Manufacturing’s Wide World

When contemplating the future of how things are made, thinking—even dreaming—in big and bold ways is the key.

I made my second trip to Autodesk University last month.

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I made my second trip to Autodesk University last month. Like my first visit to this annual user conference the year before, this latest event was an eye-opener. The theme was the future of how things are made. Once again, the experience led me to recalibrate my concepts of manufacturing.

With deep roots as a CAD software developer, Autodesk is increasingly focused on making things—the ultimate aim of most design intentions. Our notion of manufacturing—producing discrete parts on machine tools and related industrial equipment—is just one aspect of making things.

All kinds of people for all kinds of reasons can be involved in making things, and this software giant seeks to serve them. This includes machine shops and production plants, for sure, but also inventors, artists, students, hobbyists, engineers, architects and other design professionals—anyone active in the digital world who has a producible thing in mind. Because the way things will be designed is changing radically, manufacturing will have to change radically as well. 

Here are some of the most important developments that Autodesk sees deeply shaping the future of how things are made.

Generative design. Autodesk envisions software tools whereby designers of new products will first designate the end-user value and the end-user experience. From there, algorithms will scan myriads of possible existing design options that are organized in intelligent taxonomies to suggest optimal designs as well as optimal manufacturing strategies. Design content (shape) will be linked with design context (purpose) in these immense classification systems. For this task, cloud-based structures will make almost unlimited data storage and unlimited computing power available to virtually anyone.

Semblance to nature. The results of this collaborative, iterative and dynamic process will be designs that resemble the organic, evolutionary patterns found in nature. For example, the frame of a motorcycle designed in this way will be stronger, lighter and better than any current design, yet its components may look like branches, bones, spider webs and bird feathers. Many of these parts will be producible only by growing them with additive manufacturing processes.

Life-like interaction. By design, devices will be increasingly capable of detecting, interacting and responding to other devices much the way living organisms do. This includes the potential to act collaboratively or modify themselves to fit a purpose. A new generation of connected sensors will make this possible.

New tools of production. 3D printing and additive manufacturing will augment the design and production processes. Robots will do more shaping and building. People will be reintegrated into otherwise automated production lines to provide the flexibility, judgment and insight that leads to significant improvement.

In the new manufacturing ecosystem that is about to emerge, CNC machines will have a place because, as Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO, says, “CNC machines are poised to reinvent themselves.”