Granta + Autodesk team up for green design and materials selection & interview with Sarah Krasley

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Image courtesy of the Lego Group

This is something I’ve been meaning to post for quite a while and for some reason it got stuck in my drafts folder, which as I’m sure is the same for many of you, is a bottomless pit of stuff you need to finish.

It revolves around the news that Autodesk signed a strategic partnership with Granta Design, developers of a wide range of materials selection tools.

The announcement was made way back in 2010 but with the next major release cycle coming up, I’m hoping there’s going to be some concrete details coming up on where this is going. The essence is that the two organisations are co-developing software that will add new sustainable design capabilities to Autodesk’s tools – whether that’s Inventor, Alias isn’t too clear, but a sneaky peak recently posted on treehugger.com shows an Inventor integrated system that looks to take some of the experiences Autodesk made with its Project Krypton Labs project last year and add a great amount of detail. While there are a number of sustainability initiatives coming out from a range of vendors, potential of this one gets me really excited. First and foremost, the source of the data catalyst for that excitement.
Granta was founded by Mike Ashby and Dave Cebon who defined the methodologies for materials selection learned and used by many designers and engineers in the form of the Materials Selection in Mechanical Design (which I’m sure sits on many of our shelves). Secondly, its focussing on an area in which there is a huge interest (and we have some exciting news of our own on that, coming up soon) but in which there is a lack in solid data about the various materials we encounter in the design and engineering business. The final reason is that its Autodesk that are doing it. The company seems to have a commitment to sustainability that it’s backing up with serious tools for both its user community and the design & technology community at large (remember, Krypton was delivered for Inventor, Pro/E and SolidWorks).

To get an insight into where things are going, I caught up with Sarah Krasley, Product Manager, Sustainability at Autodesk for a chat.

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Al Dean: Hi Sarah. Tell us a little about what you do at Autodesk.

Sarah Krasley: I do a lot of work with our customers to determine what their issues are with regards sustainable design and manufacture as well as understanding their workflows. I then come back and work with my product development team to develop technology that can hopefully help solve some of their issues. I’ve been with Autodesk about 3 years, I started working with the sustainability group, then moved into manufacturing about a year ago.

Al Dean: How’s it been in that year, since you moved over to manufacturing?

Sarah Krasley: Great. I’ve had the pleasure of working with so many of our product groups, and it’s been fantastic. Having that access to customers has been great as well. I’ve also worked with a lot of the product groups in industry verticals; we have a gentleman that’s focussed on automotive and transportation, so I’ve been able to have wonderful conversations with customers in that area. We have another guy that’s focussed on consumer products, another that’s focussed on building products and how they fit into the workflows of architects and structural engineers, so it’s been terrific collaborating with them and bringing sustainability into all those verticals.

Al Dean: The reason I wanted to have chat was the announcement of you [Autodesk] signing an agreement with Granta Design. How did the relationship with Granta Design come about? They’re a company I’ve been writing about for more than a decade on and off and they sit outside the realm of the traditional things (such as CAD, CAE) that we look at and the things that Autodesk are known for in terms of geometry creation. But they have some huge brains down in Cambridge, and I don’t know if it’s the same in the States, but most designers and engineers in the UK study their methods as part of their degree courses. But then it stops. So, seeing the announcement of the partnership got me excited.

Sarah Krasley: I’ve known about Granta for about ten years or so and this is a personal part of the story, but I was in industrial design school in New York and I remember this huge tome called “An Introduction to Materials Science” by [Granta’s] Mike Ashby. So I’ve known about them for a while and when we started looking at this, about how we develop sustainable design functionality I heard over and over again, the frustration from designers and engineers, that we need data. They were saying “I either have to go to several stakeholders inside my company to find good data or I use Google searches to try and find data and all manner of different data sources”. I just heard over and over again quite a bit of frustration around the whole subject. So, it seemed logical to go to the world’s largest and most reputable materials database company and see if there was some possibility of a partnership. It turns out that yes, there was and this was how we got involved together.

Al Dean: From what I understand from the press release, it’s very early days and it’s an announcement about the partnership, but there were a few tantalising details about a web-based service. Or is it a little early yet?

Sarah Krasley: It is a little early for too much detail, but I can talk about the web-based service. I don’t know if you’re familiar with a couple of the other projects we have going on with Autodesk Labs. One is really amazing, It’s a Inventor Optimisation Technology Preview. It’s a separate project, but I’m just getting into the spirit of it. That technology is allowing our customers to compute analyses very quickly and we’re doing that through a web-based service. I talked a little earlier about a want for ‘more data’. We’re also seeing a want for “I want it now’. We can all go to iTunes and instantaneously download the song that’s been stuck in our heads, and I think that as we rely more and more on technology, that need to have things done quickly without a whole lot of processing power is key. When you’re dealing with a whole bunch of data, there’s a need to have that be a web-based function. What we’re really trying to do is take the pain out of that process, the pain of searching, the pain of waiting and I guess that sustainable design or analysis would be a really fun or joyful process.

Al Dean: Although it’s been flagged and painted with the green brush, is there potential to do something that outside of that in terms of materials selection and building it into Autodesk’s products or are you specifically targeting sustainable design?

