The Future of CAD?

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A look ahead to the use of generative design technology

If you’ve already been doing CAD for a few years, you may be more interested in learning about what’s next for the technology. Ask the experts that keep track of new technology, and they’ll tell you to keep an eye on generative design; it’s the wave of the future.

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Generative design uses a mix of artificial intelligence and cloud computing to create design options based on parameters set by the user. A user simply inputs the design constraints for the piece (such as materials, size, weight, cost, and how it will be manufactured), and the computer generates hundreds, if not thousands, of design options that fit the criteria. Although it’s been around since the early ’90s, the technology has been incorporated into a wide range of CAD design programs only fairly recently—and primarily for areas outside of jewelry manufacturing.

“It’s been adopted by other industries—automotive, aerospace,” says Kevin Abernathy, chief innovation officer of BISVentures, a business and 3-D technology consulting company in Burnsville, Minnesota. “But there hasn’t been a lot of movement in the jewelry industry, at least not full blown generative design.”

However, while “full blown” generative design may not have yet been introduced into the industry, there are some somewhat similar programs that jewelers can already access. One example is Grasshopper, a modeling plug-in designed for use with the CAD software program Rhino. It allows designers to create unique shapes and patterns that might ordinarily be too difficult or time consuming to render in CAD or to create by hand fabrication, such as a pendant with a Voronoi pattern.

“It allows you to do some things you would have to do manually in Rhino,” says Abernathy. “It can make complex shapes much more easily attainable, but you have to program it, which isn’t the average designer’s forte.”

Another option, Ntopology, is currently available for jewelers interested in metal printing. Ntopology is an engineering software designed to create complex geometry and lightweight designs.

“Topology is the optimization of surfaces, so if you want to design something that you want to withstand certain stresses, you can program it to design so that things are stronger,” explains Steven Adler of A3DM Technologies, an additive manufacturing R&D company based in Burlington, Vermont. “It could have applications in jewelry. For the 3-D printing of metals, it could encapsulate a lattice structure inside the piece. It would make the piece lighter,” while at the same time making the piece appear more substantial.

“For example,” he continues, “if we design a ring, we can look at the areas where it’s thickest and create a lattice on the inside of those areas. You can’t see the cage structure from the outside, [so] it looks like a regular ring, but it’s 15 to 20 percent lighter. You can make something that looks physically large, but is still comfortable to wear.”

However, Adler notes that this capability is limited to pieces that are printed in metal. “It’s not for casting,” he says.

While no one knows for sure what lies ahead for the future of jewelry design, generative design programs appear to be the direction in which we’re headed, particularly as more jewelry designers embrace CAD. Abernathy sees it as a natural progression for the industry “as programming tools become more art friendly, and artists become more comfortable using computers for art and design.”