Robert Aish has been behind many innovative design software solutions including Bentley’s GenerativeComponents (GC). Now at Autodesk he will shortly deliver a new programming environment for AutoCAD to enable design computation.
At the Design Computation Symposium at Autodesk University in Las Vegas last November, Dr Robert Aish gave a brief demonstration of a new programming language being developed by Autodesk. As the culmination of almost four year’s work, Autodesk will finally have a competitor to Bentley’s GenerativeComponents (GC) and McNeel Associates’ Rhino / Grasshopper.
In his previous role at Bentley Systems, in 2005, Dr Aish developed GenerativeComponents, a programming environment where designers could define geometry and dynamically drive complex parametric relationships.
The software is used mainly in academia and by cutting-edge architects and engineers to design complex sculpted buildings and arrayed systems. For instance, the software could be used to array a grid in a sunflower pattern (fibonacci series), draw this as 3D latticework and insert a component at each intersection.
This element may alter configuration depending on the sun path. All this is driven from a parametric and associative script.
In short, it uses computational power to deal with complexity and reduce design time.
While Dr Aish was at Bentley, McNeel & Associates also developed a similar programme called Grasshopper as a visual add-on to make its scripting language more accessible, allowing similar geometrical relationships to be created for interactive systems via a very easy to use ‘wiring’ interface paradigm.
Since then GC and Grasshopper have been in competition for designers and firms that opt to make their own design tools for exploring design options.
Dr Aish’s latest programming environment has been dubbed DesignScript, and will initially be for AutoCAD. Its launch is expected later this year, probably as part of Autodesk Subscription.
Programming in AutoCAD
AutoCAD has a long history of offering many different ways for customers to script, the most popular language being AutoLISP, which was introduced back in 1986. Many users have learned the language to automate repetitive tasks and design new tools and commands for the way they want to use AutoCAD.
Subsequent to AutoLISP Autodesk added support for ObjectARX, Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) and .NET. DesignScript will be the first significant addition to AutoCAD’s programmatic capability for years and will enable it to do things that it could never do before.
Parametric computational design
Dr Aish describes DesignScript as a language which sits at the intersection of design and programming. It allows parametric and associative programmes to be easily written allowing experimentation with AutoCAD’s geometric entities.
DesignScript is intended to be used by novices and professional programmers as a production modelling tool to evaluate complex geometric models and to help design professionals make the transition to understanding programming concepts and in turn, learn more about the designs.
Computational design is an emerging approach to design that uses the power of the computer to aid the design’s progress. Traditionally the designer would create and document drawings or a model as a representation.
Computational design provides a framework where various design ideas can be quickly generated and evaluated. It does require some different thinking, for instance the designer would have to consider what variables would need to be driven by the system prior to design, assess what elements depend on one another and identify the desired performance criteria.
With these identified a script can be written to provide a framework for the design creation and assessment. So by putting in a little more time at the start, many more design variations can be created, tested and assessed.
DesignScript is a new associative language that maintains a graph of dependencies between variables, which can be values or geometry.
Running a DesignScript program and changing the input values will cause a ripple effect, propagating the calculated changes in the model.
From the outset, DesignScript understands many of the element types, classes and variables in Autodesk’s core products, so while it will be first available in AutoCAD it may well be used in other Autodesk environments, or understand elements created by other Autodesk products such as engineering analysis and simulation.
It may be possible to have designs self-optimise depending on iterative results from a product such as Ecotect or Green Building Studio.
As programming languages go, DesignScript is very straightforward and potentially quick to pick up as the statements are very descriptive. It is powerful, flexible and user extensible but will require a different approach to design. Dr Aish explains that “a new toolset suggests a new mindset.”
DesignScript has been a long time in the making.
While Bentley and McNeel have managed to capture the imagination of many a young architect with their generative products, DesignScript will bring computational design to a much larger audience, one which previously embraced end-user languages like AutoLISP.
It will be interesting to see how aggressively Autodesk addresses this niche market when the product finally gets unleashed later this year.
Being the godfather of both GenerativeComponents and DesignScript, Dr Aish has a pretty good idea of the capabilities of the competition and, having had carte blanche at Autodesk to start a new tool will aim to improve on what GC is capable of.
While I am sure many Autodesk customers will not want to learn to program, AutoCAD will actually offer designers a unique capability within the Autodesk product suite for experimental design.
With new possibilities and perhaps popularity, we may start to look at the computer more in its rightful place, as a design tool, improving our designs and suggesting improvements.
Computers should be more than a way of just documenting our ideas.