There are many maxims concerning failure, all teaching us that failure is a part of life and learning, and that success requires perseverance through failure and setbacks. But when it comes to space exploration and travel, failure comes at a high cost because it’s rather difficult to repair broken modules when they’re 350 million miles away. It’s also very expensive to send backups due to the fact that any addition of weight means more fuel that adds even more weight. Minimizing weight is incredibly important for getting instruments into space, but only as far as structural integrity and durability permit, because again, something breaking when it’s on a moon of Jupiter isn’t an option. So there’s a delicate balancing act that engineers must perform in order to maximize strength and minimize weight.
To achieve better strength/weight ratios, engineers must again seek to balance what works with what is possible. And that’s why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory went to Autodesk, to learn how much new technology could be used to design and fabricate an interplanetary lander without compromising reliability. JPL’s Atelier division is tasked with exploring cutting-edge technology and testing what’s viable and applicable to their stringent needs. “What they do is carefully infuse new technology into their processes,” says Karl Willis, Autodesk’s technology lead on the project. “They know they have to explore new ways to do things while keeping risk at a minimum.”
They were clear that they weren’t interested in incremental gains: if they were only able to improve performance by 10%, they basically weren’t interested. If we could deliver software tools to help them achieve a performance improvement of 30% or more, then we had their attention. This project demonstrates that Autodesk technologies may deliver mass savings at this level.”
.Mark Davis, the senior director of industry research at Autodesk
Autodesk is able to meet the very specific design requirements of NASA by using their generative design technology, a form of which is commercially available in Fusion360, Autodesk’s cloud-based product development software. With generative design, machine intelligence and cloud computing generate broad design solutions that are bounded by constraints and requirements set by engineers. That means engineers can dictate strength requirements and receive solutions that provide optimal locations of arrays and instrumentation, usually looking organic in design. Davis explains, “We took a system that was developed to help a customer solve system level suspension problems on a Formula One race car and applied new requirements for structural constraints critical to space exploration.” Even the manufacturing method can be set as a constraint. For instance, if JPL wants to stick with tried and true forged aluminum, then the software can be instructed to produce designs optimized for CNC fabrication. The same can be done for Additive Manufacturing and casting, and the lander concept employed all three fabrication methods.
Through iterative generative designs, the Autodesk team was able to reduce the mass of the external structure by 35% compared to the baseline and they displayed the lander at Autodesk University in Vegas. Their process cuts the typical design and revises timeline of 2-4 months down to 2-4 weeks. That level of improvement is what propels technology, productivity, and thinking beyond the stratosphere and into the stars.