Manufacturing guy-at-large.

On Optimization

Added on by Spencer Wright.

As I've explored further into the obscure regions of design for additive manufacturing, I've been thinking a lot about the philosophical underpinnings of optimization, and the role that design optimization can play in product development. Optimization is in the air today; the major CAD vendors all seem to have an offering which purports to create "the ideal part" with "optimum relation between weight, stiffness and dynamic behavior" and "the aesthetics you want." These promises are attractive for seemingly obvious reasons, but it's less clear how design optimization (at least as it exists today) actually affects the product development process.

Product development inherently involves a three-way compromise between quality, cost, and speed. The most critical trait of a product manager is the ability to establish a balance between these three variables, and then find ways to maintain it.

Understanding the strengths and limitations of manufacturing processes is, then, invaluable to me as a product manager. Given infinite resources, people are pretty good at making just about anything that can be designed; there are designers out there who make very successful careers just by pushing the boundaries of what is possible, and employing talented manufacturing engineers to figure out how to bring their designs into existence. But in my own experience, the more I understand and plan for the manufacturing process, the easier it has been to maintain a balance between quality and cost - and hence to create an optimal end product.

All of which makes me feel a strange disconnect when I encounter today's design optimization software, which always seems to focus specifically on creating Platonically perfect parts - with no regard for manufacturability or cost.

To be fair, traditional CAD programs don't usually have a strong manufacturability feedback loop either. Inventor, SolidWorks, and NX are all perfectly happy with me designing a fillet with a radius of .24999995" - when a 1/4" radius would work just fine and cost much less to manufacture. In this way, traditional CAD requires the user to have an understanding of the manufacturability of the features that she designs - a requirement which, given the maturity and nature of conventional manufacturing methods, is not unreasonable.

But the combination of additive manufacturing on one hand, and generative design on the other, produces vastly different effects. No longer does a designer work on features per se. There's no fillet to design in the first place, only material to move around in 3D space. Moreover, the complex interaction between a part's geometry and its orientation on the build platform produce manufacturability problems (overhanging faces and thermal stresses, to name two) that are difficult to predict - and much harder to keep in mind than things like "when you design fillets, make their radii round numbers."

The remarkable thing about AM design optimization software, then, isn't that it allows me to create expensive designs - it's that these kinds of manufacturing factors (orientation to the build platform, and the structural and thermal effects that it produces) aren't treated as things which need to be optimized for at all.

The purpose of optimization should be to help me, as a product manager, design optimal *products* - not to chase some Platonic ideal.

So: Give me a way to incorporate build orientation, overhanging faces, and slicing data into my designs. Those variables are critical to the balance between cost, quality, and speed; without them, the products I design will never be optimal.