Generative Design & 3D Printing

The Dynamic Duo of Modern Manufacturing

Generative Design (GD) is a term that describes a variety of automated processes that use artificial intelligence to generate various product designs that meet specific requirements, while optimizing resources and accounting for constraints. GD’s early adopters realized that the design solutions generated were difficult to produce in real life with conventional manufacturing methods, so they turned to 3D printing to bring their creations to life.

As the popularity and accessibility of 3D printing increased, companies began to explore the possibilities and benefits that 3D printing offered to the various stages of product development and mass production.

This article will explore the evolution of GD, its relation to 3D printing, their combined benefits, and examples of their industrial application.

The Rise of Generative Design

With the advent of the digital age, Computer Assisted Design (CAD) tools came to the rescue of product designers facing the pressures of fierce market competition. With the high demand to create aesthetically pleasing, low-cost, high-quality products, designers required better tools that could help them provide the highest possible efficiency to the product design process. To fulfill this demand, the application of artificial intelligence and deep generative models to CAD software gave rise to GD.

Before GD, designers used to have an idea of what they intended to create before using a CAD tool to transcribe it. They made a proposal of how the product would look like to then submit it to the evaluation of the engineers responsible for prototyping and manufacture. It was only after some back and forth that the design could become a prototype, and then become a product.

In an effort to speed up this process Generative Product Design Systems emerged. At the beginning, they consisted of a shape “grammar” that could be interactively explored by the designers at the conceptual design stage and could produce multiple forms. However, the designers still had to produce themselves the shapes that constituted the grammar.

This is where generative models and artificial intelligence were applied to account for physical properties and material constraints, and then generate large numbers of different design options automatically, which placed the designer more in the role of evaluator than creator. Software was developed to take explicitly into account engineering requirements and other needs of designers, including interfaces that displayed both single and multi-attribute property controllers to allow designers to explore trade-offs between competing requirements.

In providing thousands of options for product designers to evaluate, GD offered a more efficient approach to the early design process, thus reducing development and material costs. However, while the software succeeded in delivering optimal shapes based on user query, the organic and somewhat alien-like geometries and topologies generated weren’t possible to produce with traditional manufacturing methods.

Enter 3D Printing

Charles Hull invented stereolithography (SLA), a process for creating three-dimensional objects, in which a computer-controlled moving laser beam is used to build up the required structure, layer by layer, from a liquid polymer that hardens on contact with laser light. This additive approach of SLA enabled the production of complex shapes, even those generated with GD. Hull invented, later on, the .stl file format, which transfers data from CAD software to 3D printers, essentially enabling the designs of GD to come to life.

As time went on, new 3D printers and techniques expanded the horizons of size and materials that could be used, making the technology more accessible and adaptable to various industries and company sizes.

While product designers and engineers explored the possibilities that 3D printing offered and began applying them to mass production, the concept of Additive Manufacturing (AM) was born. AM is, in a nutshell, 3D printing applied at an industrial scale to product development and manufacture.

Joined Forces

When AM is joined by GD, their individual benefits accrue to huge time, cost and material savings in the development and manufacture of products across a wide range of company sizes and industries.

For example, WHILL, a wheelchair company, designed a wheelchair using GD and AM to develop and work with various prototypes in-house, reducing design and prototyping costs from the beginning. After testing and optimizing individual wheelchair parts, the company was able to cut their final manufacturing costs and lighten the wheelchair frame by more than 40%.

Industry giants noticed the efficiency and cost-saving benefits of the combination of GD and AM too. Airbus produced back in 2015 the world’s largest 3D printed aircraft component using GD. Autodesk and Hyundai have partnered to use GD and AM to deliver TIGER (Transforming Intelligent Ground Excursion Robot), the first un-crewed Ultimate Mobility Vehicle, with the ability to perform different missions such as delivery in urban settings, transport of critical supplies in remote environments, or carrying sensors and instruments as part of a mobile scientific exploration platform.

But the sky isn’t the limit. NASA is exploring GD solutions for additive metal printing and other manufacturing techniques to design a lander capable of making the journey to the moons of Saturn and Jupiter.

The Future

Whether to create objects that make everyday life easier, aid scientific expeditions, or explore the solar system and beyond, GD and AM enhance the capabilities of companies to explore great amounts of design solutions, develop prototypes, and manufacture products using less time and money within an environment of high competition and increasing demands in efficiency.

Most importantly, GD and AM transform the role of designers and engineers from creators, to the role of explorers and evaluators of previously unimaginable designs, giving them the ability to expand the horizons of human creativity and ingenuity, thus taking technology and industry to new levels.

Consulted Readings




B.A. in international management & M.A. in European business. History, culture, nature & science enthusiast. Avid reader and hobby writer.

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B.A. in international management & M.A. in European business. History, culture, nature & science enthusiast. Avid reader and hobby writer.

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