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Why We're Opening a Generative Design Field Lab in Chicago

Our new workshop space will showcase the technology from start to finish.  

Every new technology comes with a learning curve, but we don’t want that to keep our customers from exploring what’s possible with our tools. We believe every manufacturer should be able to consider new and better ways to make things, and that’s why we’re opening a new public workshop space—Autodesk’s Generative Design Field Lab—in Chicago to show our customers what generative design is, how they can use it and how it’s going to change the future of manufacturing. 

What is generative design?

Generative design is our AI-based technology that uses design constraints (like weight, strength and manufacturing method) entered by the engineer to generate a set of solutions that fit within those constraints. Rather than coming up with a design and performing simulation studies to ensure it works, generative design takes the guesswork out of the process, letting designers and engineers use more of their creative potential because they already know the solutions are sound.  

Ready to visit the Generative Design Field Lab? Get in touch

Last year, we made generative design available to users of Fusion 360, our product development platform that combines design, engineering and manufacturing in a single piece of software. It’s an incredible tool to have at your fingertips, but it’s also a different approach that offers a new way to tackle design problems. That gave us another reason to create a place where people could come to kick the tires on the technology.  

Joining forces

We partnered with MxD* (Manufacturing x Digital) in Chicago to open the Field Lab at their 100,000 square-foot innovation center. It’s the ideal setting for visitors who want to get hands-on with new manufacturing technology. “The organization was founded back in early 2014 as part of a network of institutes focused on manufacturing innovation. We’re committed to deploying solutions—like generative design— that help advance American manufacturing by making it more productive, more efficient and by advancing the workforce along the way,” says Caralynn Nowinski Collens, MxD board member. “What Autodesk is doing on the manufacturing floor—it brings things to life. That’s inspiring for our visitors and it’s an important part of what we do.” 

Chuck Kennedy of Farsoon Technologies working on a generatively designed part that was plastic laser sintered on Farsoon’s eForm system.

Investing where it matters

Chicago is nestled at the center of the American heartland, a manufacturing “super-region” that performs better than the rest of the country on crucial core economic indicators, according to the Brookings Institution’s “State of the Heartland” report. But further investment in advanced manufacturing—like preparing workers for the digital factory of tomorrow–is needed to create robust growth in this sector. Having a venue like MxD allows us to understand how to teach and apply these digital skills to create impact for the workforce and the industry. 

“MxD is an ideal place to open the Field Lab,” said Sean Manzanares, senior manager of business strategy and market development at Autodesk.  “It’s an industry hub here in the Midwest where we can show customers and partners what we’re up to, and we can also welcome other important stakeholders—like students and manufacturing workers—who have a vested interest in better understanding the technology. Generative design is an opportunity for everyone and we’re doing our best to ensure anyone can access and use the tools.” 

Machine-minded

The Field Lab is equipped with state-of-the art machinery so that customers can see how to design, prototype and make products in real time. Alongside a DMS hybrid additive/subtractive 3-axis router, visitors to the space will encounter a Datron Neo CNC mill and a Farsoon eForm laser sintering system. Today’s manufacturers have a lot of options when it comes to making their parts—from tried-and-true CNC machines to the newest 3D printers on the market. Generative design allows a user to select their preferred manufacturing processes right from the beginning, so they can be sure that whichever solution they choose will be manufacturable with the equipment they have at their disposal.  

Autodesk’s Adam N. Smith and SRAM’s Dhiraj Madura discuss how generative design could be used for developing bicycle components.

Racing to innovate

One of the first customers to visit the space was SRAM, a high-end bike components manufacturer based in Chicago. It’s a company known for its quality and performance engineering, but they’re still on the hunt for innovation. “If I think about the tools that I’ve used in my 18 years as a designer director at SRAM, not much has changed”, said Dhiraj Madura, Global Industrial Design Director at SRAM. “My team still uses the same CAD packages to create our 3D models, then we print them out and we test them. That whole cycle has not changed at all, and it’s not gotten us any better at manufacturing our products.”   

Madura is most excited about the ability for his team to explore more design options from the beginning and iterate more quickly. “We do a lot of iteration when designing parts, but sometimes it’s not going very fast in the time cycle that we have. The product that we get at the end may not be exactly what we want as far as the product spec, but we get as close as we can. As our products get more complicated, we’re going to have to look at new methods and new tools, and that’s why we’re here at the Generative Design Field Lab. We’re ready to test new things like generative design and additive manufacturing because that’s how we’re going to become even better in our industry.” 

Next steps

“To move manufacturing forward, we need to be thinking about the entire product life cycle, and that starts with the earliest stages of design. We can make things today that weren’t possible before because partners like Autodesk are bringing solutions to the table,” said Chandra Brown, executive director at MxD. “What Autodesk is doing—walking people through the whole process of design to make—is such an important part of us delivering on our mission and vision.” 

Contact us if you’re interested in visiting the Field Lab at MxD or learning more about generative design. We hope to hear from you soon! 

*MxD was formerly known as the Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute (DMDII) up until February 2019.