Interplanetary travel is among the most talked about topics in the scientific and space communities. In fact, the Trump administration has tasked NASA with both going back to the Moon, and exploring deep space – including missions to Mars and “beyond.” This has led to scientists and engineers taking a closer look into the technologies and innovations necessary to make interplanetary travel a reality.
However, in order for these explorations to take place, engineers must first design spacecraft that not only ensure the safety of everyone onboard, but also yields the highest payload capacity. Since it can take months – or even years – to get to some of these places, food, water and other basic necessities for human life will need to be on board that spacecraft when it takes off. This means that it is essential to make the spacecraft lighter so that it can carry more provisions.
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Luckily, there is a new approach to design that can help make this possible.
AI in Design
Making lighter, safer spacecraft requires revolutionizing the way engineers do things when it comes to design. This is where generative design comes into play. According to Autodesk:
“Generative design mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design. Designers or engineers input design goals into generative design software, along with parameters such as materials, manufacturing methods, and cost constraints. Unlike topology optimization, the software explores all the possible permutations of a solution, quickly generating design alternatives. It tests and learns from each iteration what works and what doesn’t.”
While generative design can help to create structurally sound components at 35 percent the mass of the original, that reduction in weight comes at a cost. The shapes that this new design technology creates are supposed to mimic nature’s evolutionary approach to design. It doesn’t take much to notice that everything nature has created is unique in every shape way or form.
These unique shapes may be better suited to their purpose, but they also create unique manufacturing challenges.
Generative design may help to generate great, light weight designs, but, in order for everything to come together, engineers still have to manufacture the parts that they design.
Many of these components are made out of some sort of metal or composite material. Traditionally, manufacturing metal components can be done with casting. Unfortunately, unless the newly created generative design is broken into multiple components, casting would not be effective. Not only would it take longer to design molds for the parts, but welding together the individual pieces would result in less structurally sound components.
The other, preferred method is subtractive manufacturing – which involves machining down a large piece of starting material until manufacturers are left with the final, desired design.
With the recent advancements in CNC machines- some of which are able to machine on more than 5 axes – manufacturers have seen a cut in production time by up to 75 percent, and they can eliminate the structural issues that come with casting.
However, this approach isn’t without challenges of its own. One big issue to overcome involves holding unique parts so that they can be machined. Unique solutions to this problem have been developed – including vacuum chucks and the creation custom fixtures – but both of those options are costly and inefficient.
But what if engineers and manufacturers combined subtractive manufacturing with another innovative manufacturing technology?
Additive manufacturing (AM) – also referred to as 3D printing – has been around since the 1980s and involves the continued addition of new material until the final design is realized.
Since its creation, there have been massive improvements and advancements in 3D printing technologies and capabilities. One of them being the ability to not only 3D print plastic components but also 3D print using metal as the base printing material.
These 3D printing improvements effectively eliminate all barriers to what engineers and designers can create. In the past, manufacturing was a roadblock. Inability to bring certain components to life limited what was being drafted or designed. AM eliminates these roadblocks and opens the door to even the most innovative and novel designs that engineers can dream up.
And designers aren’t limited to one form of manufacturing or the other. In fact, by combining both additive and subtractive manufacturers, engineers can ensure manufacturing is both rapid and accurate.
Generative design and advancements in both subtractive manufacturing and additive manufacturing are making it possible for engineers and manufacturers to bring innovative, previously impossible designs to life. This will be essential for interplanetary travel, but it’s not limited to space use cases. These technologies can be used across the government and private industry to revolutionize how we design things and make those designs reality.
If you’d like to learn more about generative design and additive manufacturing, watch a replay of the Webinar, “Additive and Subtractive Manufacturing with Autodesk Advanced Solutions,” sponsored by KETIV, Autodesk and DLT.