The Future of Making Things: Vision, Creation, Disruption

If you work in the fields of architecture, manufacturing, design, or engineering, you know how rapidly these industries are changing. The ways we work today are vastly different from how we worked 30 years ago, and the processes we will use 30 years from now will be different from what we use today.

What’s driving these transformations? The evolution of the tools and technologies that we use to design, envision, and build. Innovations in computer learning and artificial intelligence. The advent of virtual reality and augmented reality systems. Increasingly powerful computers and access to cloud computing resources. Advances in robotics. New materials and processes for manufacturing.

At Autodesk University Las Vegas, we sat down with a number of experts to get their perspectives on what lies ahead. And if there’s one takeaway, it’s that you have to be ready for what’s coming.

Computationally designed parametric chair
A computationally designed parametric chair.

When we asked Autodesk Senior Director of Design Research Mark Davis, he put it plainly. “What gets me excited is the products and the objects we’ll be able to design a few years from now. We can hardly imagine [what that’ll be] right now.”

Generative design, immersive design, and robotic fabrication are among the emerging technologies already changing the way things are designed and made.

Generative Design

Generative design uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to solve design challenges in new ways. Instead of creating the solutions themselves, designers define a set of goals and constraints for a project, then let the software generate a range of optimized solutions.

“The human brain can hold five or six variables at a time,” Davis explains. “The computer doesn’t have that limit. So generative design lets you design things that weren’t possible before.”

 

When combined with human sensibility, generative design has the power to reshape design as a discipline. UAV designer Eli D’Elia predicts a new wave of furniture and machines. “We’re going to refine this process down to just the elegance of creation,” D’Elia says.

Generative design is not only changing what’s possible for design, but also what’s possible for business. As Autodesk Director of Evangelism and Emerging Technology Mike Geyer puts it, “As these things become easier, there are going to be more entrants in every market — three kids in a dorm room can start a car company. What does that mean to the traditional car manufacturers? It means they really have to look at how they can adopt this stuff today.”

Immersive Design

3D modeling was a major step forward for design. Immersive design takes 3D modeling and makes it interactive. Designers can bring their ideas to life before they are built — and then step inside them. Collaborators can put on virtual reality headsets and then see, move around, and change designs as though it were right there in front of them.

D’Elia explains, “When artists around the world need to talk, we can now throw on virtual reality goggles and have a conversation in the same virtual space. We can load up a model, and all gather around that model, and start to shape it there in that virtual space.”

According to Autodesk Director of Emerging Technology Brian Pene, “People need to make decisions based on three-dimensional information, and often it’s not intuitive to do that not-at-human scale. When you have to the ability to explore immersive design almost physically at your scale, you’re getting so much information.”

Robotic Fabrication Once you have the design, how do you build it? Advances in robotics are giving us new options in fabrication. Today, robots are starting to learn while they work. Using algorithms, they don’t just execute the same task identically, but improve and adapt as they go.

“Assembly lines with robots are not resilient [today],” Autodesk Senior Research Engineer Heather Kerrick explains. “When one tiny thing changes, that has dramatic impacts on the upstream and downstream of that factory. If we can come up with better tools that can absorb that complexity, then you could start doing much more complicated procedures with robots and other tools.”

Machines that learn are part of the future of making things
Machines that learn are part of the future of making things​​​​.

Kerrick works on this challenge every day. “My team is definitely interested in this vision of the future where robots are aware of their surroundings, are aware of the buildings they’re in, the tools that are around them and the people around them, and they’re aware of what they’ve been tasked to do and the ways that they could potentially do it.”

When a robot is aware of the final model it’s trying to create, it can catch discrepancies earlier. “Because of this, we’ve been able to produce very large and complicated objects in a single attempt, because anytime something does go wrong in the print, we were successfully able to resume the print,” she explains.

Designing for the Future Those old enough to be trained with drafting boards and vellum know how far things have come. But the journey is far from over. Generative design, immersive design, and robotic fabrication have the potential to reshape the design disciplines in revolutionary ways. “Every day, technology progresses. Every day, new opportunities emerge,” says Kerrick.

“Every day, technology progresses. Every day, new opportunities emerge.” — Heather Kerrick, Senior Research Engineer

Architects, designers, and engineers who master these technologies can gain an important advantage. “I know this is stuff my competitors won’t be able to keep up with for a while,” D’Elia explains. “The solutions we come up with, only we can do.”

There are people doing things we never could have imagined just a few years ago, Pene adds. “This community of people that have come together around designing, making, and using things that our tools are enabling — it’s empowering to see the beautiful things they can create.”

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