Could smart software kill the designer?

Next generation artificially intelligent engineering software will take many decisions out of the designer’s hands. Should engineers be worried?

Late last year we highlighted a study warning that one in three UK jobs are at risk of replacement by technology over the next 20 years.

Unsurprisingly, this report – which was published by Deloitte and Oxford University – suggested that those carrying out low paid repetitive jobs were at greatest risk of being usurped by robots.  And despite the inevitable and irresistible slew of headlines warning of our imminent subjugation, the general conclusion was that those in highly skilled professions – and in particular engineers – had nothing to fear.

But following a conversation with a senior executive at a large engineering software firm this week I’m not so sure.

The world of engineering design – according to our source – stands on the brink of unprecedented technological change that could take a host of pretty fundamental design decisions away from the engineer and put them in the hands of a new generation of smart software tools.  

Armed with an understanding of a product’s desired functionality, able to instantly mine “the cloud” for design data, and equipped with advanced artificial intelligence algorithms, these tools will almost instantly figure out the most efficient and simple to manufacture design.

Want to design a load bearing component for a critical application? Simply input some key parameters such as weight, stiffness and footprint, sit back, and let the software do your job for you.

A number of companies are already pointing the way to this kind of functionality. Perhaps most notably London firm Within Labs has developed a number of tools and design processes that use AI to generate complex latticed structures, whilst a number of research groups around the world are investigating the ways in which AI might be used to power tomorrow’s engineering software.

This intriguing trend has, in part, been driven by the emergence of 3D printing, a technique which allows almost unfettered design freedom but which has, many contend, been held back by the capabilities of existing design tools and the imagination of designers.  

It’s hardly a surprising conclusion. Engineers, and indeed most humans, are far more effective at delivering a solution, and indeed more creative, when asked to work within defined parameters. Remove the familiar constraints, as additive does, and the almost limitless possibilities can actually have a stifling effect.

But will these tools really kill the designer? It’s certainly likely that that the role of the engineer will change and evolve (as it always has done) and that tomorrow’s tools will perform many of the calculations that are currently carried out by humans.

Hopefully though, this won’t spell the demise of the engineering designers, but will help them properly exploit the benefits of emerging manufacturing techniques and free them up to do what humans do best: innovate.

Within's software uses
Within’s software uses “bio-inspired AI” to design complex lattices