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Generative Design and 3D Printing: Revolutionizing Design?

References Cited

Mechanical Computer Aided Design (MCAD)

November brought news for both Generative Design and 3D Printing. This post explains how the intersection of these two trends could revolutionize design.

It has been a really interesting month. Early on, I went to Denver for a 3D Systems event where they launched new units that promise production 3D Printing. A few weeks later, I was in Las Vegas at Autodesk University where numerous announcements were made public. When I started the month, I didn’t realize just how connected these two events would come to be. But… well… let me start at the beginning.

Realizing 3D Printing Production

Ever since interest has been rekindled in 3D printing, we’ve been pondering when it would make it into production. It seemed like an inevitability. And, sure enough, at that 3D Systems event in Denver, the made the plunge. Their new Figure 4 Platform promises to match the cost and speed of plastic injection machining. It is a big step forward, no doubt. Yet, I was intrigued when executives at the event stated that the biggest barrier had to do with engineering.

Those executives acknowledged that simply moving a part from plastic injection molding to 3D printing wouldn’t be that intriguing to manufacturers. The advantages in terms of costs and time simply aren’t there yet. Instead, they said that the full benefit of production 3D printing would come to fruition when engineers started to design differently. They had a point.

When engineers design without the constraints of subtractive manufacturing, interesting things happen. One of their customers gave a testimonial where they transformed a 150 part enclosure into a single part. That in itself is impressive. But on a broader note, subtractive manufacturing have always constrained engineers. You can’t have voids in parts, even though peak stresses are often on the outermost surfaces. Latticing sections of your design promises some promising weight to strength ratios, yet such components can’t be feasible molded, cast or machined. That is why executives at the event said that “software is the glue” in the success of these kinds of 3D printing advancements. 3D Systems offers a number of interesting print preparation tools like 3DXpert, 3D Sprint and more. Yet they need other companies to provide capabilities that allow engineers to transform the way they design.

Leaving Denver, I was intrigued by the potential I saw. Yet, I was also a little dispirited. Topology Optimization in the guise of Generative Design offers interesting capabilities, yet I hadn’t seen any indication that it would revolutionize the way engineers design. The glue was missing.

Reclaiming Generative Design

A little less than two weeks later, I was among 11,000 other attendees at Autodesk University. I was interested in hearing what advances Autodesk had made over the last year. They always save their powder for big events.

In particular, I was hoping for some kind of news about Generative Design. You see, a few years ago at the very same event, Autodesk introduced that novel idea to the world. They offered images of products that were grown using biomimicry among other methods. The idea was truly revolutionary. Since then, however, the term Generative Design has been co-opted. A number of companies developed or acquired topology optimization technologies, integrated them into their products, and announced them to the world as Generative Design. Soon, the idea of Generative Design became synonymous with Topology Optimization. As a big fan of the original intent of the idea, I was a bit disappointed. Make no mistake: Topology Optimization is a wonderful technology. But it isn’t the same as generating hundreds of candidates by growing a part.

In the keynote on the first day of this year’s Autodesk University, I was pleasantly surprised when executives reintroduced the concept of growing parts using Generative Design, now available in production software. Digging in a little deeper over the next couple of days, I saw that it wasn’t just Topology Optimization, but some method that did grow components. In fact, it can grow a large number of them, plotting their performance against key metrics.

So I had seen it. There’s a new tool that offers the means to revolutionize the way engineers design. We should be sitting on the precipice of a new area. All that was missing was the correct software, right? Right?

Culture Change

You know, writing this reminds me of Model-Based Definitions.

That whole effort, which moves information from drawings and embeds them into models instead, had stalled for years because there was a lack of functionality in CAD applications. Manufacturers were adamant about requesting new capabilities. Slowly, over time, those gaps were closed. So did adoption skyrocket? Well. No. The change represented a major shift in not only how engineers document their designs, but also how downstream consumers of those items work. Only now are we starting to see some mainstream movement, some five years after we arrived from a technology perspective.

I hope I’m wrong, but I think we’re on the same path with the change in how engineers design.

When people are short on time, and engineers are some of the most overworked roles in manufacturing, they revert back to known practices and processes. This is especially true of methods that require greater investment upfront for some benefit that will be realized later. It has been true with the simulation-driven design movement. It has been true of the Model-Based Definition movement. I expect it will be true of the move towards the combination of Generative Design and 3D Printing.

I hope I’m wrong. I hope it comes faster.

The good news here is that the technology issues are starting to clear up. Production 3D printing seems like it is starting to become viable. Generative Design, a version that is more than Topology Optimization, is available in production software. The potential to change how engineers design does exist. Those are all good things.

Ready to discuss? Drop a comment below. I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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