Using an additive manufacturing process called direct ink writing, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) engineers Eric Duoss (left) and Tom Wilson create an engineered-foam cushion.
George Kitrinos/LLNL Using an additive manufacturing process called direct ink writing, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) engineers Eric Duoss (left) and Tom Wilson create an engineered-foam cushion.

Autodesk is teaming up with researchers at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), in Livermore, Calif., to explore the intersection of design software and additive manufacturing. While the news is big, what they’ll be working on is too small to see. During an 18-month research partnership, the pair will develop nano- and micro-scale materials with structural and mechanical properties that perform in ways not found in nature; for example, components that are both lightweight and stiff or transition from stiff to flexible. The partnership will focus in particular on the development of novel materials for use in protective helmets—a test case for the broader goal of improving the performance​ of shock-absorbing and heat-dissipating materials.

“Today, predicting with 100-percent confidence the performance of a helmet is not possible,” Michael Bergin, a principal research scientist at Autodesk, told ARCHITECT in an email. “This is due to the nature of foams as cushioning material being stochastic, or randomly configured.” 

The software company will develop the prototype tools for defining the desired properties of materials and for evaluating material choices and combinations, building on its Project Dreamcatcher research platform, which explores how generative-design software can optimize new manufacturing processes. “The feedback of the LLNL scientists is a primary motivator for our progress in the development of our experimental interfaces and algorithms,” Bergin says.

Helmets present a unique set of challenges: They must be lightweight and portable, yet reliably absorb impact and dissipate energy. (Bonus points if they look cool.) “The goal is to be able to identify through this generative design process what is an ideal helmet,” says Eric Duoss, an LLNL materials engineer and co-principal investigator for the research partnership. That requires making materials that respond to various impact types and are much more efficient than current foam and pad options. “You could have a direct impact [in which] you’re looking to dissipate energy very quickly, under compression, and essentially decelerate as much as possible so that force isn’t transmitted to the wearer,” Duoss explains. “You could also have something like a glancing impact—imparting more torsion or shear to the helmet and thus to the user. What you really want to be able to do is co-design all of those different types of impacts or deformation.”

The team plans to achieve this using industrial-scale additive manufacturing. While 3D printing may conjure images of a desktop machine spitting out lines of colorful plastic, LLNL and Autodesk are working at a larger scale​. "The cost and sensitive nature of research in 3D printing have hidden a good deal of the legitimate innovation in manufacturing over the last several years," Bergin says.

The project builds on previous work by LLNL's additive manufacturing group, including the 3D printing of lightweight and stiff metamaterials, graphene aerogels, and other energy-absorbing materials. LLNL is also working with the Materials with Controlled Microstructural Architecture program from the Defense Department's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to explore and develop novel material combinations, such as those that combine strength and stiffness with a lightweight composition​, Duoss says.

"Our hope is if you can make the architectures or the features micro- or nano-scale, then instead of interacting with the materials as a structure, you can start to interact with them more as a material," he says. "And [as a result] you can get more homogenized properties at the macro-scale than you would [be able to] if something had elements in it or struts that were on the [order], for example, of what the helmet cushion thickness might be."

Eventually, he predicts, architects and engineers could create application-specific materials by inputting their desired properties or performance and running it through the design software.