The age of generative design has arrived

Architects, designers and engineers are pairing generative design with 3D-printing to reshape the world around us

William J. Holstein
15 June 2022

6 min read

An emerging trend in computer-assisted design called generative design is unleashing the creative powers of innovators around the world – and is destined to have major impact in the design and engineering labs at companies of all shapes and sizes.

Generative design represents an evolution from the previous generation of computer-assisted design, called parametric design. As an approach, generative design is an iterative design process that’s been around for decades. But new advances in raw computing power and in 3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, are leading to wider adoption in multiple industries.

So what is generative design? It’s a process in which designers give their computers specifications and rules  governing space, force and load, materials and more, and then allow the computers to generate alternatives. The designer then iterates on these options by adjusting the rules that generated them. It’s a fast and evolutionary process that results in buildings whose shapes defy human comprehension, retail displays that mesmerize shoppers, lightweight machine parts and personal objects whose shapes are futuristic, yet somehow nature-inspired.

“We get worried about the term ‘intelligence,’ thinking the machine is going to be doing the creative bit, not us. The machine is an adviser. It’s a collaborator. It’s just helping.”

Arthur Mamou-Mani
Designer

“It’s a whole field of design that uses mathematics and the power of the computer to generate projects from sets of rules or modules,” said Arthur Mamou-Mani, a French architect whose company, Mamou-Mani Ltd., is based in London. “We try not to impose stuff on the computer, but we try to work with the computer. It’s designing from the bottom up rather than designing from the top down.”

Mamou-Mani’s firm specializes in digitally designed and fabricated architecture, custom products and interfaces. In the fall of 2021, Mamou-Mani partnered with Dassault Systèmes to design and install a visually stunning artistic exhibit called AURORA as part of the London Design Museum’s “Waste Age” exhibit. Composed of stylized biodegradable plastic made from fermented corn sugar, AURORA shimmered as if it were its own constellation in the night sky. Yet Mamou-Mani was determined to minimize its environmental impact and defined parameters that specifically guided his computers to design something that was both beautiful and environmentally friendly.

Architect Arthur Mamou-Mani stands beside ‘Mellifera,’ an installation of swirling, 3D-printed beehives, dancing through the Fortnum & Mason atrium in London. The 3D-printed modules were made of bioplastics from fermented sugar to showcase advances in material innovation and technology. (Image courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd)

“If you have the right database, you can measure the exact carbon footprint of everything you create as an architect or designer,” Mamou-Mani explained. “We measured the total carbon footprint not just of the piece itself but also the transportation of it, what happens after the exhibit ends,--each one of the components, the nuts and bolts.”

The implications of generative design extend far beyond architecture. Kate Reed, an artist-in-residence at the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab’s Boston FabLab, uses generative design to create wearables on the basis of biomimicry, which imitates objects in the natural world, such as barnacles or mushrooms.  

Reed got her start making wearable computers and machines at an early age — even getting an invitation to the White House for a 3D-printed wheelchair arm she designed as a teen. But as her generative design tools have evolved, so have her creative aspirations.  After creating a collection of wearables generated with logic based on the movements of slime mold, Reed was inspired in an entirely new direction: 3D-printing computer circuits with slime mold – circuits that can be worn on the human body.

Artist Kate Reed models her work ‘Molded,’ from the Beyond Biomimicry series. The Molded jewels are generated from slime mold logic programmed in the CATIA xGENERATIVE Design application. The 3D-printed pieces are adorned with living slime mold which features the natural solution to establishing shortest routes from various points. (Image courtesy of Kate Reed)

Biologists have documented how every living entity grows, but Reed has taken it one step further. “We know how things grow and how things evolve,” she said. “I was able to translate this into a process we can use in the computational space. You can play God a little bit.”

GENERATIVE DESIGN FOR MANUFACTURING

The origins of generative design are multi-faceted. The aerospace industry has played a role because of its need for precise parts that are lightweight and strong, yet can withstand high temperatures in an engine. Seeking to innovate, architects including Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have borrowed the aerospace industry’s design tools and processes to push the boundaries of what’s possible for building projects. The process results in breathtaking buildings with incredible shapes and forms, while the computational generative design process saves time and money.

