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Jeff Rowe
Jeff Rowe
Jeffrey Rowe has more than 40 years of experience in all aspects of industrial design, mechanical engineering, and manufacturing. On the publishing side, he has written well over 1,000 articles for CAD, CAM, CAE, and other technical publications, as well as consulting in many capacities in the … More »

Are We Finally Witnessing the Future of Making Things?

November 17th, 2016 by Jeff Rowe

Along with almost 10,000 other attendees, I was in Las Vegas this week at Autodesk University and am still trying to comprehend if I’ve just seen the future of manufacturing.

To a large extent, Autodesk’s vision for the future of making things stems from what it calls generative design.

So what is generative design? According to Autodesk’s official definition, generative design mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design.

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AU 2016: The Future Of Making Things

In the digital realm, designers and engineers input design goals into generative design software, along with parameters, such as manufacturing methods, materials, and cost constraints. Using cloud computing, the software quickly explores all possible permutations of a solution, generating design alternatives. The software then tests and learns from each iteration what works, what doesn’t, and what works best.

In other words, with generative design, there is not necessarily a single solution to a problem, instead, there are potentially thousands of solutions that address the initial problem.

Generative design is a broadly used term. In Autodesk vernacular, there are four (actually more) common methods of generative design, including:

  • Form Synthesis – With this approach, designers input their goals and constraints, and the software runs artificial intelligence-based algorithms to produce a wide range of design alternatives.
  • Lattice and Surface Optimization – This method applies internal lattices and optimized surface structures to an existing component to make it lighter and stronger.
  • Topology Optimization – This approach reduces the weight of an existing component by running analysis to remove unnecessary material, while meeting or exceeding performance criteria.
  • Trabecular Structures – This method precisely scales and distributes tiny pores through solid materials, and creates surface roughness to mimic bone in medical implants to help patients heal.

While Inventor received some respectful attention at AU this year, Fusion 360 was the product that really received the spotlight, especially with regard to generative design, a capability that will be made available in stages in coming months (although no specific timetable was given). I do wonder, though, of what are Inventor’s ultimate place and fate in the Autodesk manufacturing software ecosystem.

Like generative design in general, in Fusion 360 it provides the ability to input desired design criteria, such as weight, size, cost, etc., and let algorithms in the software design geometries that satisfy the constraints. The first stage that was seen in this month’s release was about shape optimization. Next up is supposed to be structural latticing for optimizing products and processes for additive manufacturing.

While not exactly generative design, but a nice addition to Fusion 360 is ECAD functionality. When it’s available soon, users will be able to choose PCB files and have them translated into their mechanical designs via the cloud. Changes update automatically and cloud libraries will be available to populate boards with common 3D electronic components. This capability is not exclusive to Fusion 360, of course, but is a welcome addition for true mechatronic design.

Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk’s Senior Vice President, Business Strategy & Marketing and Chief Marketing Officer, said “The conversation about the future of making things is not new; Autodesk has been having it for about three years. What’s different this year is that generative design is not just a conversation anymore, not just ideas, and technology we’re thinking about. These things are happening now and are being applied across every industry we serve.

According to Anagnost, we can teach computers to learn, then teach computers to have intuition, all in a design context.

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Automated Robotic Workcell at Autodesk University 2016

Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk’s CTO, said “I think it’s remarkable that computers are going to amplify ideas and start having opinions. But here’s the really interesting part: Imagine if a computer were doing this in its off hours. What if it were generating new forms on its own, putting them through analyses, and seeing the relationship of cause and effect? The systems that understand those linkages will start getting hunches about things that a company is working on”.

“How many times have you ever talked about learning a new design tool? I think it’s about time there was a design tool that learned you”.

“This is a world reliant more than ever before on imagination and innovation. Those are the twin engines in a world of infinite expressibility (a phrase I’d never heard before this week), and the great news is, everyone is empowered with them. Imagination and innovation made designers passionate about designing and creating things in the first place, and I am extremely excited to be working on tools for the imagination age—an age in which CAD represents a new buzzword: computer as designer”.

“Computers that creatively come up with ideas on their own are the heart of generative design. In generative design, you share your goal with the computer, tell it what you want to achieve, as well as the constraints involved, and the computer actually explores the solution space to find and create ideas that you would never think of on your own”.

So, with regard to the initial question, are we finally witnessing the future of making things, I would have to say, yes. With what I experienced this week, the promise of the future of making things has been made with claims by several vendors, they have largely remained just that — claims. On the other hand, Autodesk has most of the pieces necessary to start making the future of making things a reality, and is actually doing it.

Editor’s Note: We recorded several video interviews this week at AU 2016 that will be available for viewing on November 25, 2016.

Disclosure: Autodesk paid for accommodations, some meals, and entertainment.

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