Designing Sustainable Products with Procedural Modeling

By Tyson Fogel and Matthew Spremulli for Autodesk University

What are the new emerging methods for tackling large and complex challenges such as sustainable design? What might happen when we combine technology from one industry and apply it to another? How can designers use these experiments in convergence to push the future of design-and-make innovation?

Informed by the work of an Autodesk Technology Center resident, this article presents a case study on the sustainable implications of converging industrial design tasks with procedural modeling tools (traditionally used in media and entertainment). We share the results of both practical hands-on experiments from the resident and conceptual thinking about how procedural modeling tools can influence design decisions when applied to product design and manufacturing. On a broad scale, this article highlights how the practice of converging tools can become a method for designing with enhanced performance requirements.

Related: How Generative Design Can Make Your Product More Sustainable (and Help Your Company Make More Money) with Zoe Bezpalko

Introduction: Design Intent

What is convergence? Why should you care? And what does it have to do with procedural modeling, or sustainable design? To answer these questions, we thought it best to start from the perspective of design intent and reflecƒt on what makes a design good (or not so good). The design intention helps frame the impact our design choices have on our surrounding environment. For instance, looking at both popular news and scientific reports, an argument can be made that pollution and overconsumption are byproducts of poor design. Here are a few data points to consider:

  • If Americans could repair their broken electronics, they could save approximately 40 billion dollars. Instead, electronics are tossed and new ones purchased, equating to over 153,000 passenger airplanes worth of e-waste per year.
  • Currently 8.6% of the world is operating as a circular economy, meaning the remainder is operating under the assumption that we can continue to take, make, and waste.
  • 20 cents of every dollar spent on manufacturing is wasted due to inefficiencies. This is economic waste: redundancies in prototyping, for example, or design and manufacturing changes that cause downstream effects.
  • The average adult makes approximately 35,000 decisions daily. If 1% of these decisions concern the consumer products we use, that’s 3,500 opportunities to make an environmental difference as individuals.

The Need for Better Design

We need to design the objects around us better, smarter, and more efficiently. And what better way to initiate this shift in our design intent, than to change our mindset?

The Mindset of Convergence

Convergence could be one path forward. In the broadest sense, convergence is a mindset to gain an entirely new perspective on how to solve problems. It means using best practices and tools from other industries and domains. It also means deliberately encouraging designers and makers to lean on transdisciplinary workflows to achieve better outcomes — whether through optimizing the use of energy and materials, increasing resilience of infrastructure and supply chains, or learning new skills to adapt and thrive. At Autodesk, we see this concept of convergence manifesting in four ways:

Workflow coordination — By using digital tools to coordinate work processes across teams and systems and across supply chains and ecosystems, innovators can automate tasks and discover data insights that reveal outcomes they never thought possible.

On-demand customization — Customers are experiencing — and expecting — greater choice and customization than ever before. Innovators are tapping into this demand by taking advantage of mass assembly of tailored products and by precision crafting unique components.

Virtual creation — By building rich information models, innovators are increasingly able to realize their creativity, surface insights, and build immersive experiences.

Continuous reshaping — Innovative owners and operators of existing things can continue reshaping their products and projects beyond the construction site, factory floor, or production studio based on ongoing performance, customer experience, and changing needs.

Types of convergence.

What people are making today is now being reshaped by data, automation, and insights, which will create better outcomes for their customers, their businesses, and the world.

To support the emerging era of convergence, we at Autodesk are committed to making our customers’ data more interoperable, accessible, and open. We’re doing that by providing tools that connect workflows and services that help customers optimize and innovate. We’re connecting disciplines for more seamless collaboration, and we’re cross-pollinating best practices among all industries we serve, such as leveraging media-creation workflow-coordination tools for manufacturing and using manufacturing tools to improve outcomes in industrialized construction. Learn more about how Autodesk is enabling convergence.

Sustainable Design + Procedural Modeling

Since a convergence mindset lends itself to the experimental mixing of tools, workflows, and personas, technologies themselves can be reimagined as they are applied to new industries. An example of this is the use of procedural modeling, which is the focus of this article. Procedural modeling uses computer graphics techniques to create 3D models and textures from rule sets. Traditionally, the technique has been used within the media and entertainment industry — for films and games, for example — but it’s been recently used in other design sectors, including industrial design, to investigate sustainability, added design behavior, and formal complexity.

Exploring Convergence through a Case Study

Hypothesis

To understand this procedural modeling convergence, we asked: Can procedural modeling be used to make industrial design more sustainable?

Research Approach

To explore this question, we worked with subject matter experts to collaboratively shape and support an intensive design-make workshop.

Procedural modeling convergence case study.

Complementing the design-make workshop, which focused more on technical/hands-on aspects, we added to the hypothesis with a theoretical approach, which included the three-part process outlined below:

1. Brainstorm a set of scenarios of how we thought procedural modeling could positively impact industrial design.

2. Stress test these scenarios with our invited external team and other SMEs.

3. Cross-reference everything and aggregate our observations and lessons learned.

Our Approach with Our Collaborators

We used a parallel inquiry, as summarized in the image below. The branches to the left and right each demonstrate the unique path our external collaborators and ourselves took, and how they interconnect.

