Additive Manufacturing: The Designers Dilemma

I imagine some design engineers view additive manufacturing as a blessing and a burden.

A design engineer utilizes constraints – material properties, application requirements, and, of course, manufacturing limitations – to determine the fit, form, and function of a product.   For many products, these three aspects of design are deeply interdependent, and as a design becomes optimized for cost, or manufacturability, or weight, or any other characteristic, the three aspects of design become further entangled.   Optimization becomes a balancing act, and while there is without a doubt a large degree of experience, knowledge, and creativity that separates a novice engineer from a master, both operate within the same design constraints.  An exception to this is innovation, where a new design is not simply a better optimized version of a previous product.  Instead, the design undergoes a fundamental shift in fit, form, or function, that radically enhances the products ability to meet or exceed previous requirements (cost, manufacturability, weight, etc.) and, in many cases, enables the product to meet hitherto unexpected needs.

Additive manufacturing removes many of the design constraints associated with manufacturability and thus the problem of optimization becomes significantly less bounded and the opportunity for innovation increases greatly.  So, while the new design space may be exciting for an engineer, the expectation for innovation can be distressing.  To put it another way, the freedom of form enabled by additive manufacturing is a proving ground for the creativity of a design engineer.


PLM Suppliers Facing Interesting Challenges as Well

From the design side, we see that the major PLM companies are engaging the additive manufacturing market with generative design, or topology optimization software. This is the technology that generates spindly, organic structures for lightweighting.  Such designs will find their way into industries, like aerospace, where substantial weight reduction is well worth the current premium for AM parts.  However, the products that will reshape their respective markets (and make AM a competitive requirement) won’t do so because they are lighter, rather, they will be single components that replace entire assemblies or incorporate functionality in a way that can only be done through AM.

The problem I see for PLM companies is most of these products won’t be the result of a specific software tool, but of a change in how engineers approach design – optimization vs. innovation.  So, while generative design will be an important part of the AM tool-set and integral to optimization, PLM companies would benefit in finding ways to foster communities focused on innovation around additive manufacturing.  For that reason, I was very excited to hear yesterday at Hannover Fair an announcement from Siemens regarding their plans for an “online collaborative platform designed to bring on-demand product design and 3D printing production to the global manufacturing industry.”  I expect that by connecting experienced designers with an interested but naive community, Siemens’ platform and similar endeavors will accelerate the adoption of additive manufacturing, the rate of innovation, and the growth of associated markets.