Autodesk University Showcases Methods and Technologies That Will Change Design and Manufacturing Forever

Sometimes it helps to step outside of traditional control and automation approaches and see what engineers are doing in a world that is parallel yet does converge in some areas. Such was the case at Autodesk University (AU), held December 1-4 in Las Vegas. The event showcased design methods and technologies that stand to significantly affect how products ranging from consumer objects to components, facilities and even machines are built. Several themes arose during the course of this conference. Two of these follow here. (Others include topics such as collaboration and connectivity; stay tuned).

Generative Design

According to Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk CTO, , as wonderful as our engineered creations are, they end up more dead than alive. (Think junked cars.) Technology lets man deviate from nature, that is, apply a brute-force approach to design. In contrast, nature takes the best existing solution to a problem, and constantly iterates via evolution to move forward. At some point, it is conceivable that we will had access to every device that has ever been created, something that is happening via the IoT. Here, machine learning algorithms could let us identify the context of and relationships between  designs. Once a computer understands what the component is (e.g., a gear), it understands how it relates to other components in an assembly. This provides the starting point for a new design in a "generative design" approach, where users don't tell the computer what to do, rather, users tell it what they want to achieve (goals). So the computer starts with goals, then optimizes until it gets the best design.


Traditional conference rooms have a whiteboard in front, where an expert stands and expounds his/her wisdom to an audience sitting around a long table. According to Autodesk, differently configured spaces such as the one shown above might better spark innovation.  

The advent of the cloud is what gives users all the computing power such a technology demands. In theory, results satisfy the requirements for a design (whether it be a plastic chair or a complex machine). One example of the use of generative design comes from an additive machine creating a metal lattice (for example, for a bone implant). Here, the algorithm progressively "erodes" the material until the object reaches the optimized weight versus strength requirement for the task at hand.

An interesting example of generative design in action is Autodesk's Project Dreamcatcher,  touted as a goal-directed design system that lets you input specific design objectives such as functional requirements, material type, manufacturability, performance criteria, and cost restrictions, and then interprets design intent. The tool uses the cloud to create thousands of  workable design options and recommends the best-performing versions.

By and large, we still create things that are unable to respond, meaning products have a built-in planned obsolescence, continued Kowalski. However, the IoT is taking hold such that devices can engage with the world because they can sense (sensors), respond (to data) and collaborate (talk to each other). Things are even increasingly "aware" of their environment. Examples of this come from cities that understand traffic patterns, to robots that create bridges in mid-air (for example, see the reference to Joris Laarman Lab in one of our 3D printing articles, where the robot is essentially working on its own. Even the U.S. Department of Energy believes that 3D printing will forever change the face of conventional manufacturing.

Convergence of Digital and Physical Worlds

Another theme at AU was that of "breaking the glass the separates the physical world from the digital world." The company provides products such as A360, a cloud-based platform that is kind of like Google Docs but for designers and engineers. Also showcased were Autodesk products including Fusion 360, which is an online-based program for mechanical design. Even kids are being brought into the mix with software such as TinkerCAD, a program that children can use to create designs. And open, free-to-license programs such as Spark might revolutionize design. It completley eliminates the old interoperability issues between different systems, providing an open 3D printing software platform for hardware manufacturers, software developers, materials scientists, product designers and others. The company hopes to "accelerate the new industrial revolution" with it and Ember, the 3D printer Autodesk recently developed.

Stay tuned for more to come.