When Hardware Acts Like Software

Photo by Kevin Dooley — http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/1856663523/

Evolving Machines

Hardware engineering is becoming as rapid, open, and distributed as software engineering is today.

Digital fabrication — the ability to instruct a machine to create a form defined on a computer — is blurring the line between software and hardware. 3D printers, CNC routers, and laser cutters are now able to manufacture hardware across an ever widening gamut of materials and dimensions. Commercially available printers can print electronics and sensors, atomic-scale structures, and even human tissues. When combined with the power of the crowd, this new production capability is unlocking never before seen products, at a lower cost, faster than ever before.

In the era of punchcards, software innovation was stifled by clumsy design tools and limited access to expensive (and proprietary) machinery. Imagine carefully crafting a new program, meticulously transcribing it to dozens of punchcards and submitting it to the “high priests” of the mainframe only to receive the output on a printout — often 24 hours later or more — riddled with cryptic errors from its execution. Iteration and improvement did not occur quickly.

The same elements that caused explosive growth in the software industry — inexpensive tools, instantaneous communication, and innovative open source licensing models — are repeating themselves in hardware. The proliferation of inexpensive CAD modeling programs and affordable 3d printers are rapidly accelerating the pace of innovation in hardware. Open source licensing models are being adapted from software to provide the ability to collaborate and commercialize.

Open design allows for evolution.

December 11, 2013 marked the conclusion of the GE Jet Engine Bracket Design Challenge. Professional and amateur engineers from all over the world submitted nearly 700 original designs for a bracket to be printed in aircraft-grade titanium alloy and tested at the GE Global Research Center. The engineers collaborated with each other in an open fashion, learning from one another. This program is near and dear to our hearts at Undercurrent, not only because we played a role in helping GE bring it to life, but also because we see it as a striking example of how software continues to eat the world.

Butterfly Bracket II by Luke Maselkowski

From the onset of the bracket challenge, the community began to experiment with a variety of forms. Design patterns began to emerge. Some traits had clear merit and were quickly adopted by other participants. One particularly popular trait was a wing-like architecture the judges referred to as “the butterfly.”. Traits not favored by the group did not spread. Day by day, one could watch the population of brackets evolve.

Engine Bracket V2.1 by Igor Lins e Silva

Some designers were applying evolution in a more literal Darwinian sense. Several entrants submitted parts which had been designed by algorithm — rather than by human. Topology optimization is the application of mathematics to a design in order to improve its performance characteristics — often decreasing weight — while maintaining a set of design constraints such as the part size or strength. In contrast to many of the other entrants, these brackets largely designed themselves.

Many of these topologically optimized entries began to resemble biological forms. Features resembling tendons appeared. Some of the mathematic techniques used to create these forms are genetic algorithms. Computers derive random mutations from a parent bracket and test the offspring against a fitness function. Those that survive the fitness test then go on to produce further offspring until the optimal bracket emerges. None of the winning brackets successfully employed this technique, but several designers and enterprises — such as Within Lab — believe that these sorts of techniques will increase in popularity and importance.

Taking the human out of the design equation.

In the near future, 3d printing will be able to place active components and sensors into digitally fabricated parts — a marriage between Advanced Manufacturing and the Industrial Internet. Imagine if our jet engine bracket could continuously measure and communicate its strain and wear. The more the bracket flew, the smarter its subsequent design would be. A communicating bracket is an ever better bracket — a bracket which closes the loop between its designer, builder, customer, and machine.

The future may be closer than we think. Companies such as Optomec are printing electronics and sensors using a 6-axis 3d printer they call the Aerosol Jet. Even a consumer-grade 3d printer for electronics has appeared (and been successfully funded) on Kickstarter called the EX¹.

Digital design is racing forward, to great benefit and great peril.

The ROI story is powerful. Better designs are brought to market faster by engaging an open community. Performance improvements via weight savings of a single bracket represent millions of dollars of savings to the airline industry. The world’s best design talent can be discovered no matter where they live.

And yet, digital disruption looms. What will it mean for organizations that don’t build and sustain relationships with open communities? How will the supply chain be affected when jet engines can order the printing of their own replacement parts from the air? These are the sorts of questions we love to think about, and we can’t wait to see where it is all going next.

This article originally appeared on Ideas Lab on December 12th, 2013.

About Jordan Husney