Generative design could bring a new burst of innovation to engineering

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For an astronaut working in space, perhaps as far away as 240,000 miles from Planet Earth, the design of the life support backpack that provides them with oxygen, heating and cooling inside of their spacesuits couldn’t be more important.

That backpack must be as safe and reliable as possible, but at the same time lightweight, so that it doesn’t impede the wearer’s mobility. 

It makes sense, then, that when it came to creating its Exploration Portable Life Support System, or xPLSS, NASA contractor Jacobs Engineering Group wanted to explore new realms in design. Its mission: to squeeze the best performance possible out of every kilogram in its life support backpack. 

To arrive at their optimum design, engineers at the Houston, Texas-based company used generative tools in PTC’s Creo 3D CAD software to create a huge range of options, experimenting with hundreds of combinations of different materials along the way and investigating the viability of a range of manufacturing processes, both traditional and additive manufacturing. 

Not only were they able to achieve part mass reduction of around 50%, but they now expect their use of generative design technology to shorten design times by 20%. 

That’s an important point, because while generative design is increasingly recognised as a way to challenge design conventions and cast the innovation net wider, it’s also about getting to better ideas faster – often, a lot faster. And for many product design organisations, that could help unlock new territories and markets in 2022. 

Requirements, goals and constraints

At their heart, generative design tools rely on artificial intelligence (AI) and Simulation technology to autonomously create optimal designs from engineering and manufacturing requirements. First, engineers input these requirements, along with goals, loads and constraints, such as preferred materials and manufacturing processes. Then, the generative engine will automatically produce a design. This may prove to be the final design or, more likely, a starting point that provides engineers with the basis for rapid iteration. In this case, they will continue to interact with the technology, creating better, even more innovative designs along the way, until they are satisfied, they’ve achieved the optimum result. 

According to a study by market research company Imarc Group, the global generative design market reached a value of $192.9 million in 2021. And the company expects it to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of almost 19% over the next five years, to reach $526 million by 2027.

Companies will invest because, as an April 2022 report from strategy firm McKinsey points out: “Design is playing an increasingly important role in companies’ overall success.” The report’s authors observe a shift from the ‘design to cost’ approaches that many adopted two decades ago, to a more modern ‘growth by design’ approach.  

This is better equipping companies to tackle various challenges, they write, “such as generating growth through improved ratings; refining the product portfolio more surgically at the attribute level to both reduce redundancy (overlaps) and to address unmet needs (gaps); embracing design for manufacturability; and harnessing the latest technology to optimise geometries.” 

On this last point, the report picks out two technologies in particular: digital simulation tools such as finite element analysis (FEA) and generative design. 

Generatively greener

Since 2022 is also a year in which companies can be expected to ramp up their efforts to meet sustainability goals and mandates, it’s important to note that here, too, generative design has a role to play. The goal of more sustainable manufacturing will force them to consider new processes that are non-polluting, conserve energy and other natural resources, and address the economic and safety needs of employees, communities and consumers. 

Generative design can help fast track these efforts, bringing to light more sustainable materials options; identifying the most energy-efficient forms of manufacture; and reducing the final mass of products (lightweighting), considerably lowering their consumption of energy and raw materials while at the same time improving their technical performance.

In 2022, the combination of innovation and sustainability makes generative design a compelling prospect for companies. At Volvo, it’s already helping engineers to 3D print brackets for vehicles that are lighter than ever. At Jacobs, it has enabled product design to reach dizzying new heights. And along the way, it is challenging established ideas of what a product ‘should’ look like, how it ‘should’ be made and how it ‘should’ perform, at every stage in its lifecycle, from initial concept to end of life. 

Get to grips with the future factory at Advanced Manufacturing (18-22 July), part of the Engineering Futures webinar series. Register for FREE today

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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