By harnessing the power of AI, manufacturers now can embrace greener, more cost-effective practices.

As extreme weather events like wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones, and devastating storms continue to make international headlines, the public is showing growing concern about the climate crisis.

The UN has warned that we only have until 2030 to avert a full-blown catastrophe, and consumers are using their wallets to make smarter choices in line with their environmental concerns. There’s never been a better, more urgent time for manufacturers to ‘green’ their practices.

As always, technology can assist us in our pursuit for a greener world. Generative design offers the potential to boost sustainability across the manufacturing industry in just a few short years.

Understanding Generative Design

Generative design is a design concept that uses artificial intelligence (AI) to develop and test solutions for any problem. This approach can massively reduce the time needed for industry-based problem solving, which is what’s needed to address the climate emergency.

Over the past decade, this technology has continued to develop within the manufacturing industry, growing and evolving alongside it. As software and computer processing power grow, more and more firms are searching for ways to incorporate generative design into their own operations.

AI and the Process of Lightweighting

Until now, generative design has been used mostly in the production of so-called lightweighting product parts. It’s been primarily harnessed in order to reduce the mass of these parts, while preserving their functionality.

As an example, General Motors has used generative design to combine their eight-part seating brackets into a single part, which also is 20% stronger and 40% lighter than its predecessor. Airbus, another major transportation manufacturer, used the same approach to redesign their A320 interior partition panels, creating a divider that requires far fewer materials to provide the same function.

Lightweighting itself has many benefits in terms of sustainability. Cutting down on unnecessary material and labor use eliminates wastage while lowering carbon emissions and energy usage. This can reach back through supply chains, potentially even saving energy during the processing of raw materials. It conserves energy by lowering companies’ machinery usage requirements, while also making parts and products stronger, lighter, and more resilient. This slashes their need for replacement and repair, which can serve as a boon for the environment.

Innovative and Unforeseen Applications

Generative design’s potential surpasses its lightweighting capabilities, however. As technology improves and manufacturing processes evolve, new opportunities to use this technology will arise. There are many applications for it that have not yet been conceived, particularly when it comes to a global move towards sustainable manufacturing practices.

Its true potential may lie in its ability to redesign larger manufacturing systems entirely. AI could redevelop an entire product or production line instead of a single component; a functionality that could span to wide-scale civil and mechanical engineering projects.

Generative design could assist the rethinking of products essential in the transition to a green economy. While this may require companies to rework their business plan, the payoffs could well be worthwhile, both financially and ethically.

A good example is renewable energy-producing equipment like wind turbines. This design form could reduce the amount of material and energy needed to create sustainability-centric products. At the same time, it could improve their performance to make them cost effective, and more appealing to clean power investors.

The Cruciality of Manufacturing Sustainability

Manufacturing industry professionals can take significant steps towards all-important sustainability by using generative design to conceptualize new possibilities and move away from old-school assembly protocols. With this said, they’ll need to accept the limits of the manufacturing industry, and gather empirical data to ensure that generative-designed products perform, and last as they should. They may need to gain approval from certain governing authorities to use this new technology to its full potential, too.

Generative design may create unforeseen validation, and performance testing challenges, but it will offer new and much-needed solutions to some of the planet’s most pressing issues. Certification has long been based on physical testing, but generative design and its sister technologies could streamline this validation process by prompting quick iterations of potential flaws. The time saved by rapid iteration could instead be diverted towards the certification of new, improved, and more sustainable products.

It also enables manufacturers to view the world and its obstacles in a whole new way. This modern worldview could lead to an industry-wide move towards adopting innovative manufacturing solutions, instead of sector members continuing to place their faith in outdated and unsustainable methods of production.