Since the beginning of the first industrial revolution and the technological advances that came in the 19th century, engineers and manufacturers have been confronted by limitations of new technology in terms of what they can produce and how they produce it. Today, at the beginning of the digital manufacturing revolution, with the advancements of 3D printing and additive manufacturing (AM) technologies, limitations still exist. These limitations are numerous, but notable among them is the restrictive nature of the tools we use to create digital 3D models.
The 3D printing industry is three decades old and much has changed in that time. 3D printing started out as a slow and expensive process used for prototyping. The hardware has advanced tremendously since then, with the speed of 3D printing processes approaching the speeds of traditional manufacturing methods for some applications, leading increasing numbers of businesses to adopt 3D printing as a manufacturing solution.
Designing parts for 3D printing, however, is an area where great limitations exist, compounded by a greater demand for scarce skills.
We need creative thinking in design for AM (DfAM)
It is no secret that the capabilities of AM offer designers much greater freedom when compared with traditional manufacturing processes, allowing for the creation of complex geometries that were unimaginable before the advent of AM. Lighter weight lattice structures and customized consumer products are just a couple of applications were AM is thriving. The key to unlocking the full potential of AM, however, is through the pre-process design phase.
This is not simply a function of the designer’s imagination. Skills and tools are vital as well. But there is a disparity here. Designers and engineers who are using 3D printing today were taught to think in a specific way, tailored to the capabilities of traditional manufacturing methods. This thinking is deeply embedded and ultimately limits designers’ creativity.
Artists, on the other hand, have discovered a new freedom for creating innovative designs that can be realized physically with 3D printing.
Traditional design skills are outdated
Besides creative minds, design tools are needed that are both fast and flexible. A survey conducted by Fictiv shows that engineers and designers spend most of their time designing in 3D CAD. As a design engineer, I have spent a great deal of time working with various 3D CAD tools and understand how time-consuming it can be creating a quality 3D model. Experience suggests that using traditional, widely available modeling software often results in designers getting lost in the process, and, limited by the software itself, ultimately losing the actual intent of the design. I believe this is because the workflow of such programs is focused on how to create geometry, rather than on design itself.
As an example, I often found that I was focused more on working out how to model a part or product than on creating a design solution. Traditional 3D CAD design tools are obsolete for 3D printing. They were built to help engineers prepare parts for traditional manufacturing methods. AM demands something different.
It is already happening. Software is available today created specifically for AM design (DfAM). With increasing production of end-use parts, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries, there is an increasing focus on the development of topology optimization and lattice design software.
Topology optimization design
Topology optimization tools allow the user to create structurally efficient geometry, resulting in organic shapes with unprecedented strength-to-weight ratios. The software works in a similar way to analysis simulation tools, with one key difference—it generates an ideal form based on assigned material, loads and constraints. To function correctly, a base shape must be defined prior to the analysis.
After analysis is complete, the designer needs to recreate the model’s geometry based on the optimized shape. The workflow is faster than with traditional modeling techniques because the design geometry already has an optimized form. Traditionally, without this digital tool, designers would create a design, verify it with analysis, modify the design according to the analysis results and repeat the process numerous times until the optimum results are achieved.
Lattice design tools are used to create lightweight parts while maintaining a high level of mechanical performance. Like topology optimization, it is also an analysis simulation tool. The software uses pre-defined part geometry to make an analysis based on an initial set of conditions and constraints, then removes all non-essential material and replaces it with a generated lattice structure. Lattice structures can be applied to both volumes and/or surfaces and result in less overall component weight and less material consumption. This is particularly beneficial when producing metal AM parts and can result in considerably lower material costs and a significant reduction in production time.
These software tools offer viable solutions for greater freedom in design for extremely complex geometry and are a notable shift away from traditional CAD tools. However, I believe that further freedom in design will be achieved when artificial intelligence (AI) design tools emerge for the designer. The software will then aid the designer in creating design solutions for parts with superior performance.
One of the most anticipated software releases this year is Autodesk Dreamcatcher. It has been described as a generative design system that allows designers to create design solutions through goals and constraints. This is the first generation of AI CAD software tools that actually supports the design process. The designer will determine a set of goals, constraints and working parameters, and the software algorithms will explore optimum design solutions. Essentially, this means that the actual modeling function will be performed by the software and not the designer. In this way, designers will be able to explore a number of solutions for a single problem in a shorter timeframe.
A changing design landscape
Developing DfAM tools and skills takes time and resources, but only by investing in them will AM reach its potential. I believe that a new generation of software in line with Dreamcatcher will change the way we design. We need more companies working on similar solutions to push AI in the 3D CAD design sphere.
Today's solutions are focused on mechanical design and part performance, but we also need design tools for product and industrial design. Big data, AI design tools and customizable on-demand manufacturing will likely dramatically change the consumer goods market. Today, the customer is a moving target, but in the future we will see customized products being designed based on data from particular customer groups.
Demand for DfAM is only set to increase. We need new tools to speed up the design process, but we also need more designers who can take 3D printing to the next level. Education is the key to training both current and future designers to work with AM. It is only by combining designers’ creativity with new software offering greater freedom that the AM industry will reach its full potential.