From GM’s Initial CAD Experiments to Generative Design

The first digital design efforts began in the 1950’s at companies like GM and universities such as MIT. In the 1960’s the first CAD systems were being tested, mainly at automotive and aerospace firms. Following the trajectory of Moore’s law, from mainframes to mini-computers to ever faster workstations, CAD increased in capability and accessibility. By the early 2000’s highly capable CAD systems could be run on laptops. Firms like Autodesk and Solidworks worked on improving ease-of-use, while exposing millions of future engineers to their software through educator versions. The tools became more capable, with features that automatically dimensioned parts, etc. At the same time, 3D printers saw the same reduction in cost, and low cost services entered the market. Concurrently, information technology moved from transaction-based messages and emails to one of platforms with networking and social media-like capabilities. For more information, here’s a nice blog on CAD history.

The tools have become better, easier to use, and low cost. This allows a teenager to design a part using FreeCAD, fabricate it at school using a low cost Makerbot 3D printer, design a custom circuit in, and assembly the new IoT prototype using a Rasberry Pi for less than $100.00.

At the other end of the spectrum, we are seeing development of extremely capable systems with real-time analysis and AI-based features that can generate wildly capable designs. This allows firms to push the boundaries of performance (here’s an example at GM), at the same time empowering employees or outside enthusiasts to create, and build, and innovate using these often free tools and services. This is why we wrote the book, to understand and promote the idea that information technology and the design tools themselves are reshaping how and why we innovate.

So as we move more deeply into this digitized third era of the industrial revolution, firms must know how to strategically leverage these trends and improve their innovation efforts. Given the fact that so many executives are not satisfied with their innovation efforts, the time is now to start looking at ways to progress. Here’s a good article from Boston Consulting Group on the state of digitization in 2018.

In our next post we’ll explore in more detail of how traditional firms, what we call Specialists, are using these new technologies to their advantage.