Nature is a powerful resource for engineering designers. The natural world provides numerous cases for analogy and inspiration in engineering design. Transferring the valuable knowledge and inspiration gained from the biology domain to the engineering domain during concept generation is a somewhat disorganized process and relies heavily on the designers’ insight and background knowledge of many fields to make the necessary leaps between the domains. Furthermore, the novice designer approaching biology for inspiration tends to focus heavily on copying the visual attributes of a biological system to develop a solution that looks like the biological system rather than explore at deeper levels to uncover relationships that lead to the development of true analogies.

There are now well-known methods for teaching bioinspired design in engineering and the majority of methods prescribe the use of analogies in order to facilitate knowledge transfer, however, guidance in analogy formulation to foster the creative leaps is missing or ill defined. Thus little is known about how students use biological systems for design inspiration. This paper proposes categories for analogical knowledge transfer in bio-inspired design to foster and characterize diverse analogical knowledge transfer. The proposed analogy categories are used to describe the behavior seen in an engineering class. Results indicate that (1) single biological system provides multiple analogies that result in different engineering inspiration for design; (2) biological information from multiple categories is transferred during concept generation; and (3) non-physical characteristics may inspire more sophisticated engineering inspiration than those based on physical characteristics alone. Overall, the analogy data classification has resulted in a better understanding of analogical knowledge transfer during bio-inspired design and leads to best practices for teaching bio-inspired design to engineering students.

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