There are few better designers in this world than Mother Nature herself. Not short on time, Nature’s evolutionary approach to design weeds out weaknesses and promotes strengths over millions and even billions of years in order to create masterpieces that seem perfectly suited for their environments. From lichen, to dragonflies, to humans, each successful life form finds its niche and thrives alongside others who have done the same thing.
Attempting to mimic Nature’s approach but on much shorter timescales, humans created a form finding process called generative design. Using artificial intelligence, generative design takes all the potential variables and finds the best ways to meet a predetermined objective. Want to replace a brick wall with something just as strong but a fraction of the weight, and generative design will likely give you a complex mesh in a light, high strength material, unlike anything we have seen before.
“Generative design is a departure from the way that we have traditionally done design, but these technologies are not a threat, they’re more like superpowers,” said Jeff Kowalski, chief technology officer of software company Autodesk. While the approach is a departure from what humans have done, and what we are able to do, it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that when we feed variables and objectives into these intelligent systems, we get very natural looking designs.
"We are going to see these organic shapes more and more around us," said Autodesk strategist Diego Tamburini, "because those are the shapes that are optimal for light-weighing." Indeed, lightweight design alternatives represent the low hanging fruit for the generative design offering. "Cars are going to get lighter thanks to generative design technologies, aeroplanes are going to get lighter," Autodesk’s Tamburini continued. "The segments of the industry where light-weighting is critical, they are going to eat this up."
Autodesk has been at the center of this technology evolution by incorporating generative design into their 3D design and engineering software. After significant early success in the product design space, the firm intends to apply its approach to the construction industry. “We're taking the success we've now had in creating a system applicable for manufacturing and now trying to apply it to another context in architecture," Kowalski said.
Autodesk adapted their software to be able to calculate and map out floor plans with optimum natural light, efficient circulation and layouts based on the different needs of the building's users. This is no small step, the unique preferences and differing demands of the wide selection of occupants in an office, in addition to the physical limitations of the building, make this a highly complex calculation. As our recent report ‘The Future Workplace’ explores in great depth, each worker requires a different workspace environment to be most productive, the same worker may even need different environments at certain times of the day. Creating the ideal office, even virtually, is not easy.
Like any proud company should, Autodesk is using its new innovation on itself. Generative design software is being used to test options for the company's new offices in Toronto, before employees move in. "Each of those things can be evaluated individual basis across those floorplans and scored so that we know which floorplans winds up being the most fair, most equitable, the one that ends up maximising good qualities of the programme," said Kowalski.
One Dutch construction company, who struggled during the 2008 financial crisis, reinvented themselves by adopting 3D building information modelling (BIM) using Autodesk Navisworks Manage software, to incorporate these ideas. Van Wijnen’s innovative digital evolution involved a mixture of modularization and generative design that now has the potentially transform the entire construction industry.
‘The team at Van Wijnen decided to embrace platform thinking,” said Hilbrand Katsma, COO of the firm. Katsma pointed to the inefficiency in construction and indicated a need to adopt practices found in mass manufacturing, such as the automotive industry, to bring construction into the 21st century.
Their solution was a modular concept for housing, where hundreds of components could be arranged in a multitude of configurations to suit customer needs and preferences. By giving each module a code and price, it was possible for Van Wijnen to standardize the entire library of components and modules within building regulations.
According to the company, the change meant that time to market was drastically reduced from six months to three weeks. The were able to complete homes for their clients in three months instead of eight months, while the actual houses could be built in as little as three days. This led to the creation Van Wijnen’s Fine Living brand: completely modular, zero net energy homes that can be disassembled and reassembled to meet the client’s changing needs.
Katsma sees a bright future for the construction industry using modular generatively designed buildings. “By transforming our process from analog to digital, from the efficiency gained by prefabricated and modular components to the intelligence that generative design brings, I stand here before you with great faith in our future. If it’s possible for us, it’s possible for you.”
Looking beyond modular, generative design is often associated with additive manufacturing, also known as 3D printing. The two processes seem to have been created for one another, with generative software creating the perfect design from the data provided and 3D printing able to realize those forms through its unique building style.
Together they have the potential to fundamentally change the look of our products, buildings and cities. This new look is one of curves and spirals, webs and meshes, skeletons and skin, just like the shapes and forms that Mother Nature has settled on after billions of years of evolution.
“Just like nature has optimized for weight and improved stiffness, so too have these algorithms,” says Jordan Brandt, Autodesk’s resident futurist. Like biology, he says, generative design is about trying things out and seeing what works, but over the course of hours rather than millions or billions of years. “We’re essentially running accelerated artificial evolution,” he says.
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