Since the beginning of World War II, there have been relatively few changes to manufacturing within the United States and throughout the world. While several managerial techniques have been applied to manufacturing, the methods to produce details have been stable. Beginning with a large billet of raw material, the process of removing material until the final dimensions are achieved. There are some variations to this basic process such as fusing details together, but the mechanical combining of details does not constitute a new method of manufacture. Two recent innovations have the potential to revolutionize manufacturing within aviation. Additive manufacturing, commonly referred to as 3D printing, turns the process of conventional manufacturing on its head by starting with a small media and developing a detail. Generative design uses the principles of design coupled with exceptional computing power to create part configurations that accentuate specific characteristics. In isolation these innovative techniques may generate some interest, but together they form a potent combination.
Additive manufacturing has been in development for nearly 40 years. The vision for creating details from a bed of material was enticing, but the expense of a machine prohibited any practical use. Many of the local manufacturers do have a large laser sintering machines that were purchased in the 1990’s but the application and utilization of those machines was poor. Initially it was an innovation looking for an application. While some rapid prototyping was performed, most of the applications centered around training and a great deal of chess rooks with spiraling staircases or internal working gears within an open sphere were produced. It was not until the technology matured into an industrially viable equipment that additive manufacturing secured the interest and return on investment to develop more applications. In the last five to seven years, 3D printing has developed into a full industry that ranges from hobbyists to large manufacturing companies.
Generative design is a computer assisted drafting method that “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. Then, using cloud computing, 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.” The outcome is often a very elegant design that has a close correlation to a structure in nature. For instance, the body of most drones closely resemble the skeletal structure of a flying squirrel.