The structural synthesis of sheet metal parts can be viewed as a path planning problem. A design is represented by a path that links the start points and goal points while avoiding all obstacles.
Techniques used in robot motion planning have proven capable of generating paths through obstacle filled space. Given a problem description, these techniques make it possible to create a variety of initial design candidates, each of which represents a family of topologically distinct designs. These topologically distinct designs partition the solution space. For each family, gradient search techniques based on manufacturability and functionality can be used to obtain a good design within that family. A good overall design is obtained by comparing the designs selected from each family.
Although this work is still preliminary, we have written a prototype program for solving two-dimensional problems, and have used it to explore the properties of the design space.