From commercial drones to cargo planes, technology has aided in making planes stronger, lighter, more efficient and ultimately safer for those on board in a manner that is beginning to seem almost too futuristic for our time. Now, as the desire to ensure that a plane essentially thinks for itself and avoids disaster in the most unique ways takes hold, aviation is on the cusp of a new wave of innovation.
Imagine: A plane’s wings changing shape or its body becoming transparent allowing you to see out in every direction.
The idea, although farfetched at first thought, is how Airbus and Autodesk’s first of its kind studio, The Living,’ envision the Concept Cabin, first introduced by the manufacturer in 2011.
The studio explores the future by building full-scale functioning prototypes. Their projects apply generative design, biology, and new materials to real built projects in the context of technology, culture, and the environment.
The beauty of generative design is that it mimics nature’s evolutionary approach to design. It lets you create optimised complex shapes and internal lattices. Using cloud computing, generative design software quickly cycles through thousands–or even millions–of design choices, testing configurations and learning from each iteration what works and what doesn’t. The process lets designers generate brand new options, beyond what a human alone could create, to arrive at the most effective design. Some of these forms are impossible to make with traditional manufacturing methods. Instead, they’re built using new additive manufacturing methods.
"Slime mould can change form and spread itself by creating connections between its body and the environment.”
Using generative-design software and 3D printing, Autodesk and Airbus recently collaborated to manufacture what is being called a bionic partition. This partition, created by The Living, provides a slim but all-important wall that separates the crew from passengers, including space for emergency stretcher access and holds the crew’s fold-down seating for take-offs and landings.
The bionic-design partition weighs 30 kilos, which is 45 percent lighter than conventional partitions, resulting in huge savings in both fuel and carbon footprint. However, the most innovative element about the partition is that its design is based on a single-celled organism: slime mould.
Slime mould is truly an interesting organism. It is able to change form and spread itself in an unprecedented manner by creating connections between its body and the environment. This exact behaviour was used in modelling the partition by using an algorithm to connect not only all the interface points of the partition to the primary structure of the airplane, but also inside the partition to hold the attendants’ seats in place, in turn creating a multi-redundant structural network inside the partition.
To produce the algorithm, The Living created generative-design software; the team entered constraints into its tools to generate the original designs, with two goals in mind: weight reduction and performance. In the case of weight reduction, the team was aiming for a 30 percent reduction but achieved a full 45 percent.
From those initial constraints, the team received more than 10,000 design permutations for the partition. Airbus relied on big-data analytics to narrow the number of design iterations and decide on a final, best-performing design to manufacture; a visual graph was used where two main constraints were identified–weight and deflection–along with all the design solutions represented as points inside these graphs. This allowed design solutions to be selected and given closer inspection by analysts and Airbus to set goals for itself in what it was trying to achieve.
Of course, goals can vary on a case-to-case basis; be they to reduce weight, increase speed, or improve fuel economy. Generative design uses algorithms to achieve these goals. But along with this, goals such as structural performance can be achieved. Therefore, for the bionic partition, the goal was that for a 16 g crash test, there shouldn’t be a deflection of the partition larger than 200 mm.
There is always margin for error–the Airbus team had 116 parts, and those parts had connectors, all of which had to be machines. At first glance, It was tough to guarantee that such a partition would even function with all these components. But when finished, the partition proved to be extremely light and stiff, essentially raising confidence on the issue that regardless of the margin for error, there exists an even greater margin for success.
It is important to note that in the past this ‘invention’ would not have been possible. The reason why these dreams are possible and no longer are science fiction is because of generative design and 3D printing.
For the most part, current industrial additive manufacturing machines can print only small aircraft components. Bigger printers mean bigger parts of the plane can be produced. Eventually, Airbus and The Living will focus on a 3D-printed cockpit, which is twice as big as the partition. It must be sealable from within and provide bulletproof security.
Beyond using slime mould as a design principle, other algorithms may need to be developed based on plants to create new headrests, etc. Algorithms based on human properties to design super strong vertical stabilisers or jet-engine components may become a reality. Maybe in the future entire planes will be printed, facilitated by generative design.
Technology has continued to improve and will continue to improve. The innovations that we see now are only the tip of the iceberg into what the future holds for generative design and 3D printing. We truly live in an exciting time where we are blessed to see science fiction become a reality.
Naji Atallah is head of architecture, engineering, construction and manufacturing applications, Autodesk.