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Generative Design: what is it and how does it work?

7 May 2018

Good is the result of blending technical knowledge with innovation working through a process of concepts and prototypes before a final version is produced. Until now, design has typically been a human endeavour, with computer aided packages assisting the process more recently. However, the evolution of generative design, is revolutionising this base concept. Driven by the 4th industrial revolution, significant leaps in technology are forcing the traditional design paradigm to evolve, as human and artificial intelligence combine to create optimal designs.

Generative design was first defined in 1992, as a process of creating multiple variations of form, identifying the best elements before deciding on a finished product by comparing outcomes. The vast amount of iterations that can be performed in a short period results in fully optimised final outcomes.

Most generative design processes begin by setting the required parameters for what you are trying to achieve. The design is then created using one of two design variations; randomly generated numbers or genetic algorithms.

It is widely accepted that the genetic algorithm approach heralds the best results. Once the parameters have been set, the programme utilises cloud computing to perform and analyse thousands, or millions, of variations against these parameters. Artificial Intelligence-based software resolves conflicts in the design specifications by choosing an optimal balance between different constraints. It then provides a condensed choice of designs that are within the set parameters.

The 4th Industrial Revolution (4IR) is characterised by inter-connectivity. It describes the way in which people, physical objects and cyber networks are linked to offer products and solutions that ultimately improve how we live. A key tenant of 4IR is the emergence of the Internet of Things (IoT) as more and more inanimate objects become networked to enable their ‘smart’ use. This development, alongside the increasing use of big data have created the ideal environment for generative design to flourish. For example, 3D printing means that prototypes of the variations can be made quickly and sent to other locations and departments for approval and review easily.

Types of generative design

Form optimisation

Form optimisation is a common method of generative design for product and component design. It often involves collaboration between designers and engineers who input goals and parameters. The AI runs a set of algorithms, programmed to create multiple variations and the computer then automatically selects results that are an ideal balance of the design aims and constraints. Linked to the cloud, the programme can produce many thousands of designs in the time it would take a person to create two or three.

Lattice and surface optimisation

Designers are often tasked with making products or components lighter, stronger or more cost effective. Generatively designing a honeycomb lattice interior or exterior can achieve all of these goals at once.

For example, UNYQ, a company that specialise in orthopaedic and prosthetic medical equipment used generative design to improve back braces worn by scoliosis patients, a debilitating disease that causes curvature of the spine. The new design has 75% less material than the traditional brace making it more lightweight and the porous internal structure allows for more manoeuvrability.

Topology optimisation

Optimising topology means making the most of the space within a structure. The goal of the generative design in this case, would be to reduce the weight of the product or component, while achieving criteria such as durability. For example, sports equipment manufacturer New Balance have developed a type of training shoe that has a generatively designed sole. The sole is 3D printed with a flexible honeycomb-type structure making it is more supportive for the athlete, more hard-wearing, more lightweight and comprises of less material.

Trabecular structures

Trabecular structures have a predominantly medical use for generative design. It is the process of design that scales and distributes tiny pores through and internal structure to create a surface that mimics bone. The microscopic beam-like tissue elements in the body that anchor and bind different parts together using generative design algorithms. Key applications of this medical technique are the creation of implants such as hip replacements and plates. Accurate and clever design from the generative design process increases the chances of the body accepting the implant and also speeds up the healing process.

Business benefits of generative design

The benefits of generative design for consumers are obvious. Products and components that are stronger, lighter and will last longer create value and more relevant products for their specific needs. In the case of medical implants, the process can impact health and wellbeing. The commercial benefits of generative design solutions are complex. It can increase productivity by creating thousands of rapid, optimised design iterations quickly. It also relieves the time burden of repetitive tasks and calculations, freeing up designers and engineers to work on other tasks that require human creativity. In turn, this saves costs as the number of working hours is reduced to produce the same results.

Generative design often yields incredibly interesting designs. As the programme is approaching the problem mathematically, the aesthetic results are often a long way from how a human would tackle the problem, resulting in aesthetically pleasing designs. This computerised creativity provides solutions that would have taken a long time to conceive, and ultimately, may lead to increased sales due to the originality of products. This benefit yields increased customer loyalty and satisfaction as better designs mean happier customers.

Generative design often creates environmentally sustainable solutions. The inherent material reduction means less waste and less energy consumption increasing efficiency in a number of crucial areas.

The future of generative design

Although generative design powered by cloud computing and the technology of the 4th industrial revolution is relatively new, there is rapid progress taking place in this area. Many industries including construction, architecture, manufacturing, transport and aerospace have been quick to realise the huge advantages of applying generative design and it is becoming widely applied.

Any business that wants to speed up their design process will benefit, especially those on the lookout for more efficient products. Once generative design has become commonplace, it’s likely to fuel a new era of innovation – one that will change the way we look at the world.

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