Generative Design

The future of CAD

Why co-creation and mass customisation will rely on genetic modelling

with 12 comments

Customisation is often an afterthought necessitated after the product is launched, bringing with it  the pains of late adjustments.

This is now changing.  Due to market saturation products and services are being designed for customisation. Generative Design has a defining role to play in this.

CAD was first developed to replace paper based design. A piece of paper can hold only one design at a time. But nuts, bolts and many mechanical parts shared similar geometry and were only differentiated by dimensions. So engineers got efficient. They created table driven configurations. Then, marketeers found going back and forth between engineers accountants and production managers a drag. Online configurations were stitched together based on existing work process to help customers wants to what companies can offer. But underneath it all, an even greater, more powerful phenomenon  was simmering.

Consumer Creation

In its ideal form, it would eliminate altogether the human involvement in mitigating between what consumers want and what companies can produce. The growing collection of web-based configuration technologies can now ensure that Joe, the customer, can create something that is both useful for him and viable for the company to produce and support – all by himself. But it is possible mainly due to a series of hidden rules that prevents Joe from doing the wrong thing; so that Joe does not configure a laptop  that he cannot carry home. Most customisation solutions today are based on rules.

Why rules are bad

It is known that even simple combinatorial design problems can lead to not millions but trillions of possibilities. Currently, this nightmare of choice is narrowed down by writing rules. Often, hundreds or thousands of rules will be required to produce a decent set of viable designs.

Rules are there to avoid confusion. They need to be simple and straight forward. Hence they are crude. They are good when the context of its application is simple. If it is complex (as in design)  you need to make exceptions (or clauses). Therefore, rules tend to  multiply rules. Worse still, difficult to judge the effect of one rule on another or on the design itself. Rules written in one domain will affect another. Worse still, only experts know how to write rules. Even if you mange to write them – you are left with another big problem.  You need to generate the designs out of these rules. But despite their limitations, rule based configurators are very much in use – because that is currently the only way to trim solution into a viable range.

Setting limits is easier than setting rules

What is now achieved though patchwork methodologies may be achieved much more elegantly – if the problem of configuration is resolved at conception – directly on the representation of the product. Genetic modelling can do that. It will allow designers to conceive designs that are fundamentally configurable. Genetic modelling will allow them to represent 100o’s of design possibilities based on a single CAD model. Instead of waiting for customer requirement (that now force companies to create variations) it is now possible to create ‘variable models’ as part of the design development process.

The walled garden

The holy grail of consumer creation is for companies to provide the greatest choice to consumers, allowing them to design/configure products according to their own individual requirements. The danger here is that consumers may come up with designs that are dysfunctional, un-manufacturable or beyond their means. Hence, companies provide not only choices but methods by which consumers can make intelligent choices. A combination of genetic modelling, filtering and performance measurements working jointly can crack this problem elegantly – keeping Joe within a walled garden of constrains.

The steps

  1. A genetic model needs to be first created in a parametric CAD package
  2. A generative design engine be used to spew out 1000s of possibilities
  3. A series of  filters are used to constrain the designs ensuring viability

The consumer then can select amongst a set of viable designs, by assessing the desirable levels of performances which can be assessed by analytical engines or by a combination of factors that are considered important.

A much more elegant and powerful approach is to tackle the problem at its conception, where each part is represented in genetic form capable of representing a large range of possibilities , that are then filtered out to ensure viability – without the use of rules. Genetically authored designs can cover a much larger area of design space (video on design space), than rules formulated by experts which crudely prune the trillions of possibilities to a few that the rule writer is familiar with.

How genetic models will change this

Genetic modelling is about creating the largest amount of variations using CAD at the point of conception. Now, if we can select the designs that are viable and desirable, then such an arraignment will be the dream solution to the problems of mass customisation.  So, here is how it will happen:

  • Manufacturing entities will build the genetic models and constrain them by the limits of their own manufacturing capabilities.
  • A walled garden will be created for a pleasant consumer experience – using  filters to limit the exploration within viable and desirable limits.
  • Marketing companies will mange and invite customers into the garden ensuring a pleasant design and fulfillment experience.

Such an arrangement will enable companies to deploy the full manufacturing capabilities at the hands of end users, while analytical engines inform users of the consequences of their choice.

The model for consumer creation

Genetic Models for consumer creation


Genetic Models that represent a wide range  of design possibilities will be first created. This vast region will then be reduced by the use of filters set by companies and consumers.

Such an approach will allow companies to open up their manufacturing capabilities giving consumers the greatest possible choice in creating designs that are viable and desirable.

Advanced rendering technologies are now able to represent realistic version of designs and analytical methods are now able to provide an accurate picture of their performance. These technologies will make it possible for non experts to author products the way we author blogs.

Blogs are prevalent – only  because the logic of design, of formats and schemes (once the domain of experts)  have now been captured and encoded in a way that the end-user does not have to formulate it.  The encoded formats are able to support great diversity while drastically reducing the complexity in designing  web pages – enabling millions of people to blog.

Genetic design technology will do the same for products.



Written by Sivam Krish

May 31, 2011 at 11:18 am

12 Responses

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  1. Interesting. Needs serious editing with all the spelling errors BTW. Need help?

    Greg Olsen

    June 1, 2011 at 2:39 am

  2. Hi Sivam,

    the danger here is also that consumers may come up with items not befitting the brand 😉

    In the sheet metal and wood products we developed so far, material and engineering constraints are encoded alright, we’re now showing it with real porcelain production at the DMY in Berlin. But first and second tier brands are very concerned about consumers that may succeed in “abusing” product tailoring to unforeseen outcomes, an issue that non-brands and open-source fabbers of course need not fear.

