Can Generative Design Propel Sustainability in the Manufacturing Industry?

September 23, 2020 Sarah Wesseler

As hurricanes, wildfires, and other climate-related disasters make headlines around the planet following the hottest decade on record, public concern about global warming is rising. With the UN warning that we have until only 2030 to avert a climate catastrophe, consumers increasingly vote with their wallets when it comes to environmental concerns, providing a strong incentive for manufacturers to go green.

Technology can help. Generative design particularly holds the potential to accelerate sustainability gains in the manufacturing industry in the coming years.

Less Is More

Generative design uses artificial intelligence to rapidly create and analyze solutions for a given problem, greatly reducing the time required for iterative problem-solving. During the past decade, the technology has gained traction steadily within the manufacturing sector. As computational processing power and software improve, more companies are looking to incorporate it into their workflows.

sustainability in manufacturing industry
Airbus Innovation Manager Bastian Schaefer with the first iteration of the bionic partition. Courtesy of Airbus.

To date, lightweighting product parts has been the most common use case for generative design in manufacturing—finding ways to reduce a part’s mass while retaining its functionality, typically achieved through additive fabrication processes. For example, General Motors (GM) employed generative design to consolidate an eight-part seat bracket into a single part, at the same time making the new bracket 40% lighter and 20% stronger. Airbus also used generative design to re-create interior partition panels for the A320, which yielded a divider that uses substantially less material than standard models.

Lightweighting has a number of important sustainability benefits. Removing unnecessary bulk eliminates waste—including energy use and carbon emissions—throughout the supply chain, stretching back to the extraction and processing of raw materials. During the manufacturing stage, it conserves energy by reducing factory machinery usage time; during the product-use phase, it reduces fuel requirements for products designed to move (for example, cars and planes). Making parts stronger in addition to lighter can also extend their lifespan, which in turn reduces the need for repair, replacement, and spare-parts inventory.

But generative design’s potential environmental benefits go beyond lightweighting for individual parts. As the technology continues to improve and opportunities arise within manufacturing lifecycles, new use cases will emerge. “There are possibilities that haven’t even been thought of yet,” says Chelsea Cummings, a senior advisor at additive manufacturing consultancy The Barnes Global Advisors.

A Systems Approach

One important opportunity lies beyond individual parts, exploring opportunities to redesign larger systems. This could mean using algorithmic intelligence to rethink an entire product instead of just one component. “There are whole vehicles built from generative design—it’s all one piece,” Cummings says. “You don’t have a bunch of assembly piece parts being put together.”

When GM reduced its seat bracket from eight parts to one, not only could the company optimize for the smallest mass but it also reduced supply-chain costs and waste associated with assembling multiple parts, which may be sourced from multiple suppliers.

This logic can apply to a wide range of designed objects. Dutch design firm Joris Laarman Lab used generative-design technology to create a 3D-printed pedestrian bridge that spans an Amsterdam canal. This enabled the team to greatly simplify the structure so that it can be printed in one piece (though the designers chose to print it in several).

Generative design also helped simplify the bridge’s material palette. Unlike traditional bridges, which are built using a number of different materials, Joris Laarman Lab’s design uses only steel. According to the firm’s CTO, Tim Geurtjens, reducing the number of materials required offers a number of sustainability benefits, from decreased consumption to optimizing workflows and production processes.

Benjamin Moses, director of manufacturing technology at the Association for Manufacturing Technology (AMT), is focused on greening the manufacturing process. Everything from factory layouts to workholding solutions and tool paths can impact a company’s environmental footprint, he says. By looking at their entire operation as a design challenge, manufacturers can take advantage of algorithmic tools to identify greener ways of working.

“Applying the iterative design process that generative enables will allow us to change the entire ecosystem of designed goods within manufacturing and really evolve how manufacturing engineering goes about its day-to-day process for creating these tools and processes,” Moses says.

Greener Renewables

Generative design could also help the rethinking of products that are critical for transitioning to a green economy—renewable-energy equipment, for example. “I’m not a windmill designer, but I can imagine generative design being applied to take a sheet of solid metal and transition part of it into a weblike, lightweight structure,” Cummings says. “Having that fusion of high volume and low volume, I imagine, would lend itself perfectly to applications like that.” Reducing the amount of materials and energy required to create renewable-energy products while improving performance could make them cost-superior, helping speed the creation of a clean power grid.

Software-industrial conglomerate Honeywell has gleaned knowledge from using generative design to improve outcomes for clients in fossil fuels (and other traditional sectors), which it can now use as a resource for a growing practice in renewable energy. “We’re very passionate about moving toward clean fuel,” says Prabhu Soundarrajan, a global business leader of software, AI, and instrumentation at Honeywell. “And we’re going to take the lessons from all these [previous projects].”

Certifying the Uncertifiable

Cummings says manufacturers can realize significant gains toward sustainability by using generative design to imagine new possibilities and break away from traditional part-by-part assembly. However, they still need to accept the fundamental limits of the manufacturing world, collecting empirical data to ensure that generatively designed products perform as intended and can obtain the necessary approvals from governing bodies (for example, the US Federal Aviation Administration for aerospace products). “This is a new technology,” she says. “People need to build confidence around it.”

But Geurtjens says that although technology creates new challenges around performance testing and validation, it also offers new solutions.

Both sides of that equation have risen to the fore during the Amsterdam bridge project. “It’s been quite complex to certify the bridge, to prove that it’s strong enough,” Geurtjens says. “Because it’s a new technology, a new material, a new shape—that’s something that certification companies don’t know. They only know, ‘If I have a steel column that’s this-and-this dimension, this-and-this length, you can put this much force on it dynamically, statically, etc.’ But the world doesn’t work like that anymore. New technology means new aesthetics, new ways of manufacturing and certification.”

sustainability in manufacturing industry
Autodesk Fusion 360 Outcome Explorer generative-design technology provides many options for a product’s design within a range of constraints.

Traditionally, certification has been grounded in physical testing. But generative design and related technologies could help speed the process of validating new kinds of products by enabling rapid iterations of all the possible flaws. And the time gained in rapid iteration thanks to generative design is time that can be dedicated to certification.

Digital testing could supplement, or eventually replace, physical testing—a concept global design firm Arup, one of Joris Laarman Lab’s partners on the Amsterdam bridge, has been exploring. “[Arup’s engineers] have helped us a lot,” Geurtjens says. “Without them, all certification would have been impossible.”

The potential for digital-performance verification points back to what Geurtjens says is a key benefit of generative design: the ability to see the world in a new way. “We can move away from what we already know and start thinking with a completely open vision,” he says. “Start thinking about what we really want to do, not what we are used to doing.”

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