Stanley Black & Decker has enlisted an algorithm’s help to redesign a tool for electricians, marking a big shift from relying on humans to do the job.
For the past several months, the industrial and household tool giant has been experimenting with cutting-edge technologies to produce the tool, which is used to fix hanging electrical and telephones lines. But the heavy tools—some are nearly 15 pounds—put a big strain on workers, making coming up with a lighter version a possible hit product.
To reduce the tool’s weight, Stanley Black & Decker consulted with the design and architecture software firm Autodesk to come up with a more worker-friendly tool, known as a crimper. The project involved tapping software that uses a technique called generative design to dream up new creations.
Many companies are experimenting with using computers to design products because it may one day cut the cost of human designers and speed up the process of product development. Businesses are also hoping that the technology can do a better job than humans by coming up with designs that would otherwise never be considered.
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In creating a new chair, for example, manufacturers can tell the computer they wants a new design that meets certain criteria like a having certain weight and dimensions. The machine then tries to create designs that take into account those requirements.
Frank DeSantis, Stanley Black & Decker’s (SWK, -0.01%) vice president of breakthrough innovation, said his company chose to focus on a crimper as its first computer-designed tool because of its relative obscurity. In effect, if the project failed, it wouldn’t be as big of a problem if they dud was a commonly used hammer.
More specifically, Stanley Black & Decker focused its attention on a small metal attachment weighing around 5.5 pounds that helps the crimper clamp onto wires. It’s an important element because, when electrical wires come undone, workers must clamp them together to repair them.
After setting criteria like the attachment’s weight, size, and cost of manufacturing, DeSantis’ team let Autodesk’s software crunch the numbers. After a week or two, the computer generated about 100 designs, which DeSantis sifted through to pick the ones he thought were the best.
Some of the computer-generated designs his team passed on would cost too much to make or the computer predicted they wouldn’t be as sturdy as the team would like.
DeSantis said his team chose a final design that was the best compromise in terms of weight and manufacturing costs. The company is now testing the design’s durability.
Ultimately, the computer came up with an attachment that weighs a little over two pounds, is three-to-four inches long, and resembles the letter “C,” held together by a lattice that looks like a collection of toothpicks, DeSantis said. To produce it, the team used a 3D printer that took about 40 hours to recreate the design in reality.
Limitations in 3D printing technology like the sometimes long amount of time it takes to print something means that Stanley Black & Decker will be unable to produce as many of its new crimper attachments as with more traditional manufacturing tools. But because the crimper attachment isn’t a big seller, “even if we print a couple hundred a month, it can help us,” said DeSantis.
Although generative design is gaining some traction, there are still challenges with using it. For one thing, it requires heavy-duty computing power, which makes it expensive.
Additionally, Stanley Black & Decker is intentionally using the technology to design something relatively small and easy to make. A computer-generated power drill that’s able to be 3D printed is likely many years away.
Autodesk is trying to improve its algorithms so that its costs less to crunch the data, explained Greg Fallon, Autodesk’s vice president of its simulation product group. And then there’s the risk that the redesigned crimp attachment isn’t durable enough.
DeSantis said there are many skeptics within Stanley Black & Decker who believe that computer-generated design may end up coming up with dud products that fail stress tests. But he is confident that the attachment designed in his company’s experiment will survive the pounding and that Stanley Black & Decker will debut more computer generative designed products and parts in the next year.