Generation Game

Jon Lawson

Can generative design help reduce weight? Jon Lawson gets the thoughts of one leading academic

The automotive industry is on a relentless crusade to reduce weight without compromising structural integrity or dynamic performance. To this end, the design process is constantly evolving, and one specific area where there is increasing interest is generative design.

When considering its advantages, Dr Alejandro Veliz Reyes, Associate Professor in Digital Design, University of Plymouth, explains that “Generative design is a way to approach a design problem (such as parametric design, or constraint-based design) and is more widely available due to the recent growth and efficiency in computing intelligence and power. It’s great for solving complex tasks. In design, we tackle ill-defined problems that don’t have a single solution, and using computers to generate design solutions can help us navigate design decisions with more agility through various considerations like weight reduction. The computer doesn’t design for you, but because you can explore a fairly good amount of information, it helps you generate viable options - some of which you might not have considered to begin with. So while the key advantage is the ability to explore different solutions faster and explore ideas you may not have considered before, it also offers the opportunity to engage with emerging areas such as computer graphics, advanced modelling, data science and artificial intelligence (AI).

“Ultimately, we are seeking optimal design solutions,” he continues. “This is where weight reduction comes in, among other considerations such as ease of production or assembly, for example. One potential disadvantage, however, is that the amount of information involved can be so large it can be difficult to manage, which could create problems - in particular for small companies that will require digitisation and skilled staff to reap the benefits of these emerging approaches.”

Veliz Reyes runs multiple courses at the University of Plymouth. “For example,” he says, “we deliver short courses (Digital Design and Fabrication, Generative Design), featuring innovative skills in areas such as 3D modelling, optimisation and 3D printing, developed alongside local partners, including the Plymouth Manufacturing Group. The courses are delivered in our Digital Fabrication and Immersive Media Laboratories and are designed to fill the digital skills gap in the workforce, as well as helping people enter those innovative industries. We are offering people access to skills and learning throughout their lifetimes, so we are working with the Office for Students (OfS) on its Higher Education Short Course trial programme to address these lifelong learning challenges.”

Complex Numbers

“A typical form of lightweighting is topology optimisation, a sub-area of generative design,” Veliz Reyes continues. “Topology is about geometry, and we can use topology optimisation approaches to rationalise the geometry in response to structural or mechanical considerations, such as removing unnecessary volumes of materials.”

When concentrating on weight reduction, the obvious place to start is by removing as much material as possible, in particular volumes not subjected to mechanical stress. For large infills, lattice structures are an emerging form of lightweighting, and Veliz Reyes observes, “3D printing and generative design have offered new opportunities here, but the market for mass production of complex objects is still in an early stage, supported by tools such as robotic 3D printing or 6-axis CNC milling. Some areas of development for lattice structures include heat exchangers, which can have implications for engine design or ultra-low weight components for the aerospace industry. This area probably requires some more work in terms of the digital skills gap and cross-disciplinary collaboration, although there is exciting research taking place at the moment”.

For his day job, teaching tomorrow’s designers and tackling digital skills gaps, Veliz Reyes notes, “The pandemic pushed us to rethink learning as a more ubiquitous and digital process, not always on campus. Virtual technologies can potentially offer meaningful and compelling learning experiences remotely, and university staff managed to pivot to online learning overnight during the lockdown. We also need to address new professional spaces, such as multidisciplinary designers, able to liaise between creative and technological areas of expertise, such as transport design, virtual prototyping, and data science. The design and creative economy have a huge spill-over effect across other sectors, and we will increasingly see designers adopting those digital design skills and finding innovative ways to open new interdisciplinary and innovation spaces.”

More information on the courses here

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