When innovation in the aerospace sector started to stagnate, Airbus’ innovation manager, Bastian Schaefer, decided it was time for the company to bring fresh eyes to old problems. His team reached out to Autodesk, the 3D design and engineering firm, hoping to push the aerospace company in new directions.
Schaefer is part of Airbus’s Emerging Technologies and Concepts group, a team affectionately referred to as the “crazy guys” by the rest of the German company, in light of their pursuit of innovation.
Together, the two firms focused on what passengers really want from a flight, and how “comfortable” means different things to different people. For some passengers, comfortable means the freedom to use technology to work, play and collaborate. For others, it’s greater accessibility, more privacy or just more room. Schaefer says: “Our challenge is to address all of these things in a flexible, dynamic way.”
By starting with a human-centered focus, the teams began identifying opportunities to improve plane design while maximizing flight experience. In one early brainstorming session, the team tackled a seemingly simple challenge: improve the partition between the galley and the passengers to make it more attractive and flexible while reducing its weight. The new partition had to be lighter, strong enough to anchor jump seats, have a cut-out to pass large items through and attach to the plane in just four places.
“Meeting these design constraints required a major departure from traditional engineering approaches,” Autodesk reports in an article about the project. Using Autodesk’s “generative design” technology, the team set the design parameters then explored all of the possible permutations of a solution to find the best option.
“With generative design, you can create a kind of algorithmic geometry,” David Benjamin, director of research for Autodesk told Fast Company. “Instead of starting with the whole shape, then putting in supporting members, you can literally grow a shape into the [right footprint] and the load. It’s a totally different logic.”
This approach ultimately led to “the bionic partition,” a latticed structure optimized to be strong and light, and to use the least amount of material to build. Each partition is approximately 66 pounds lighter than the standard partition, removing up to 1,102 pounds of weight per plane. The resulting decrease in fuel use would cut CO2 emissions by up to 166 metric tons per aircraft each year. Airbus is now applying generative design tools to reengineer many more parts to one day create a bionic plane.
While it may sound like a technical approach to a technical problem, the teams at Airbus and Autodesk only got to this solution by taking a human-centered approach to the problem. “With a building or plane, you have to think of the comfort of people inside it, the energy consumption to create the materials in it, the efficiency or amount in costs to produce it,” Benjamin says.
Design thinking helped these teams identify the right problem to solve, then use innovative technology to find the best possible solution.
Read more about human-centered approaches and state-of-the-art technology in our post on robots and innovation.
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