Our External Collaborator

We collaborated with the Architectural Association (AA), a world-renowned architectural design institution located in London, England. The school is recognized as a leader in topics related to advanced computational design, experimentation, and design-to-make workflows in topics related to both architecture and industrial design. Distinguished alumni from the school include Frei Otto, Sir Peter Cook, and Zaha Hadid. While the school supports a robust curriculum rooted in experimentation, they are also able to explore advanced niche topics which they deliver through their Visiting School program. The Visiting School is a series of two- or three-week intensive post-professional workshops developed and delivered by a series of invited specialists (also known as tutors) to lead a group of students through a guided workshop.

Our Autodesk Technology Centers team worked with the Visiting School program to co-develop a workshop solely focused on the convergence of procedural modeling and industrial design. This workshop was virtually held through the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight Network during late summer 2021 and was entitled F2 — Morphological Experiments Between Force and Form.

Two groups of tutors led a cohort of 24 students from 16 different countries to create a range of rapid experiments. One group pursued a fusion of physical-digital explorations using robotic clay printing and simulation, and the other group focused on digital agent-based simulations reacting to forces. Both groups applied their technological focus points to simple industrial design objects: chairs and planters.

Exploring Convergence through a Complementary Approach

As previously mentioned, our complementary approach to the work of the resident teams consisted of three phases: Brainstorm, Stress Test, and Aggregate. Below we describe each phase in detail.

Brainstorm: Sustainable Design Strategies

Both groups (our external collaborators and ourselves) chose to explore a simple industrial design object: the design and materiality of a chair. How the chair was designed and made became the starting point of our brainstorming sessions.

Sustainable Design Strategies Using Procedural Modeling

We arrived at five ambitious design strategies, where we imagined procedural modeling could play a role in unlocking sustainable design. These design strategies (further outlined below) are Biomimicry, Design for Afterlife, Design for Repair, Manufacturing Modifications, and Design for Awareness.

Impact on Materials and Product Development

To better envision the value of using procedural modeling as it pertains to sustainable product development, the figure below illustrates the two parallel cycles that help bring an idea to reality: the Development Cycle and Material Lifecycle. The cycles complement each other and are intrinsically connected through manufacturing.

  • Development Cycle (Process) — The sandbox in which all makers and designers find themselves in. This cycle outlines the steps needed to bring a product from concept through to the consumer market.
  • Material (Product) Lifecycle — The phases in which material (and eventually products) go through. Each stage is characterized by inputs and outputs, as well as material value loss (or in some cases, gains). A ‘closed’ material lifecycle would be representative of a circular economy.
Overlap between a traditional development process and a material lifecycle.

This relationship is important to note, as a sustainable outcome through the use of procedural modeling can create additional connective tissue between these two distinct cycles.

Biomimicry

The use of procedural modeling to emulate a form or process observed in nature. Biomimicry relates to sustainable design as our largest circular system (Earth) has proven the value of self-sufficiency over thousands of years.

Chair example: Using a material to mimic a creature’s skin to increase overall durability of the object.

Design for Afterlife

The use of procedural modeling to enhance or simulate functions like material biodegradability, recyclability, and decomposition. Effectively, designing for an afterlife ensures the future transformation of a product provides nutrients to the environment it is disposed in.

Chair example: Producing and simulating the growth of a biomaterial (coral, for example) and when properly discarded in its natural environment (water), this object encourages the additional growth of an existing ecosystem.

Design for Repair

The use of procedural modeling to indicate wear/tear, usage patterns, and ergonomics. Keeping a product in usage for as long as possible can defer its negative environmental impact. This could be further supported by allowing for repairability, recyclability, modularity, or disassembly. Part of the challenge here is knowing when or how to replace certain components.

Chair example: Create a rippling surface finish to indicate wear. As the chair deteriorates, new colors reveal themselves creating a visual aid and indication for replacement.

Manufacturing Modifications

The use of procedural modeling to intentionally reduce energy or material in manufacturing processes by limiting a high intensity factor (energy, time, or material). ‘Designing out waste’ or optimizing a manufacturing process means we can limit the number of phases where waste is generated.

Chair example: The development of complex lattice and infill structures to provide efficiency (or material optimization) without sacrificing part integrity.

Design for Awareness

The use of procedural modeling to communicate the creation/use of an object in order to alter consumer perception and consumption awareness. Consumers are often disconnected from the amount of effort and resources it took for a product to reach its final (usable) form. This sustainable design strategy tries to remove this disconnection and provide continuous awareness by encoding certain data into a design using procedural modeling.

Chair Example: Communicating energy consumption and usage through a texture or articulated surface on the chair. Users will feel a deeper connection to the history and effort required to make the product.

Mapping the sustainable design strategies on the development and material lifecycle to better understand where the value of procedural modeling is being realized.

Want more? Download the full class handout to continue reading.

Tyson Fogel is a passionate maker and champion of sustainable product design. Tyson works directly with innovation communities to provide technical expertise and fabrication through the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight Network. With extensive experience in additive manufacturing, prototyping and bespoke wood fabrication, Tyson challenges others to design for a circular economy by combining converging or emerging tools and technology.

Matthew Spremulli is a design-technology enthusiast and trans-disciplinary experimenter at heart, Matthew scouts for organizations to join the Autodesk Technology Centers Outsight Network and helps shape their projects. Matthew has a diverse background including architecture, manufacturing, storytelling, and education which he leverages in guiding others to be experimental in their design-research.

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