Sarah Krasley: The work that we’re doing now in co-developing this technology is focussed on sustainability but as you know sustainability isn’t just values of embodied carbon, but engineers will need other types of data to other types of analysis and other types of simulation. So, yes, there’s the potential to do that, but again it’s a little bit early to comment.

Al Dean: Autodesk already has a partnership with the folks at Sustainable Minds. Is there potential to have the three organisations to co-work on something? They’ve got some very clever design variant or conceptual modelling tools.

Sarah Krasley: Right now we’re looking for all sorts of partnerships that can bring the benefits and the tools to our customers to help do better design. What we’re found is that Sustainable Minds have this great LifeCycle Assessment tool and we’re finding that students and industrial designers are the ones taking to it. Industrial design students are learning it in their green design classes, and designers already in the workforce are using it early in the conceptual design phase, where they’re determining whether they’re building, as an example, a vacuum cleaner, a broom or a cleaning service. They’re using it when they’re ideating and determining what the solution to a problem is going to be, before they get anywhere near designing the physical form. That’s why we partnered with Sustainable Minds, and we’re partnering with Granta Design because they have the largest materials database.

Al Dean: Now, this is something that I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about, about how we help to educate or at least point out the potential for Sustainable Design, but alongside that, the whole field in complex. To give you an example, I recently ran into a gentleman in Copenhagen who designs and manufactures the support structures for wind farms, particularly, the off-shore ones.

Now, these products are about as ‘green’ as a 12 litre diesel 4×4, they’re huge steel structures, manufactured remotely, transported long distances by ship, then installed. But, the end result is a product that helps to reduce environment impact by providing much cleaner energy. So, how do you, as something of an expert in the field, think we should talk to designers and engineers on this subject? Should it be as a whole, break it down by industry, by roles, by tasks, by materials? I’m super curious.

Sarah Krasley: I have a lot of thoughts on that, part of my role is working with Autodesk’s Clean Tech Partner Program. Working with a lot of the early stage companies that we are seeding with software packages, helping them take the idea, the rough sketch of the idea, turn it into a visualisation that they can use to secure funding and capital and to sell their ideas by making more real. But they’re also getting deep into digital prototyping and using that as a way to increase the sustainability of their designs.

As soon as we start working with these companies – there are now 100s in the program – we and they know Autodesk’s commitment to sustainability and many of those customers are working with us to shape the technology that we’re building with Granta Design. I absolutely agree with you that it’s ridiculous that we’re building a whole new clean technology infrastructure and the materials, the processes, are often not sustainable. I sat on a panel with some folks from the solar industry and the toxicity of a solar panel is astounding and I know many are looking at cleaner solutions.

Al Dean: One thing I wanted to ask you was more personal. I’ve been trying to work out how we talk about green design, sustainability and such. Whenever I have in past, we get a good amount of interest, but also get a very negative reaction from some sectors – if you want to boil it down, it seems to come from a section of the engineering fraternity that seem to detest the concepts of sustainable design and anything even vaguely associated with it.

Sarah Krasley: Do you mean that there are some engineers and designers that are resistant to sustainable design? It’s a new way of working doing things for some.

Al Dean: I think it’s a more core thing. In that a lot of these people don’t believe in climate change, a handful see it as a communist conspiracy or something that’s going to take away their constitutional rights to free trade. I found that once you get to that point in an argument, it becomes pointless arguing or discussing it further. It’s a little like Godwin’s Law that says “as soon as someone accuses some of being like the Nazis or the Nazis did that” the argument is essentially over. And I wondered how you handle a situation like that?

Sarah Krasley: It is weird. And honesty is the best approach. I always say that I don’t know how serious climate change is and no-one does, but I feel like sustainability is just common sense. It’s using fewer materials, less energy and when companies approach the subject, they go through these efficiency measures first; they use less plastic, they do an energy audit of their manufacturing facility and find out which machines can be re-engineered to be more efficient. So, they’re doing that and there’s a business case attached to it “Being Green saves a lot of money” and you probably hear that from a lot of companies.

I think the new private regulations are coming into play like the Walmart Sustainability Index has huge potential to make very big changes in the way that things are manufactured. When I first read the news that Walmart was starting this, I scratched my head a little bit because Walmart couched it in the entire idea of “giving our customers the lowest price possible” and I wondered how sustainability fit into that? I think they see regulatory pressures coming down the line such as the California Safer Products initiative. California is one of the largest markets in the world and all of a sudden they’re coming out with criteria around the chemicals used in products. If that legislation passes it’s going to radically change the story for any manufacturer that’s trying to sell product in the state.

Things like that are happening and in my view I do believe that climate change is real and serious, so when I’m dealing with a big manufacturer that maybe resistant to doing sustainability voluntarily in a big way, the regulatory pressure is enough to make them change, I believe in the subject and I don’t really care if it’s a stick or a carrot. I want us to get there, I want us to do something. Whether it’s marketing benefits, adhering to client’s demands, or whether it’s just adhering to regulation and very stringent private regulations that are going to come into play over the next couple of years – that will really do so good.


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