Sustainable biological transformation

STAUFEN MAGAZINE 2021 | No. 4 | Fraunhofer Institute | Leadership and Organizational Development

Progressive digitalization is massively changing established value creation systems in industrial production. However, it is also becoming increasingly apparent that the introduction of cyber-physical systems for networking and optimizing industrial production resources is not sufficient to meet essential challenges facing society. Resource scarcity, climate change, the changing role of humans in society and the workplace, and also complexity in companies with agile business models require complementary systematic application of knowledge about natural systems. Nature can be the inspiration for optimizing industrial performance.

The so-called biological transformation of industrial value creation, a new paradigm designed to complement digital transformation within the framework of Industry 4.0, will require biointelligent systems. According to McKinsey, biological transformation will generate 35% economic growth worldwide by 2040 compared to today in the health sector alone, or $0.5 to $1.3 trillion, and as much as 36% or $0.8 to $1.2 trillion in the agriculture, fisheries and food sectors

When building a silent propulsion system for boats and water sports equipment, octopuses served as a model for research. The system can be produced cost-effectively in a single operation using a 3D printer. © Fraunhofer IPA

Director of the Fraunhofer Institute
for Manufacturing Engineering
and Automation IPA
production technologies,
automation, biointelligence

Industry 4.0, factories of the future

Can sniff out/recognize special substances, e.g., volatile hydrocarbons in the breath of patients or explosives in a suitcase of someone passing by. Here, neurons are kept alive for two years in a carrier for specific tasks (such as a fluorescent reaction upon contact with specific molecules, e.g., in explosives) and integrated into a sensor that detects the glow and evaluates it using machine learning. © KonikuTM

The biological transformation of industrial value creation systematically applies knowledge about nature and biology to technology. The increasing technical use of materials, structures and processes from nature makes sustainable production methods with innovative technologies possible.

Products, industrial manufacturing processes and organizations and, related to this, the way people live their lives will change profoundly as a result. The right tools needed to develop this are provided by the research disciplines of biotechnology, automation, and materials science, as well as information and communications technology. Artificial intelligence methods (especially machine learning) are just as important for this as additive manufacturing or biotechnological production processes. Combining these and intelligent networking are the key to a biointelligent economy. Here, a new dimension is emerging in the innovation space with above-average growth that can compensate for some failures in the automotive industry, for example.


The biological transformation process can be divided into three modes of development: inspiration, integration and interaction. Firstly, inspiration allows us to apply biological phenomena that have evolved over millions of years to value creation systems. Companies are using this approach to develop novel materials and structures (e.g., lightweight construction), functionalities (e.g., biomechanics), and organizational and collaborative solutions (e.g., swarm intelligence, neural networks, evolutionary algorithms). This approach is already widely known and tested under the term bionics, but is growing massively with the use of digital technologies. Today, for example, the human genome can be decoded within a few hours for less than 100 euros. We therefore understand complex biological systems and phenomena more clearly and comprehensively than ever before and can incorporate this knowledge into designing completely new or optimized solutions.

In the second mode, knowledge of nature and biology is applied in the actual integration of biological systems into production systems, for example by substituting chemical processes with biological ones. Examples of this second mode include the use of microorganisms to recover rare earths from magnets, the functionalization of polymers, and the microbial recovery of bioplastics from CO2 waste streams. All forms of traditional biotechnology are also included in this approach

Production uses a fraction of the resources of meat production (96% less agricultural land, 87% less water use, and 89% less greenhouse gas emissions). The meat flavor of the Impossible Burger is achieved with vegetable hemoglobin through the fermentation of genetically modified yeast. (Source: das-riesige-potenzial-der-fermentation/)

Thirdly, the comprehensive interaction between technical, informational and biological systems, or merging these three levels of integration leads to completely new, self-sufficient production technologies and structures, so-called biointelligent value creation systems. In the coming years and decades, systems that merge software, hardware, and bioware into real-time capable architectures will gain massive importance for industrial value creation.

The three developmental modes play a crucial role in the course of biological transformation and are to be understood as interconnected processes. However, the interaction and the biointelligent systems that emerge as a result of this mode of development will gain the most momentum. One reason for this is the leap in recent years of groundbreaking advances in biotechnology, such as the genome-editing technology CRISPR/Cas, and in information technology, such as deep neural networks, the coupling of which will lead to radical innovations.


Biology is making its way into industrial value creation as part of biological transformation with the inspiring, integrating and interacting modes of development, enabling people to satisfy their needs in an ecologically balanced manner. Novel, biointelligent value creation enables personalized healthcare, intelligent traffic and production organization, plus decentralized production of consumer goods and food from renewable regional raw materials and recycled materials. The aspired technology-based demand economy is emerging with the convergence of essential key technologies from the disciplines of biology, production engineering and data processing. Here, an advanced form of economy is developing that takes into account the physical limits of our planet. In biointelligent value creation, the nature of consumption and the materials used are also undergoing fundamental change.

Decentralized, highly flexible, and adaptive smart biomanufacturing devices (SBMDs) are revolutionizing many consumer
products. These production units are coupled with self-learning
algDecentralized, highly flexible, and adaptive smart biomanufacturing devices (SBMDs) are revolutionizing many consumer products. These production units are coupled with self-learning algorithms to process regionally available biobased materials (including bioreactors, biorefineries) or directly into products with novel functionalities. Additive manufacturing is used in this process. Household and agricultural waste, highly efficient urban gardening systems, horizontal gardens or microalgae reactors on building facades, but also discarded products themselves, are sources of raw materials and energy. Industrial companies provide the technologies for these SBMDs. They provide communal manufacturing centers for more complex products and develop the digital blueprints for new products in close and direct exchange with consumers. Companies now urgently need to increase biological expertise in addition to informatics knowledge in order to incorporate balanced software, hardware and bioware into the design of sustainable solutions in the future.

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