Future of aerospace designThe ever-growing impact of IT

Optimised shapes, components 3D-printed overnight and virtual environments for more efficient engineering; Autodesk’s futurist Jordan Brandt decodes the design processes behind the aircraft of tomorrow. How will humans and computers continue to interact?

We’re in the midst of a revolution. Cloud computing, additive layer manufacturing and the ever-growing power of artificial intelligence (AI) are changing the way we design and manufacture objects. “Not only are we becoming faster and more efficient, we’re starting to create entirely new materials and processes, leading to solutions we couldn’t even have comprehended a few years ago,” explains Jordan Brandt, Technology Futurist at Autodesk, a global 3D design software company working in areas like manufacturing and engineering.

 At a basic level, cloud computing is helping to encourage faster collaboration among larger and more diverse teams and remove bottle necks in the design process. “Traditionally, designers and engineers would develop their ideas and then go through many different testing iterations, before finding a solution and ultimately manufacturing it,” Brandt says. The ease with which information can be shared via cloud services means more design iterations can be tested more quickly. The more iterations that are performed, the greater the likelihood of finding a better solution. 

Colossal computer power

Airbus is already exploring the benefits of added computing muscle to optimise product performance as early as possible in the design process. The highly accurate A350 XWB Digital Mock-Up, for example, was opened up to thousands of designers and engineers, including suppliers, enabling greater collaboration and multi-disciplinary optimisation.

This bridge between the virtual and real worlds allowed an accurate visualisation of where systems were located during design, how they are installed in production and what access is available for maintenance during the aircraft’s operational lifetime.

The A350 XWB Digital Mock-Up. Management of the aircraft's lifecycle has involved the creation of a virtual environment with a size and complexity never before seen in the industry.

 With systems now capable of handling vast amounts of data and considering millions of algorithmic permutations, designers can consider a wider variety of interconnected data, from stress and aerodynamics to heat, noise and more. So, if they alter one aspect, what effect does it have on the many other variables in the design? 

Questions, not answers

 The sheer power of the AI at our disposal is starting to alter the very way we approach design, says Brandt. “As humans, we always want to find the solution. But the next generation of engineers and designers will have to focus on asking the right questions instead and then letting computers generate solutions.” 

Jordan Brandt, Technology Futurist at Autodesk

It seems counter-intuitive, like we are relinquishing control, but it is the only way to truly unlock the potential at our fingertips. Brandt cites the example of additive layer manufacturing (ALM), or 3D printing, in which an electron beam is used to model the desired material (plastic or metal) according to a computer-generated design. 

“One of the biggest bottlenecks for realising the potential of ALM is humans, because we have preconceived notions of what a part should look like.” Indeed, parts designed for and manufactured by ALM can have a natural and topologically optimised shape, which would be impossible if producing them from a solid block of material.

“We are constrained by the manufacturing notions we know to be true. When you throw that out the window, we don’t have a framework in which to operate. To fully realise the potential of ALM, we have to embrace AI,” concludes Brandt.

Airbus Defence and Space used ALM to make a new air intake for the Atlante Unmanned Aerial Vehicle: its special geometry could not have been produced with standard techniques.
As the desire to further improve the accuracy of virtual designs rises, there is a growing need for High-Performance Computing (HPC) power.

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