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Product design has always been about a geometry – all design software starts that way. New tools, such as nTologopy’s new Field model, promise change. In doing so, they can help make corporations more agile, prevent product obsolescence and bring about distributed manufacturing.
Manufacturers and product developers are facing both increased pressure to innovate and rapid shifts in manufacturing technology. They need to update their product portfolio often and make sure they are using the latest technology to stay competitive.
Today’s product design process compounds their problems. Engineers go straight from customer requirements to design by deploying what sometimes feels like “dark magic.” This black box makes it impossible for them to turn back to the original needs at any point. Yet, they have to do so often as new insights emerge from the field, simulation, or technology changes. Over time, nobody knows who took which design decisions, and why.
This challenge inspired Thomas Hedberg, now Program Manager of the Model-Based Enterprise program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, MD, to move from an engineering role: “Back then, I used to insist that changes are always tied to customer requirements. Every time, my managers would tell me ‘that will never happen.’ I realized then that the barrier wasn’t people, but their tools. That we need better technology to ensure that the final part stays connected to the initial context and expected behavior. Only new tools can ensure products can continue to evolve, yet meet the same need.”
Those tools are now emerging. Based in New York City, nTopology is a software startup taking a new approach to design. It has just announced a significant extension to its nTop Platform: Field-Driven Design. This capability allows developers to define geometry-independent requirements, or “Fields.” These might include the stresses the part might endure, its design space, or the materials required. Requirements can also include equipment constraints, such as the laser power of metal 3D printers. The final geometry is a function of all these Fields. As a result, there is a common thread that runs all the way from requirements, through simulation, and into production.
nTopology is one of the first to tie this common thread together using computational design. This means that engineers no longer interact with designs themselves or even formulas. Through the Fields, they just instruct the system of their intent and the final geometry is created for them. Aside from the design space they provide, users may have no concept of how the final shape looks. That gives nTopology’s algorithms the flexibility to come up with the best possible solution to all the constraints defined by the Fields. Even new inputs are simple to adopt. All engineers have to do is alter a Field if they want to incorporate changes to materials, manufacturing tools, or simulation results. Original designs and future changes take seconds, not weeks.
nTopology’s approach is a significant development for engineers and designers. They may have already shown their appetite to adopt new methods such as Model-Based and Generative Design, as PTC’s recent acquisition of Frustum proves. These also capture intent and use computational power to design. Yet, they don’t go far enough as the geometry remains at the core in both approaches. nTopology’s Field approach severs that tie between geometry and intent. Instead, it inserts a new way of capturing the initial intent and all following constraints in a continuous thread. As this Fields ‘language’ is separate from the geometry, it can be updated at any time and thus future-proof designs.
It’s possible that previous approaches aimed to go further but were tied down by the current user base, still wedded to the methods they knew and the regulations they must adhere to. As a startup, nTopology has more freedom. To have a real impact though, it will have to find ways to make its approach standard across the industry. “In the end,” says Thomas Hedberg, “the only way to ensure adoption of these approaches is through standardized interfaces and open standards.”
The potential reward for mass adoption is immense. Freeing intent from design means freeing production from constraints too. Manufacturing is then no longer tied to a machine, material, or even location. In short, we enable distributed manufacturing: the ability to make any part, anywhere, any time, on any machine. In turn, this fixes broken supply chains and manufacturing processes that lead to factory downtime, plane crashes, and more. Without nTopology’s approach to separating geometry from intent, this vision will never turn to reality. With it, manufacturing will experience a trillion-dollar shift as location and mode of production change over the next 10-20 years.
We don’t have to wait that long for this technology to have an impact. Today, Fields can tie siloed design, simulation, testing, and manufacturing teams together with a common language. That increases development speed and makes companies more agile. As a result, backers such as Lockheed Martin expect that the software will “shorten the periods between the design and manufacturing phase.” It may do more than that: It may protect their products from premature obsolescence.
March 17, 2019 at 11:18AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs