Tools — which used to be things we utilised to perform a specific function — are increasingly becoming much more than just things. They’re becoming more like colleagues or co-workers — members of the team who can collaborate with us to solve problems.
As the relationship between humans and machines evolves, it promises to turn design into a team sport where humans and machines are playing side-by-side, together. This new way of working will transform design in exciting ways, expanding the possibilities of what we can make and how we can shape the world around us.
Let’s meet some of the new players on the team.
Player #1: generative design
One of the most influential tools moving the relationship between humans and machines in this new collaborative direction is generative design. This technology allows a designer to feed various criteria and constraints into a computer that harnesses the computing power of the cloud to rapidly generate hundreds of design options that meet those criteria.
Need to create a chair made only of plastic that can support up to 300 pounds? Within seconds, generative design will present you with a multitude of design options that match your requirements.
Want to design a quadcopter? While we might have a very fixed idea in our mind of what this lightweight drone is supposed to look like, a generative design tool doesn’t have any preconceived notions. It can explore the full range of possible solutions that meet your criteria, and come up with design options you never would’ve thought of — like a drone frame that resembles the skeleton of a flying squirrel.
The design team at Airbus employed a similar type of biomimicry when they used generative design to come up with a better partition for the galley section of their A320 planes. The resulting “bionic partition” is 45 percent lighter than conventional partitions and equally strong. Airbus estimates that this will save a half a million metric tons of CO2 per year.
Player #2: robotics
While generative design provides the tools for coming up with designs, robotics provide exciting new ways to make the designs.
Robots have been mainstays of manufacturing facilities and other industrial settings for decades, of course, but increasingly we’re finding ways to enhance their utility by using them in conjunction with other technologies like generative design and additive manufacturing.
One particularly vivid example of this new type of enhanced robotics can be found in the Netherlands, where Autodesk has been working with the designer Joris Laarman and his team at MX3D. Using an algorithmic feedback system, robots will autonomously manufacture a steel bridge all by themselves in mid-air — to be installed over a canal in central of Amsterdam.
Player #3: the internet of things
Once you make things, why not give them a nervous system? The Internet of Things (IoT) — that ubiquitous network of connected sensors — has started playing that role, gathering data about a product’s surroundings and reporting it back to us.
As the types of sensors we’re able to embed in products get more sophisticated, we can gain a greater understanding of how a product functions in the real world — and how we can improve its design.
For example, Autodesk worked with a team in Southern California called the Bandito Brothers, outfitting a racecar with dozens of sensors that could collect billions of data points about how the car performed in race conditions. Taking this data and feeding it into a generative design tool allowed the team to build a custom chassis that would maximize performance under the conditions it had experienced.
Player #4: artificial intelligence
If generative design, robotics, and IoT are the tools changing the way humans and machines work together on design tasks, then artificial intelligence (AI) is the “rocket fuel” that accelerates their impact.
AI gives our tools a learning capability, so that they can constantly get better at doing their jobs. This means that generative design tools can start to learn what type of designs we like and don’t like, and take note of our preferences; robots no longer need explicit instructions hard-programmed into their OS to complete their tasks; and the IoT can use AI to not only perceive, but also react intelligently to, the real world.
All this added intelligence gives the tools the flexibility to be more creative in their problem solving.
As a result, computers are getting better at apparent human-style capabilities, like using intuition and making creative leaps. With the array of design challenges our world currently faces, this added source of creativity is a welcome and positive development.
In this new era of machine learning and advanced design tools, the relationship between humans and machines is changing in exciting and inspiring ways.
Designers and engineers should no longer view tools as machines that they operate and explicitly tell what to do. Instead, they should view these tools as true collaborators that can help us solve big problems in ways humans alone wouldn’t be able to.
By viewing design as a team sport — one that includes both humans and machines working together — everybody wins.
Asif Moghal is Manufacturing Industry Manager at Autodesk