Generative design in Autodesk Fusion 360 helped a luthier develop a new method for designing and manufacturing electric violins.
Violins played by professional musicians are hand-built masterpieces, requiring weeks or months of work by a highly skilled luthier (violin maker). Electric violins can also be hand-built, but machines often mass-produce them in factories. Gifted luthier Kevin Baslé teamed up with Autodesk to create a new manufacturing process for electric violins. The resulting method uses generative design in Autodesk Fusion 360 and combines the best parts of human craftsmanship and digital manufacturing technology.
Baslé designed and made the GD Violin with the help of engineers at the Autodesk Technology Center in Birmingham, UK. Baslé is a true artisan who has hand-made many acoustic and electric violins, each custom-built and unique. He began as a professional carpenter and joiner, but his interest in music ultimately led to a career in violin-making. It is a rare profession—only a select few European countries have a violin-making school.
The design of the acoustic violin has remained relatively unchanged for centuries, but electric violins have developed greatly in recent years as manufacturing technologies have matured. This enables violinists to express their own unique personalities through instrument design. The most common materials for electric violins today are plastics, acrylic, and carbon fiber. Baslé wanted to return to using the material he knew best, wood, because of its warmth and character. But how could he balance cost and playability while creating something truly unique for his customers?
Developing a new violin design process
A new approach was needed. “We began to think about modeling an electric violin using AI, which was unproven in the violin industry,” says Baslé. “It had to function as a musical instrument, of course, but the design could be completely different. Something we had never thought of before.”
Generative design was risky for a traditional craftsman like Baslé to try. Baslé wanted to ensure the violin player’s experience remained unchanged. He also wanted the player to be able to source standard fittings from local violin shops, such as the tailpiece, tuning pegs, the chin rest, and shoulder rest. “I wanted the player to change fittings according to what they prefer, without needing to adapt their playing style,” says Baslé.
Exploring generative design in Autodesk Fusion 360
Peter Storey, a research engineer at Autodesk, introduced Baslé to Fusion 360 and showed him how generative design can be used for a completely new way to design electric violins. The first step was giving the generative design algorithms some constraints to work with. “We explored what the bare minimum needed for a violin to function is: the places where the strings and standard fittings attach and the places the violinist would normally hold while playing. We started modeling only these parts in Fusion 360,” says Storey.
By keeping only essential parts, the generative design algorithm had maximum freedom to create a unique design that was as lightweight as possible. This method is scalable too—each dimension can be changed, yielding a set of bespoke design constraints based on the intended player’s preference.
After setting the constraints, the generative design engine in Fusion 360 proposed a range of solutions that mimic the organic shapes and lines in nature. Every design solution met the requirements that the team specified—sometimes in unexpected ways.
A favorite design was chosen, and manufacturing began. Storey 3D printed an initial prototype at the Autodesk Technology Center in Birmingham to ensure the selected design functioned perfectly before moving forward. Storey then showed Baslé how the body could be milled from a single block of wood using a CNC Mill. From there, it was down to Baslé to add the finishing touches using his skills, tools, and artistic eye.
Designing without constraints
Unlike acoustic violins, the shape and volume of an electric violin have almost no effect on the instrument’s sound, so electric violin players have a near-infinite license to design their violin. This quality makes electric violins—and other electric instruments—ideal for generative design software.
The GD Violin is a perfect combination of human craftsmanship and advanced technology. Generative design created the design from parameters set by Storey and Baslé, but it still demands the artisan’s touch. “Although the shape of the body has little effect on the acoustics, without Baslé’s expert craft, it would not sound the way it does,” says Storey. The expert touch of an experienced luthier is still required to perfect the instrument.
Storey milled the violin body using a 3-axis CNC machine, to prove that Baslé could use a simple desktop CNC machine for milling wood in his workshop. Combining a powerful generative design tool, a desktop router, and an expert luthier is a completely novel way to manufacture an electric violin. This workflow bridges the gap between the lengthy handmade acoustic violin process and mass production that offers little customization for the individual player.
Fusion 360 allowed Baslé to design without constraint, and it keeps the cost of manufacture as low as possible. Baslé affirms “Fusion 360 is an important professional tool to have for making this violin as it is an affordable software which allows me to make a high-quality finished product, and to keep the price low.”
Digital transformation at its finest
Generative design in Fusion 360 has transformed a decades-old method of making a popular musical instrument. Manufacturers, makers, craftsmen, and craftswomen are seeking new ways to expand their business using digital technology. The GD Violin is an excellent example of how designers can rethink traditional products to harness digital transformation. Plus, the end result plays the most beautiful music.
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