When creating a part or a product, the first step is often the hardest. Even if you are a highly skilled CAD expert, a professional engineer or a handy machinist, it can sometimes be difficult to step back and ask: How should this part be? What specific shape and arrangement would best serve its purpose? Is there a radically different way I could approach this part that would lead to better end results?
But what if there was a way to let a machine do that creative work for you? Wouldn’t it be great if, instead of trying to imagine new designs in your head, there was some software that would simply try out millions of new combinations and design possibilities?
In actual fact, that software exists, and it’s known in the business as generative design software. With generative design, engineers can approach part design a different way: instead of drawing up the blueprints of a part, the engineer specifies instead what that part must do. This information is inputted in the form of design parameters: Does the part need to bear a load? How strong does it need to be? What material restrictions are there? What is the budget? From there, the software does the legwork.
Possible generative design parameters:
- Maximum or minimum weight
- Manufacturing processes
- Load-bearing requirements
Imagine, for example, that you’re an engineer designing a coffee table, to be made from a specific material, that will eventually retail for under $100. You could sketch a few designs on paper and go from there, or you could leverage generative design software instead. With the generative design option, you could tell the software exactly what the table must do, and the software would generate multiple permutations of a coffee table according to your various conditions. Some might have three legs. Some might have hollowed out sections. Some might be unlike anything you’ve seen before. From those permutations — which could number in the hundreds or thousands, depending on your preferences — you could then select a chosen few to refine and develop.
Why use Generative Design?
The advantages of such an approach are obvious. First and foremost, allowing a computer to generate its own designs based on specified constraints can produce radical and innovative results — “ideas” that are so outside of the box, human minds would not necessarily think of them. Some of the computer-generated permutations will be less desirable than others, of course, but the generation of multiple options massively reduces the creative burden on the engineer.
Depending on the software used, generative design also allows for a great deal of flexibility in terms of materials and manufacturing processes. As long as the software understands how certain materials and manufacturing technologies work, it can generate designs suited specifically to those materials and technologies. While additive manufacturing and 3D printing often provides the most flexibility in terms of complex shapes, generative design is also suited to creating parts for CNC machining and other traditional manufacturing processes.
Although the terms mean quite different things, generative design is closely linked to the process of topology optimization. Like generative design, topology optimization is a design software process that uses algorithms to improve a design. It is generally used to remove unnecessary material from a design while ensuring maximum strength, often resulting in complex shapes that occasionally resemble natural structures. It is generally used to improve parts or sections that have a predefined shape, unlike generative design, which can produce a number of radically different designs as long as they ultimately serve the same end goal. Most generative design tools incorporate an element of topology optimization.
Where to Find Generative Design Tools
Although generative design sounds like a complex and futuristic process, it is becoming a more common element of CAD software. At present, generative design tools can be found in widely used software such as Fusion 360 from Autodesk and Siemens NX, as well as from dedicated generative design specialists like ParaMatters. The software options for generative design range from free tools to professional packages suitable for industrial projects.
After the design stage, prototyping and manufacturing is much like any other product. That means your generatively designed parts can be prototyped or manufactured using 3ERP’s machining, 3D printing, casting and other technologies.
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