Building a Business Around Generative Design and Marvels of 3D Printing

Generative design is a method of creating something by feeding seed data into an algorithm. It might be hard at first to figure out how someone would build a business around this, but that’s exactly what Nervous System has been doing with great success. The secret is not only in the algorithm, but in how they’re bringing it to life.

The company was founded in the Boston area by [Jessica Rosenkrantz] and [Jesse Louis-Rosenberg], both graduates of MIT. They produce all kinds of goods from furniture, to jewelry, games, and of course art (which includes clothing – more on that in a bit). What’s special about all of this is that the customer can be integral in the design process. The workflow for several of their products starts with a web-based design tool that lets you start with a simple generated design and make it your own.

Nervous System is well-known for designing the Kinematics Dress. This is a one-piece dress that was 3D printed out of nylon in one shot using selective laser sintering (SLS).  To make it fit in the printer the garment had to be “folded” in software, a very cool design trick! Unfortunately it’s not the most comfortable of clothing so this is absolutely an art piece. It is currently on exhibit in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

On display when you enter the studio is furniture they have been experimenting with. The end tables are milled from plywood. The shapes feel very organic but it’s not hard to make the acrylic pieces fit snugly; CNC is great at that trick.

The bookshelves have been in use for years. [Jessica] mentioned that she added the key to the 3D printed connectors because the wood shrinks over time and a snug fit is prone to dump your books all over the room without this nifty design detail. If you’re interested in these check out the Github repo they’ve posted.

The vast majority of their production 3D printing is done off-site by the best equipment available. But it gets shipped to this studio for finishing. This starts with a trip through a vibrating polisher where ceramic medium makes the items smooth. Direct from the printers they have a powdery texture which results from the SLS process.

If the customer chooses a color the items are then dyed to specification. The day we visited there was a batch of jewelry being soaked in black dye.

On the research and development side of things the team has a lot of toys on site. I didn’t take a picture of every 3D printer but here are a few shots of the interesting ones. The rest of the shop area is actually used for production. The laser cutter is used to produce the puzzles shown below. They’ve been down a costly path of learning what this laser can and can’t do; cutting the tight tolerances in the puzzles is demanding for the stepper motors.

It’s always nice to leave some of the most interesting for last. The color-printed coral sculptures were breathtaking. I can’t imagine a process other than 3D printing that could feasibly make something like this. Along similar lines are the zoetropes they have on display. This is a sculpture that spins in a dark-box, with lights that strobe synchronous to the spinning. The result is a three-dimensional sculpture that generates right in front of your eyes.

Perhaps the widest appeal will be for the generative jigsaw puzzles. Many of these are not that large, about the size of a large slice of bread. But they contain numerous pieces with wonderfully whimsical shapes. The last puzzle shown is spectacular. It includes pieces of a different color throughout the design. These can be taken out separately to make a separate round puzzle. The puzzle-within-a-puzzle design was developed to be super-difficult after avid puzzlers asked for something more challenging. Good luck with that one!

Nervous System is built on a very interesting idea executed extremely well. Thanks for opening you doors to Hackaday and showing us how you make all of these wonderful pieces!

8 thoughts on “Building a Business Around Generative Design and Marvels of 3D Printing

  1. From their about page:
    “Our studio exploits this possibility by releasing our work online as a series of interactive applets which customers can use to craft their own personalized products. We also release our source code under a creative commons license to encourage others to work in this manner.”

    From their terms of use:
    “You may not modify or download the apps, or run a different copy of the Apps than the one(s) hosted on the Nervous System site. If you wish to run the Apps publicly, such as for an exhibit, you must get our permission first.”

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