The first time I heard about generative design was two years ago at Autodesk University. During the opening keynote, Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski discussed it, but more about the power of cloud / infinite computing than about generative design. It stuck with me as it seemed to have endless possibilities, but only recently did the light bulb go off that there is an application for manufacturers and not only with additive manufacturing (3D Printing).

Jeff Kowalski

Generative Design = Topology Optimization?

The term Generative Design has become a bit overused and is unfortunately now more of a generic term. Thank the sales teams for a few of the larger CAD developers for blurring the lines.

Generative Design takes parametric modeling to a whole new level. You pass a set of parameters to an algorithm (a defined set of rules) and it iterates through the model, adjusting the parameters until it finds the optimal design.

Topology Optimization is a design conceptual tool that relies on finite element methods to optimize material for a defined set of criteria. You specify the boundary conditions, the loads, and the target and it figures out how to remove or deform the material to hit the target.

Both have really become a possibility due to the availability of infinite computing. It is becoming available to the mainstream public due to the accessibility of infinite computing (i.e. its getting cheaper).

Carl Bass (Autodesk CEO) said this about infinite computing…

“Infinite computing is the confluence of three trends: an exponential increase in available computing power; access to that power; and the precipitous fall in the cost of that power. Today, computing is the least expensive resource we can throw at a problem.”

Think about designing a bike frame. You know the position of the key components: pedals, seat, wheels, and handlebars. You also have a good idea of the loads that will be applied (forces, moments, etc). The goal is to create the lightest component possible without compromising the strength. What material should you use? Where can you remove material? What would be the most environmental friendly material? The answer to these questions can be found using topology optimization.

So why use it? Increase the quality of your design and “dramatically” reduce the costs and materials used. Plus you can use it early in the conceptual design process to steer your design.

What topology optimization suggests, although optimal, may be expensive or infeasible to manufacture. As the technology evolves we’ll start to also specify manufacturing constraints, so the optimization yields engineering designs that would satisfy practical manufacturing requirements. Topology Optimization’s goal is the optimal design for your criteria, it is not to make an inexpensive or feasible model to manufacture using traditional methods.  However, with the advances in additive manufacturing  these shapes are now feasible to manufacture.,

Project Dreamcatcher

Autodesk Research kicked off a project in 2009 to “present a physics-based generative design approach to interactive form-finding.” It makes sense this is something Autodesk would be interested in and could develop. They have the software (knowledge), the resources, and the cloud experience.

The research lead to Project Dreamcatcher an “experimental design platform with focused research probes into generative design systems” The Dreamcatcher workflow… Inspire, Generate, Explore, and Fabricate.

Dreamcatcher Workflow

The designer inputs the design objectives, things like material type, manufacturing method, cost restrictions, weight restrictions, loads, and other functional requirements. The system then does its thing and the alternatives are presented for selection “along with the performance data of each solution, in the context of the entire design solution space.

Dreamcatcher Shape Synthesis

image from the Project Dreamcatcher website

Dreamcatcher has been used on just about anything conceivable, buildings, bridges, car parts, bike frames, there really is no limit.

Autodesk Within

So research is great, but what about in the “real” world. Autodesk has just recently released Autodesk Within (based on technology acquired in 2014). Autodesk Within includes the Nastran solver to both optimize your design and test it after. Autodesk Within – Generative design for additive manufacturing. “Within generative design software solutions help engineers and orthopedic implant specialists produce lightweight, latticed designs that are functionally optimized and accurate for additive manufacturing.

The goal of Within is to model lattices, which normally are difficult or impossible to model, but provide the optimal design for plastic and other components made with additive manufacturing. Lattice structures are porous meaning less material. For designers it means lighter parts, in the medical realm this means a more membrane like way to mimic anatomical textures. The parts design are now actually producible thanks to the gains of 3D printing – both plastic and metal.

Autodesk Within Additive Manufacturing

image from the Autodesk Within Product Page

There are two flavours of Within: Autodesk Within for Mechanical Engineers / Designers and Autodesk Within Medical for Medical Implant Designers.

The goal of Autodesk Within? “Achieve results that are lighter weight than the original, as stiff or as flexible as needed, and have the aesthetics you want“… but optimized for “faultless additive manufacturing” Use Autodesk Within Medical to “generate micron-accurate rough lattice surfaces to aid fixation with bone. Improve osseointegration using porous random lattices and lattice topologies to encourage cell growth.”

What Can I Do?

I think this is an area to really keep an eye on, even if you don’t 3D Print or use additive manufacturing currently or plan to in the near future. Who wouldn’t want lighter, but yet just as strong, components without comprising the strength? Exactly.

As a conceptual design tool, generative design takes a lot of the leg work out of finding the optimal “starter” shape of your design.

So for those of us not currently using additive manufacturing this is really just a heads-up, read as much about the subject as you can, and start looking for the opportunities that are bound to start happening.

Autodesk Within Demo

Autodesk Within Optimisation Demo as posted to YouTube by the Autodesk Within team