Computational Design at HP with Nathan Shirley

Automated Packaging to Custom Orthotics with Additive Manufacturing

Join us as Nathan shares his background and insights into the innovative solutions his team develops for HP clients, and discover the powerful software tools they use to drive results at scale.

Can you tell us a little about your background and what led you to your current role as lead computational designer at HP?

Sure, I studied Industrial Design in school and started out my career at Tupperware’s Design Center in Orlando.  I worked on a wide range of design projects and served as design manager for the ID team.  

One of the challenges we faced regularly was creating fully modular product sets with many pieces of varying sizes that all fit together, and we also regularly incorporated ventilated hole patterns. To solve these teo design problems efficiently I learned a lot about driving parametric NX models from constraints and spreadsheets and laying out organic patterns logically. 

As HP’s 3D Printing pursuits matured from making 3D printers to enabling new business models and opportunities through Multi-Jet Fusion, computational design became a natural focal point and enabler for a number of HPs internal startup incubations allowing me to contribute in more profound ways and play a role in formalizing our internal team.

What are some of the projects that you can discuss that were realized with computational design for additive manufacturing at HP?

As we’ve seen what an enabler it can be, we have pivoted to providing computational design as a service to our MJF customers and partners in the additive manufacturing industry so that they can unlock the potential of mass customization, body fitment, meta-materials, generative design and design automation without sinking years and massive resources into upskilling their teams just to get started.  

Instead we help them get the accelerated results they need to succeed and we bring their team along for the ride, educating them as we go.

Q. How do you or your colleagues at HP identify when to engage your computational design team and what are the desired outcomes, service revenue, additional machine or material sales?

We are educating our customer facing applications engineers and sales team to best understand when computational design will be relevant to our customers.  We win when our customers win, and many of our customers are struggling to get the value out of our 3D printers that they are capable of due to the complexity of designing in a way that leverages their capabilities. 

The more full scale 3D printing production applications there are in the world, the healthier the industry becomes, and the more of those that rely on MJF, the more robust HP is.  

We usually engage on an SOW basis initially to feel out the potential and then we might pivot based on strategic aspects like corresponding machine sales or even revenue share once the business model is clear.

Q. Does your team teach clients, or provide tools for them to continue their DfAM, computational design and/or additive manufacturing journey beyond your direct engagement?

We do both, most teams are looking to us as an accelerant or catalyst for product, business model and workflow innovation.  

The best setup is when we can bring our customers quickly to the value they can create through computational design and then help their team upskill so they can carry the baton forward from a strong win.  We work along-side our customers R&D teams and also leverage world class teachers in tailor-made classes when it makes sense for our customers.

XR-2025 | Automatic Mass Customization via Additive Manufacturing – Personal Stretch Project

Q. Can you tell us about some of the challenges you face when introducing a new workflow to designers or engineers that are used to parametric CAD and how do you help them overcome them?

Honestly the tools available for Computational design in a commercial production context are really immature from a user interaction standpoint, and require an inherently different way of thinking when compared to off the shelf parametric CAD software.  

Designers and engineers have to be willing to learn how to think computationally and tinker in a more coding-like fashion in order to engage and that can be a non-starter for some people.  For those that are keen to learn, we focus on how these approaches can solve their most pressing problems and free them to work on higher order issues. 

Another thing that slows us down when bringing on new talent is that computational design isn’t a single solution, it’s a set of custom built solutions that bridge across the entire digital workflow allowing each product output to be custom designed on the fly by an algorithm, and you have to be comfortable learning whatever software you happen to need to integrate with in a given week.

Q. What are some of the software tools you use and what is the mix of off the shelf software and custom code?

As of today there isn’t a single off-the-shelf software that allows you to leverage the best aspects of customer order intake, parametric constraints based design, nurbs, meshes, voxels, custom databases, finite element analysis, topology optimization, algorithms, machine learning, DfAM, texturing, coloring, build management and finishing.  

There are a number of notable software solutions in this space that fall into a few camps. Typically you need an explicit modeler of some type, whether that’s CAD or meshes to generate initial geometry, or you need a scan as intake.  Then you need an open scripting sandbox to manipulate data and geometry freely and a way to validate your output and push it to the printer.

Internally we’ve used: 

For explicit modeling

  • SolidWorks 
  • CREO 
  • NX 
  • Fusion 360 
  • Blender 
  • Rhino 
  • Maya

For computational workflows.

  • Grasshopper 
  • nToplogy 
  • Houdini   

We also have Team members who specialize in FEA and factory automation.

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Q. If you were to expand your team, what skills, experience or attitude would you look for in a candidate?

The key aspects I watch for in a candidate that shows interest in or competency in computational design, are curiosity, creativity, tenacity and a unique viewpoint or experience to bring to bear on our projects.  

We have team members with engineering, design, research, business, computer science, model making and manufacturing experience, and each new perspective makes our output stronger.  

Above all they must be able to take in immense complexity and heavy constraints and deliver compelling user centric solutions.

Arize : Custom Orthotics Realized with Computational Design & AM

Q. What kinds of projects is your team working on now, and what would be an indicator that a potential client should reach out for you and your team to help them realize their design/engineering/business needs with computational design and additive manufacturing?

We are engaging with customers across all industries, and are active in industrial contexts like molded fiber, end of arm tooling and automotive, medical projects to do with orthotics, prosthetics and radiation treatment, and consumer ventures like gaming, wearables, impact protection and footwear to name a few.  

Ultimately for a customer to benefit from an engagement they simply need to want to understand the potential disruption they could create with the combined power of additive and computational design and we will run a workshop with them to suss things out.

From our experience, there are very specific types of products and business models that are well suited for Additive Manufacturing, given the fierce competition and advantages of traditional methods. 

  1. Temporary bridge production (speed to market). 
  2. High mix prototyping (service bureaus).
  3. High Margin, Smaller parts where value can be driven through custom fitment, personalization, tunable meta-material properties, complexity, color and/or a lower carbon footprint.
  4. Custom industrial tooling that enables the same or better parts to be made more efficiently.

Computational design isn’t really necessary for 1 and 2, and they are relatively limited in their scalability and scope, but 3 and 4 absolutely rely on it.  This is where we can help our customers thrive.

Q. Finally, do you think we need to start using the term C.D.f.AM and/or did you know that it is also the chord progression for House of the Rising Sun? 

NOTE: This bad joke was written before the adoption of CDFAM for the design symposium that we only fell on because the domain was $1 and, also slightly amusing.

But seriously, it’s a struggle to communicate the value of what we do and terms and names are a key starting point.  CDfAM is at least descriptive if you know it stands for Computational Design for Additive Manufacture, but I do wish it pointed more to the outcomes that are possible than just the approach, especially for the uninitiated.  It’s a good starting point.

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