Generative design enables a new range of production and design options ©Autodesk
Generative design enables a new range of production and design options ©Autodesk

Tech briefing: generative design

Feed in the needs of your product and a whole cloud of computers will use top tech to provide design solutions based on nature

What it is

Technology is changing the way we design. Over the past decade, rapid advancement in areas such as additive manufacturing (another name for 3D printing), artificial intelligence (AI), unlimited cloud computing power and generative design tools allow anyone to create thousands of design options by punching into a computer the basic parameters such as height, the weight a product must support, its strength and the material options.

The generative design results look beyond traditional manufacturing methods and offer solutions that incorporate new additive manufacturing.

Instead of the straight lines, geometric curves and solid surfaces we’re used to seeing, the process mimics how organisms evolve in the natural world, creating alien-looking parts, while optimising the manufacturing process and saving on material usage. Check the lightweight, load-bearing engine block above.

How it works

Simple shapes are popular in design as they’ve always been the easiest to manufacture, but with 3D printing moving towards commercially competitive speeds and costs, manufacturing is changing and more complex designs are increasingly possible.

Generative design software helps by using the power of cloud computing and machine learning to explore a set of new solutions, such as producing an intricate lattice structure to add strength without weight. It expands beyond the engineer or designer’s knowledge to offer unique and valid solutions to their design challenge.

In addition to creating new solutions, generative design takes manufacturability into account, reducing the need to pre-test and tweak products. Traditional optimisation focuses on adapting or refining a previous product, creating a new model, simulating and testing it all again before an item can go into production.

With generative design, the simulation is built into the design process. You can choose specific manufacturing methods at the outset and the software only produces designs that can be made in that way.

How it’s being used now

At the forefront of generative design is software company Autodesk. It teamed up with Airbus to redesign the partitions that separate sections inside its A320 aircraft using generative design and 3D printing. What this created was a partition 30kg lighter than current designs, which will result in a reduction of jet fuel – Airbus estimates the new design could save 465,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions a year. The frame structure was based on bone growth, dense only at stress points.

Autodesk has also collaborated with American sportswear manufacturer Under Armour to produce a unique training shoe, the UA Architect. The company wanted the trainer to be comfortable, durable, lightweight and supportive. Together they came up with a lattice structure for the sole, inspired by tree roots. The design would have been too intricate and complex for traditional manufacturing methods, but was achievable using a combination of generative design and 3D printing.

In the future, items we use every day and the vehicles we travel in will be created using this technology. Products may take on novel shapes or be made with unique materials as computers aid engineers in creating previously impossible solutions.

As AI becomes part of work processes and generative design becomes the norm, it seems inevitable that AI will design goods that are better suited to consumer needs, quicker, with less fuel waste, while reducing the negative impact on our planet.

Supply chain benefits

One of generative design’s key advantages for the supply chain is that it can understand a level of complexity that is beyond human ability. Not only does this simplify the supply chain by reducing the number of parts required, it can cut the number of assembly lines needed, and reduce both manufacturing costs and overall maintenance needs. With its ability to explore thousands of solutions, generative design affects far more than the just the design stage. This is really about improving the entire manufacturing process.

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