- Every year, nearly 130 million bicycles are produced around the globe. That’s more than 2.5 times the number of cars.
- Since the Draisine was invented in 1817, the bicycle has never ceased to evolve.
- Motivated by its climate-related commitments, sporting goods retailer Decathlon is using AI to build the performance bike of the future.
It was the summer of 1976, in a parking lot in the northwestern French city of Englos, on the outskirts of Lille. Decathlon’s adventure began as seven friends—sports fanatics and born entrepreneurs—made a pledge. They would kit out all athletes, from beginners to enthusiasts, at unbeatable prices. The company began by offering equipment for ten different sports. Its ambition was to bring the pleasure and well-being that comes from playing sports to as many people as possible.
Fast forward ten years. After a delivery issue with its bicycle distributor, the group pivoted, deciding to design and sell its own brand of sporting goods. Today, Decathlon sells equipment in 57 countries for nearly 90 sports and drives development based on three pillars: performance, price, and respect for the environment.
Digitalization Fuels Decathlon Eco-Design
The brand is used to reinventing itself, evolving along with emerging technologies and changing customs. As a result, it has continually improved its design processes.
In 2016, the company committed to reducing CO2 emissions by 40% per unit sold within ten years, aiming to slash 20% from the design phase alone. Buoyed by constant innovation and its climate engagements, the design team has now turned to generative design to improve the entire process, from ideation to production.
This shift to generative design has been entrusted to Decathlon’s Digital Design Skills Leader in France, Cyrille Ancely; as well as Head of Digital Chain, Adrien Lagneau. It involves a deep-seated transformation of the brand’s design processes, as well as of its value chain.
“It’s not just the material that has to change—it’s also our way of designing,” Ancely explains. “Because our goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of all of our products by 10% when compared to the previous model, the company has had to return to square one for every process.”
By relying on new technologies, teams aim to integrate sustainability right from the start of product design. This lets the product’s impact be measured before production rather than afterwards. It will also shorten the product development cycle and optimize performance. “Eco-design is the most important route to take because it will change the way that our designers work by helping them become more efficient,” Ancely adds.
Learning How to Work in a Rapidly Changing World
The first step towards digitalization entailed raising awareness among employees. An entire year was devoted to this step, simply because each team was at a different stage of technological maturity and therefore progressed at its own pace.
To help optimize the process, the project teams decided to use computational design as an exploratory tool. Decathlon wanted to observe how generative design could be used starting in the design phase and consequently wanted to shrink the carbon footprint of the thousands of products it manufactures each year.
To guide this digital education, Ancely and Lagneau relied on contributions from Autodesk France Application Engineer Bertrand Masure, and Manufacturing Market Specialist Sylvain Legrand. They visited Decathlon’s offices to present generative design to the company’s teams.
For Decathlon, working with Autodesk helped increase the company’s understanding of both Autodesk’s software tools and its predictions for the future.
“The essence of our work was technical at the beginning because we didn’t know much about the concept,” says Charles Cambianica, Advanced Design Project Leader at Decathlon. Teams were curious to find out how Autodesk could teach them to work in a rapidly changing world and how to think about their profession in this context. “Autodesk’s perspective, based on the very diverse industries in which it works, helped us generate new ideas,” Cambianica adds.
How AI Revolutionizes Design
For its first project since switching to generative design, the Decathlon design team chose to experiment with a racing bike—an appropriate choice because the bicycle is a historic product for the brand, and after 200 years of innovation, is experiencing a significant decline in technical progress.
“Carbon fiber bikes are at an ecological dead end,” says Cambianica. He goes on to explain that “even if carbon fiber material is extremely lightweight, it isn’t suitable for custom designs, and its end-of-life problem in terms of waste management and recycling is far from being resolved. That’s the biggest factor in its ecological footprint. What’s more, the fact that carbon is manufactured in only one location worldwide makes its environmental impact even larger.”
The goal of the project was to use Fusion 360 to create a metal bicycle frame in line with the brand’s aesthetic that was as light as the carbon fiber version. “The project is all about Decathlon’s product identity,” says Cambianica. He adds that the ambition is to show that things can be done differently. “It’s not just about using generative design to draw a racing bike, but rather about considering the product as a whole and defining its identity.”
To start, the team focused on two parts of the bicycle: the fork and the frame. However, they ran into a few roadblocks, especially when it came to moving from a dynamic approach to a static design. While the software operates in 2D, bicycles are designed and simulated dynamically. This made it difficult to obtain an accurate estimate of what the workflow would look like. The team had to change parameters and add data to compensate for changing from one mode to the other.
Luckily, any doubts about the technology disappeared as soon as the first tests were conducted on the bicycle fork, which holds the front wheel. Not only did the generative design process help meet weight and aesthetic targets, but it also considerably reduced material consumption. What’s more, all the materials used were recyclable.
A few months away from the December 2020 deadline, the team had not yet finished work, but was already convinced that the approach was a worthwhile endeavor. Its desire to continue experimenting was confirmed.
“We are aware of the fact that we’re only on the cusp of a new approach to designing that will truly transform Decathlon’s processes,” says Cambianica. “This new way of approaching creation will truly transform our approach to design. We reckon that improvements are needed. We need to have a firm grasp on this technology in order to understand, apprehend, and integrate it. From an ecological standpoint, design is the only way to make an impact, so this is a real opportunity to work on the issue.”
AI Takes User-Centric Design Further
Insomuch as generative design transforms the approach to design, it pushes designers to reimagine their profession or to evolve with it. “Machines are not formatted like humans,” Ancely says. “They have fewer barriers and can suggest more original shapes. They bring the designer’s work into focus. The designer is then free to make an in-depth analysis, and explore how to enhance the emotional relationship that the user has with the object.”
Design is not simply a matter of a sketch and an aesthetic. According to Cambianica, the designer’s role is to create a dialogue between the user and the product. This means that empathy, or the ability to identify with others and detect what they feel, appears to be an essential quality for the future of design careers.
In turn, Ancely explains that a designer must be in touch with technology. “To tell a story through the products you create, you have to blend instinct and observation with technology,” he says. “Tools will allow you to save a lot of time—time that can be used to concentrate on the human side of the job, which is understanding user needs and eliciting emotion.”
Generative Design as a Mechanism for Growth
The designer of the future will have to be connected to everyday concerns and be able to switch between a range of simple and complex technologies. Generative design not only widens the field of possibilities substantially, but it also lets the technical validity of a concept be confirmed in the exploratory stages. This is possible because technical features are input beforehand.
The designer can then focus on the product’s value and end use rather than on its technical features. “To my mind, generative design technology is to a designer what a microscope is to a scientist,” Cambianica says. “It lets the designer see their creation in a different light.
“Generative design also offers a wealth of opportunities and makes it possible to implement new ideas. While the incremental design process is still essential, generative design’s most beneficial abilities shorten that process and allow the designer to stay focused on practical concerns. The result? Being able to move forward based on firm convictions rather than intuition.”
Masure and Autodesk share this view. “Technology ushers the designer into this new world full of possibilities by breaking open design so that it can be explored in nearly infinite ways,” Masure says. “The designer can then focus on solving the problem. Thanks to the man-machine interface, the designer can select the best solution for moving on to the next stage.”