    Andreas Hopf

    June 5, 2011 at 7:37 am

    • Andreas, this is a real issue. Consumer creation and branding do not go well with each other unless it is created as a brand in it self. gf Zazzle. But then it is impossible to differentiate between Zazzle products and Cafepress products because the same designers sell the same designs through both those portals.

      The genetic models allows the constraining of possibilities. Wonder if brand could be one such filter?

      Sivam Krish

      June 5, 2011 at 8:57 pm

      • Hi Sivam,

        at the DMY exhibition that just closed, we had the unique opportunity to speak with well over a hundred Jane Does and Joe Bloggs aka consumers; turns out they want “designer name goods” or “trustworthy brand goods”. Desire to engage in designing bespoke products turns out, once again, quite low in comparison to just “evolving” a previously constrained solution. Burden of choice rears its ugly head again. Real materials products much preferred due to proper performance (everyday goods), Shapeways and Ponoko seen as “gifts” and “funny stuff” platforms, people think stuff from there is too easy to copy; hence no high value and prices too low. What that means, I don’t know, but I see a nice paper with real industrial relevance lurking in this 😉

        Andreas Hopf

        June 6, 2011 at 7:31 pm

      • Hi Andreas your observation are spot on.

        Even if everything is there easy and free people are not going to create or want to create stuff. Prof.Von Hippel has studied the consumer creation phenomena and has found that small passionate individuals form the nucleus of interesting possibilities. They operate with or without online tools. A lot of products (including the home pc) owe their origins to such groups. His research has also identified that consumers contribute significantly towards product innovation.

        There is however a certain pleasant naivety, perhaps shared by consumer creation companies – that people will really appreciate and be willing to pay for really cool stuff. Stuff becomes cool not because it is cool, but often because it is made to be cool either through the press, museums or massive advertisement campaigns – whose cost, customers are willing to pay for to gain the “trust worthiness” that you mention. Price tags also make things more exclusive and therefore by circular logic worth paying for. It is naive hope that this phenomena will change. It will be limited to a small market sector where geekness and coolness carry certain value.

        The genetic modelling technology is a generic design technology that can be used for a wide range of products and is not depended on the successes of the sector whose growth is limited by the factors that you have identified.

        Sivam Krish

        June 6, 2011 at 10:04 pm

  3. Very interesting, Sivam!
    My question – producers that set rules can allow all of the designs that a user might create that can fit the rules. For example, design of custom integrated circuits: The producer sets overall constraints like line width and die size – but the customer can create ANY design within those limits. Your generative system must also stay within the same production limits. So I see the benefit to the user as being the convenience of having a choice of designs provided – but I see those designs as probably being a subset of all the designs the producer would allow if he applied just his production constraints.

    Eric von Hippel

    June 6, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    • That’s right Prof. The producer has the last word on what can be made. So they get to set the filter first. The marketers next and the consumer/co-creator sets it last. The generative system will then propose designs within the constraints set by all, ensuring that it is what the customer wants, what the marketing is keen to sell and what the manufacturing company is able to make.

      Limit setting is so much easier than rule setting. Both rules and limits essentially have the same effect – they constrain design space. By implementing the constrains on the actual design the entire process is vastly simplified and the rules are removed (as they are embedded into the CAD file). This will open up a much larger design space than rule constrained spaces – opening a lot more creative possibilities.

      Also CAD objects can now be subject to interactive consumer play. Manipulating rules is not what consumers would want to do – unless they are laywers.

      Sivam Krish

      June 6, 2011 at 4:29 pm

      • Hi Sivam,

        saw a speech by Mr. von Hippel @ Innovation in Mind 2009 @ our campus. Interesting from an entrepreneurial point of view, because consumer differentiation analysis seems often forgotten and, as you say, catering to the cool and the nerds often does not a viable business model make. If only we’d know if and when there will be a substantial infiltration of the mainstream…

        Andreas Hopf

        June 6, 2011 at 10:55 pm

      • Just found this interesting paper : A Conceptual Framework of Generative Customization as an Approach to Product Innovation and Fulfilment : by Jack Buffington & Donald McCubbrey
        . They discussing the use of generative design for customisation

        Sivam Krish

        June 14, 2011 at 8:17 pm

  4. Sivam,
    Thanks for your post on my Clarity on PLM blog I didn’t see a trackback from my reply, so I thought I would share my thoughts here as well.

    Reading some of the comments above, I see a lot of the same concerns. It’s important what you CAN make, but it’s also very important what you WANT to make, and what you can make profitably.

    I am a huge fan of mass customization (see Mass Customization of Highly Configurable Products and I believe that new modelling techniques can help, but the business challenges have to be addressed as well.

    My thoughts on the difference between assemble to order (ATO), make to order (MTO), and engineering to order (ETO) can be found on my reply to your comment. I look forward to continuing the discussion.

    Jim Brown

    November 8, 2011 at 6:20 am

    • Hi JIm. thanks for sharing your thoughts – some of which are similar to what I have written here, specially – Design (Up Front) for Mass Customization. Once you have a common genetic data structure you can easily match what can be made with what people want. Without it you cannot. If the complexity of design is greatly reduced customers can show you exactly want they want – and that’s the holy grail.

      Sivam Krish

      November 8, 2011 at 10:13 am

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