated gain of more than $10 million annually. (1)

 
Fibre optic

From ant pheromones to digital pheromones (P3)

Trails for Better Connectivity

In Bristol, England, Hewlett Packard Laboratories - an innovation company dealing with IT solutions noticed that ants have an intelligent system for finding the shortest path to a source of food and back. All the ants who travel out leave a trail of pheromones, and the ant who travels fastest to the food source and back, doubles the intensity of pheromones on his path encouraging other ants to follow suit.

These findings were used to develop a computer program which sends out swarms of software agents to roam through telecom networks between key nodes. As each agent travels down the network and back it leaves a digital trail. Those that make the return journey first reinforce the shortest paths by increasing the digital trail on them. These paths are then followed by phone calls. The program is also able to manage rapidly changing traffic conditions through a mechanism that continually diminishes these digital trails. Thanks to this, phone calls are able to get routed through less congested areas of a network, which in turn allows the congested areas to recover from an overload, making the entire process significantly more efficient.(2)

 
warehouse

Humans have mimicked ants in the retrieving of goods from warehouses (P4)

Bucket Brigades for Warehouses

Foraging ants have also made an impact on how retail chains operate their warehouses. J. Bartholdi of Georgia Tech and D. Einstein of the University of Chicago discovered that the mechanism in which ants transport food can be applied to the process of retrieving orders at warehouses. This mechanism is commonly known as a Bucket Brigade System; where each ant carries food to the nest, until it meets another ant to whom it passes on the food, before going back to the source to get more. This process is continued down the chain, all the way back to the nest.

This fascinating system has greatly influenced warehouse management. Previously, warehouses used the “zonal system” to manage the retrieval of items where employees were designated individual zones. However, this also lead to an under-utilization of fast workers and frustrated slow workers resulting in a wastage of time and an unhealthy work environment. Applying the bucket brigade system in warehouses improved productivity by 30% and diminished the drawbacks experienced under the previous zonal system.(3)

 
Ant bridge

A lot more can be learnt from these well organised social insects (P5)

Conclusion

The impact of biomimicry in the above mentioned industries has indeed been revolutionary, but there is still much more that businesses and society at large can learn from the examples found in nature. These learnings have the potential to show us how to reduce the inherent waste and inefficiencies created in our modern systems, and guide us towards a more sustainable future. Such projects are already in motion. Read more about one of the pioneering projects; a building in Zimbabwe that regulates its air temperature without energy using insights from termite mounds

   
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