Generative Design: What Can It Do For Sustainability?

Zoe Bezpalko Zoe Bezpalko March 12, 2019

5 min read

Engineers and designers are constantly trying to find innovative solutions to meet their customers’ needs. All while controlling cost, using fewer resources, and complying with increasing environmental regulations and consumer pressure. Using generative design, many have found opportunities to lightweight parts, consolidate assemblies, and even explore different material and design options. All of these benefits have clear economic value and meet their customers’ needs. But there’s an additional benefit that’s less frequently considered here: These improvements also help meet companies’ sustainability goals.


Manufacturers such as General Motors (GM), Airbus, Stanley Black & Decker, and Under Armour, among others, have adopted generative design to solve engineering challenges and develop innovative new products. They’re also having less negative impact on the environment.


With generative design, the users define goals (such as light-weighting) and constraints (such as applied forces or manufacturing methods). Rather than directing the computer to draw the design, the computer generates design options using AI and automation that meet the users’ desired goals and constraints. The computer becomes a partner in the design process, as it can develop infinitely more options than a human can.


Light-weighting for material and energy productivity


Generative design’s earliest and most well-known examples have focused on material reduction, specifically reducing the mass of a part or an assembly. Assuming that the material being used for the product doesn’t change (eg, aluminum remains aluminum), this results in direct savings. Given the total amount of material that can be eliminated with generative design, even if the material type does change, for instance from aluminum to stainless steel, the cost savings can be significant.


For example, airplane manufacturer Airbus used generative design to redesign an interior partition for its A320 aircraft. Its new design uses significantly less material and weighs 45 percent less. Claudius Peters, an industrial machinery manufacturer for materials handling and processing, is finalizing a new clinker cooler and estimates it will save thousands of euros on each one produced due to the material savings. And any reduction in material used is good for the planet.


Claudius Peters generative design

Claudius Peters before and after


In addition to the direct sustainability benefits and cost savings associated with weight reduction, other indirect benefits can lead to further advantages. When the amount of material is reduced, so is the amount of embodied carbon and energy: A lighter part requires less energy to power. Indeed, a car that’s 300 pounds lighter will naturally need less energy to cruise down the highway. Less fuel consumed means less carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, meeting corporate goals as well as regulatory ones. Airbus estimates that with the new partition deployed across the A320 fleet, carbon emissions would be reduced by 465,000 tons annually, the equivalent of taking 96,000 passenger cars off the road for a year.


“We are committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our products by 50% by 2050, and this requires us to develop new technologies that make airplanes much lighter,” says Airbus Innovation Manager Bastian Schaefer. “The reason why we were able to reduce the weight of a component like the bionic partition by 45% is simply because we combined generative design and 3d printing.”


Generative design & additive manufacturing to reduce waste


Even though generative design can help a user explore different manufacturing processes, from CNC machining to casting and molding, the best environmental outcomes will stem from an additive-manufacturing process. Indeed, 3D printing allows for net near shape printing, using only the material needed in the design and significantly reducing waste during production. Additive manufacturing also allows for design freedom in complex shapes such as latticing, which takes a solid body and creates lighter internal structures. It makes unimaginable shapes possible, allowing for leaps in innovation.


Airbus airplane seat frame



Part consolidation for material productivity and production efficiency


With generative design, it’s possible to consolidate multipart assemblies into single-part products. In addition to reducing the amount of material used, this can simplify the overall manufacturing process by reducing downstream assembly. Furthermore, consolidating parts means fewer components warehoused in inventory and a streamlined supply chain. General Motors transformed a simple seat bracket—the bracket that attaches the seat belt to the vehicle—from an eight-part assembly into one part using generative design. Following this success, GM is now extending the generative-design process to other parts of its vehicle lines.


General Motors generative design

General Motors


Design exploration for better material choice


Material choice directly impacts a product’s sustainability. With generative design, designers can explore different materials, evaluating which might work best and which are more sustainable (such as wood vs plastic); they can then filter the results based on different criteria (such as a young module or material type) and visualize the best options, allowing them to choose the best combination of material and design. A team might choose a lower-cost option, with a lower carbon footprint that has less attractive aesthetics, or it might optimize for aesthetics—with generative design, the options are easy to evaluate.


Faster prototyping to reduce waste and improve time to market


Generative design also streamlines the design-and-engineering process by using cloud simulation to conduct fatigue analysis, stress testing, and more. This reduces the need for iterative physical prototyping, which saves time, material waste, and money. While these savings aren’t generally considered to be environmental in nature, prototyping waste is real. If you’re creating several physical prototypes, especially if you’re having them flown or shipped from a distant supplier, the material, time and energy add up.


Generative design capabilities in Fusion 360 allows designers and manufacturers to meet their sustainability and profitability goals. It helps them shave costs and time from their new product-development processes while reducing manufacturing costs and energy needs—and wowing customers with innovative designs.


Adding generative design to a project has been described as adding the smartest person in the room to the design team. Given the magnitude of the challenges in addressing sustainability and climate change, and the need to do so responsibly, generative design’s help is welcome.


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