Depending on the manufacturing process – casting, forging, additive manufacturing – generative design can adapt shapes to match specifications and constraints in ways that would be hard to imagine using more traditional subtractive manufacturing processes.

One key concept developed in the aircraft industry is latticing, which borrows from the structure of crystals to create patterns that deliver great strength despite extensive empty space.

3D printing has accelerated the trend because parts that once were “carved” out of chunks of metal, plastic or wood can now be 3D printed in lattices that are just as strong, yet lighter and more visually interesting. Generative design, in turn, allows inventors to find just the right combination of structure and blank space to accomplish their goals quickly with minimal material.

The combination of 3D-printing and rapid, cost-effective generative design, meanwhile, is expanding the affordable applications of lattice structures. Designers are 3D-printing chairs that are super-light yet can support any normal human weight, thanks to the lattice structure’s ability to disperse weight. Shoe companies are experimenting with generative design to create sandals and shoes that are unique in appearance and customized to each individual foot shape, yet also lightweight and strong. The medical equipment industry is beginning to use the combination of generative design and 3D printing to generate custom prosthetics.

Generative design also is gaining momentum in the automotive, retail and industrial equipment industries and beyond. In short, engineers in almost every manufacturing industry are using generative design to reshape the world in creative, safe and sustainable ways.

VIDEO: Artist Kate Reed’s ‘Beyond Biomimicry’ collection was created using new algorithms in the CATIA xGENERATIVE Design application simulating natural growth patterns. The 3D wearable forms demonstrate how nature would grow in unnatural environments, like on the human body.

GENERATIVE DESIGN vs. CAD

When it came on the market, computer-aided design (CAD) revolutionized the design process by enabling designers to create, modify, analyze and optimize their designs in record time. Generative design is an evolution to a more cognitive, augmented design with a science-based approach. It’s a partnership between humans and machines. 

Letting the computer come up with solutions can be an unsettling new approach for creatives who traditionally have managed and refined every detail of a design.

“We get worried about the term ‘intelligence,’ thinking the machine is going to be doing the creative bit, not us,” Mamou-Mani said. “But the machine is an adviser. It’s a collaborator. It’s just helping. We have quite big egos as architects, as creative persons; we think everything comes from our own brains.”

If the architect establishes the rules and the specifications, however, then evaluates and refines the end result, the computer is not truly in charge, he said.

Reed, meanwhile, takes generative design yet another step, inviting nature into the process as well. To make her wearable designs feel more compatible with a human being, she drew inspiration from nature. Combining biomimicry with generative design, she realized she could program her generative design tools with the rules of how slime grows, then put the computer to work generating better and better designs.

The more nature inspired her work, the more she asked herself, “Why am I trying to copy nature? Why not let Nature design it herself?”

“We know how things grow and how things evolve. I was able to translate this into a process we can use in the computational space. You can play God a little bit.”

Kate Reed
Artist

That concept underpins Reed’s work with slime mold: 3D printing it in the form of electronic circuits that can be worn by humans would open a new chapter in the engagement between humans and computing.

One clear overall payoff from the era of generative design – especially when combined with biomimicry – is that the objects people use and look at every day, and the buildings they live and work in, will become more esthetically pleasing. Why? Because they will be more natural in shape, rather than merely functional.

‘Galaxia,’ a temple at Burning Man in 2018, was shaped of 20 timber trusses converging as a spiral towards one point in the sky. The triangular trusses formed different paths towards a central space holding a giant 3D-printed mandala, the heart of Galaxia. (Image courtesy of Mamou-Mani Ltd.)

“One of the reasons that modern buildings are so dull and lifeless is because we were constrained by mass production,” Mamou-Mani said.  “People thought, ‘Let’s just make mass-produced, factory-produced buildings that are just focused on the functionality.’ We completely lost track of the soul, the visually pleasing proportions and the sophistication craft that cathedrals would offer.”

Like Reed and Mamou-Mani, their fellow creative innovators aim to change all that. Past masters wielded chisels, paintbrushes and mosaics to create their art. Increasingly, future masters will add computers to their toolboxes.

Learn more about Dassault Systèmes' generative design capabilities.

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