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Generative Design: changing the way we think

Additive Manufacturing is slowly changing the way designers think. Generative Design takes this even further.

Generative design is an extremely useful tool for designers. It lets algorithms do the hard work – at a far greater pace than we can even imagine. Whereas our brains could possibly have a few ideas an hour, a computer can have thousands of ideas in a minute. Using generative design software, a designer can input parameters such as maximum weight and minimum strength; imposed loads; specify particular materials or different manufacturing methods and, importantly, any cost constraints. The software then explores thousands of permutations, testing and learning from each iteration, before offering a range of high-performance design options from which the designer can select whichever best meets her or his design criteria. It’s a totally new way to approach design. And 3D printing is the perfect partner.

There is a problem, though. And it’s us. It seems the limit of our collective imagination is a surprising glass ceiling, restricting us, without us even realising:

“I was trying to be imaginative and I wasn’t even close."

This comment was made by Stu Pann, HP’s Head of Supply Chain, in a recent interview with TCT Magazine. When developing their Multi Jet Fusion technology, they set out to create a new tool for manufacturers and then turned their own technology on themselves, seeing how many parts inside the MJF 3D printer could in fact be 3D printed. Stu Pann predicted that maybe there’d be three or four parts that could be economically realised this way. In fact, their first investigation revealed that SIXTY of roughly 112 plastic parts inside the printer could, and should, Pann said, be 3D printed. A fifteen-fold improvement on Pann’s imaginative estimate!

Changing behaviour and the way we think is hard - even for industry insiders. To realise the potential in generative design and any new technology can be a bit like turning an oil tanker. Subtractive manufacture is embedded in our psyche. Even creating the earliest tools saw us chipping away at a flint.

But it really does pay to change the way you think. Back to that TCT interview with HP. Their design engineers used generative design on a component, a machined aluminium block that holds sensors in place inside large industrial printing system. They managed to reduce its weight by 93% (355g to 23g), reduced its carbon footprint by 95%, and halved the cost to boot. That’s pretty remarkable potential.

So, what makes 3D printing such a perfect partner for generative design?

In creating parts optimised for weight and strength, the generative design process strips away any extraneous material. Some generative design processes result in forms that appear more like the root systems seen in nature than a ‘traditional’ idea of a component. 3D printing excels at realising such complex, organic forms and can do so cost-effectively, managing to produce shapes that would be impossible using traditional manufacturing methods.

The good fit with 3D printing has led to companies such as Autodesk developing a new generation of design software that will work directly with specific Additive Manufacturing technology. In Autodesk’s case, with HP MJF 3D printers. A recent collaboration with Disrupt Disability and AMFORI Consulting resulted in a ground-breaking customised and lightweight wheelchair. Using generative design and 3D printing the wheelchair uses less material, costs less in both production and shipping and, most importantly, makes life easier and better for the user.

It’s all about creating multiple design alternatives. As Autodesk explain on their website: ‘’With generative design, there is no single solution; instead, there are potentially thousands of great solutions. You choose the design that best fits your needs.’’

It’s early days, but the manufacturing industry is set to gain hugely from generative design, especially coupled with 3D printing. Innovative and supremely efficient, it provides incredible design flexibility, with lightweight parts optimised for strength.

We’ve just got to try harder with our collective imagination.

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