Generative Design & 3D Printing

Generative design has been making headlines recently as design software companies including Autodesk and architectural studios such as Zaha Hadid Architects continue to commit themselves to exploring its capabilities.

Driven by computer aided drawing tools, generative design uses algorithms to optimise the forms of designs. Complex mathematical calculations are used to increase strength to weight ratios for example and subsequently reduce material use and improve efficiency. These sorts of benefits are central to the promise of generative design.

By mimicking the efficiency and adaptability of nature, generative design tools will be capable of creating a huge number of forms that satisfy the requirements of a component or object, each only slightly differing for the last. Designers will be responsible for choosing from these forms and companies will adapt some of the lessons scientists and mathematicians have garnered from nature to create the proprietary software that designers use.

Ultimately, generative design aims to remove the need for intuition and tacit knowledge from the manufacturing of goods and the workmanship involved in making goods. From the perspective of the those involved in manufacturing this makes sound business sense. The computer goes above and beyond the potential of a designer, giving them the super powers of an engineer, able to create every possible solution to a given need. In a promotional video expounding the future potentials of generative design, Jeff Kowalski, CTO of Autodesk notes the “…unprecedented reductions in costs, development time, material consumption.” Speaking over the image of a busy factory scene from the early 1900s, he explains that unlike traditional manufacturing methods, that “require you to make massive numbers of something just in order to be profitable”, generative design will allow just one technology, namely 3D printing, to create the optimum form for all products.

In fact, generative design is really the first powerful embodiment of 3D printing technology, a technology that has for the most part failed to live up to expectations. Limited by low performance plastics the products of 3D printing have been suitable only for aesthetic, and novel applications. Granted despite these constrictions a few, magnificent, life-changing products have been realised, however the majority of 3D printed goods have been decidedly underwhelming. The materials available for 3D printers are developing however and it looks likely that performance materials, like steel and titanium will be more widely available in coming years.

The allure of generative design is that it promises to provide designers with a program that will guarantee that the thing they print will operate to pre-programmed criteria.

Analytical tools such as finite element analyses are standard plug-ins for computer aided drawing programs and can be used to analyse a given design, however they don't feed back into the design to optimise it as generative design does. This technology will find practical use in creating functional, load bearing or supportive objects and it's to be expected that the complex form of these components, parts and objects will finally justify the widespread adoption of 3D printing in manufacturing.

Inevitably we will begin to see the metal manufacturing industry restructured under this technology. There will continue to be need for bar and sheet materials however for anything complex or structural, generative design and 3D printing can be expected to become competitive quickly. Part of the savings involved in using generative design and 3D printing will be in removing the need for specialisation in the field of tool making and fabrication. Rather than needing to communicate the design of a part to another person to make the part the designer can simply, and cheaply, print a plastic replica of the finished part. Computer analyses will contribute to the design of the object and confirm that the finished part will complete the given task. The specialist fabricator and engineer will likely be the first to go.

No one can accurately predict the future, and these types of changes take time, however this could be the first real replacement for specialisation in metal manufacturing, or at least it will change what specialisation in metal manufacturing means. In relation to the products and services that metal manufacturing specialists currently service perhaps this is not such a bad thing, however the specialist job, and work, ultimately will cease to exist. Whether the promoters of this technology say it or not, we are moving away from skilled labour (inherently reliant on knowledge and intuition) towards unskilled labour, where every decision is correct, but some are better than others.

There are serious questions about how we wish work to be in the future that begin to arise when looking at the promises made by the design software companies and architecture firms advocating generative design and 3D printing. As we redesign our world, and the systems in place to make this world, we should also be thinking of the effects of these developments on labour and manufacturing. A restructured system for metal manufacturing will require people to man the machines, and we should be careful to create jobs of value and purpose for the generations that follow.