Autodesk's Jesse Harrington Au with generatively designed bow at AU 2015.
Picture a basic dining table - a rectangle or circle, four posts and that’s about it, right? As humans we’re based on an industrial way of thinking and the way we have built the world around us has been influenced by years and years of believing ‘this is how something should look’.
Now with the help of computers and advanced manufacturing methods, our dependable way of dreaming up products is being challenged as we start to see designs that are unlike anything we’ve ever come across before. Displacing the idealised future-vision of clean, angular, minimalistic products, designers and engineers are now going completely against the grain with a form of design that is more akin to the movement of nature, powered by algorithms instead of standard engineering principles.
I met with Jesse Harrington Au, Autodesk’s Chief Maker Advocate at Autodesk University, the company’s annual design software spectacular in Las Vegas - and by spectacular I mean Stormtroopers, break-dancers, robots, the works - to talk about how generative design is opening up possibilities for a future of making things differently.
“The solutions are so organic. People who have been engineers for years are trying to bend their minds around these weird geometric shapes and say ‘yes that's right, the algorithm is correct’,” Jesse explained. “There have been a lot more physical projects coming out that have turned into a reality. Now we can look at them and ask what is missing, what do we need.”
The standout example of this, which we saw at AU, was the world’s largest 3D printed aeroplane cabin component, the “bionic partition". A collaboration between Autodesk, Airbus and The Living, the part is a reimagined and optimised version of the dividing wall between the seating area and plane galley that holds the jump seat for flight attendants. A perfect case of how “technology is making the quantum leap from passive to generative”, as Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk CTO describes, the part was 3D printed in Scalmalloy, an aluminium-magnesium-scandium alloy created by APWorks, and is 45% lighter than any current traditionally manufactured partition on the Airbus A320.
Airbus 'bionic partition'.
The ability to create optimised parts for aerospace is not only beneficial because it reduces material costs but it also shrinks the costs associated with the entire aircraft throughout its lifetime. Fuel costs can be reduced dramatically by a significant weight loss in individual parts, which is why the aerospace industry happens to be one of the biggest adopters of additive manufacturing. With this new generative design approach, Airbus estimates a saving of up to 465,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions per year.
As designs made with generative are so complex, additive manufacturing is often the only way these chaotic shapes can be realised. But as with any new technology, designers are sceptical and even fearful that generative design will have a negative effect on their work - the old, “the machines are taking our jobs!” is a very real concern. Generative design mimics cellular structures and bone growth and is capable of computing large sets of design alternatives to meet specific constraints to improve design quality and performance. It enables the creation of designs that humans would not otherwise be able to come up with but really that’s a good thing – in many ways generative is taking the work out for us and giving designers even more freedom to create better, optimised and sustainable solutions. Generative marks a change in the way people think about designing. It’s not about an automated solution replacing traditional skills; it’s about co-creating design with a computational power that’s living up in the cloud. The designer still chooses the constraints, the goals, what they want the final piece to achieve but the software determines the most optimised way of presenting that in a manufacturable product.
Jesse commented: “It’s remarkable. This is where we should be going, we should be working with nature.”
Some of the generative pieces on display at AU included a stunning archery “Optima” bow designed by John Briscella as part of the Autodesk Artists in Residence program. But another area where generative is showing the most value, is in the medical field, something Autodesk is championing with the acquisition of Within. Designed to optimise the 3D printing of medical implants, Within Medical software uses micro lattice structures, which the human body responds to much more successfully for osseointegration. Generative works so well in this area because the forms it produces are similar to that of the human body. Look at a generative piece and it assimilates the make-up of bones.
“It's been really interesting to watch that grow within the medical field,” Jesse commented. “Titanium being one of the only materials that your body will actually internalise rather than reject, it really does create some interesting solutions medically. So we've seen that coming out of generative and people are mixing that with the precision of Ember [Autodesk’s open source DLP 3D printer] to revolutionise some things in the dental industry.”
A lot of cool technology talks about ‘the future’ and though generative design may seem like a world away from what we currently know, it is in fact being used right now from things like art to implants. Those medical examples are already living inside hundreds of people across the globe and that’s only set to expand as adoption grows and boundaries disappear. For aerospace, the Airbus partition has already completed its first phase of testing and further assessments are expected to commence later this year along with a debut test flight. Autodesk’s ambitions state that we could see this component on the market as early as 2018 with other parts to follow in 2020, laying the foundations for changing the way we travel - and beyond.