The “Curve of the Century” – SKO in the Design Process

A collaboration between the University of Magdeburg-Stendal and sachs-engineering Excerpts from an interview, 28.12.2011 published at

What is SKO?
SKO stands for “Soft-Kill-Option”. The SKO method, developed by Claus Mattheck, is used for structural optimisation. Mattheck produced abstract models based on the forces that shape trees and bones such that we now have access to computer programmes that can simulate those shape-giving forces allowing us to harness them. For obvious reasons natural forms have evolved to minimise material usage and weight. SKO is aimed at the same objective.

And how does it do this?
The material savings are based on a new type of intelligence involving the basic geometry of objects and, for the most part, the use of solutions geared towards tensile rather than compressive forces. In addition the failure of objects is anticipated in a fascinating way. If structural elements are distorted under compressive forces then SKO-based geometries ensure that the distortion happens in a pre-defined direction. Assuming this direction is known then tensile elements retain the intended geometry of the object.

How can one imagine the process in practical terms?
The programme is given a construction space and information about the tolerance parameters it can use for its proposed solutions. Then the forces are defined, which the object needs to withstand or achieve. From this point on the SKO method begins calculating everything that is not necessary on the object and subtracting it. This results in sketch-like images of structures that then need to be interpreted.

SKO is an automatic process – design is a creative undertaking; how do the two go together?
SKO is bringing about a total paradigm change in the search for better performing, lighter and durable solutions with low CO2 footprints. Some well-known structural insights are becoming obsolete in the face of the optimisation potential of the SKO method. We as designers are being shown new solution proposals via SKO that we hadn’t thought about up till now.

And what do you do with these, let’s say, proposals?
Structurally optimal meta-form does not automatically equate to an optimum product. So SKO does not relieve us of the original task of design, which is to offer concepts that meet the conflicting requirements of culture, commerce and construction. In short “natural authenticity” does not necessarily represent “cultural authenticity”.

How do you rate the initial results of the university project?
Through the SKO method we have found “one” surprising truth: anyone interested in providing material-, weight- and resource-reducing solutions will take this method into account.

For which product areas would SKO be a particularly valuable tool?
As a project manager I am particularly interested in the design analysis of fundamental objects like hooks, cantilevers, levers or brackets. I see the manipulation of these fundamental objects as the best way to demonstrate SKO’s creative consequences. SKO is of interest for all products for which a balance must be struck between forces and low weight. This includes all areas of transportation, but also medical engineering, outdoor and leisure products, tools or the supply industry for all components that have to hold or support something.

In the past extreme developments have always been initiated and promoted by the military – what is the situation regarding SKO?
The military will certainly be interested in lighter objects of every type, but a special place will be reserved in Hell for those designers and engineers, who utilise nature’s structural guidelines for the production of weapons. Within our collaboration project we have all agreed not to work for the armaments industry, which will certainly have a strong interest in the subject.

Returning again to the design process, how is the SKO output used specifically?
We build models and investigate the feasibility of the various solutions. This connects us to the people of the Renaissance. Certainly we make mistakes at times, but I don’t mind that because it shows that we are making things that are new.

What does the near future hold for SKO at the university?
Not only do all new approaches need to become established within the relevant discipline, they also need to enter into the public consciousness and the media. We are actively seeking discussions with interested parties and will then see how it goes.