The Cloud helps to dispel the mist

Paul Boughton

Cloud-based simulation is a game-changer as it can significantly lower the costs, so making it available to smaller businesses unable to invest in local high performance IT infrastructure. Erwin Burth reports.
Text: For around four decades, simulation has been seen as one of the 'dark arts' of design. Its complexity has given it a certain aura of mystery for the uninitiated – and the expense of the systems involved in carrying out simulation tasks has only added to its elitist status. Often only large corporations have been able to afford to hire full-time simulation specialists to develop methods to apply to their particular products.
In many cases this reputation is justified. There have been attempts to introduce simulation for non-experts. But most CAD operators aren’t trained to calculate the engineering evaluations involved.
Besides, the tools were only able to carry out simple linear analyses on single components. Their value was, therefore debatable and simulation experts dismissed them as over-simplified. This wasn’t just a desire to prevent the floodgates from opening; sometimes parts that had been verified by these tools failed the test.
It seemed these early attempts at a broader form of simulation were only suitable for those organisations prepared to invest in training, standardising processes and generally working hard to force the technology to fit their needs.[Page Break]
Consequently the specialists have continued to command high fees and manufacturers and product designers had little option but to handle simulation in an inefficient serial design-prototype-test-redesign cycle.  Meanwhile, work has continued to discover a way to enable designers and engineers to use simulation as a seamless part of their day-to-day work.
But, suddenly everything has changed, with a number of factors coming together to create a breakthrough. The integration of intelligent 3D modelling technology with multi-physics simulation makes simulation-drive design early in a product development process a reality. This can have an enormous impact on product cost, quality and development time.
For example, the snow vehicle manufacturer, Tucker Sno-Cat uses Autodesk digital prototyping software to create a single digital model as an accurate 3D representation of its four-track vehicles. Because these vehicles operate in areas such as the Antarctic, they must be extremely durable and reliable. [Page Break]
Tucker designers now use finite element analysis (FEA) and mechanical event simulation (MES) integrated with the digital prototyping software to simulate the motion of parts and validate the quality of their designs. Rather than outsourcing the FEA on its roll-over protective structures, it has now found it can perform the analysis more cost-effectively in-house.
As a result, Tucker reports a reduction in product development time from as long as two years down to six months. “By bringing FEA and MES in house, we’ve slashed both the time and cost of design validation by 50–60 per cent,” says Albert Allen, Tucker mechanical designer.
Primera Plastics, which produces custom plastic parts for international customers including furniture manufacturers and automotive OEMs, has used injection moulding simulation software to produce more accurate quotes and optimise injection mould design prior to manufacturing. Using Autodesk Simulation Moldflow, engineers run a range of simulations to study the flow of melted plastic, evaluate various runner systems and gate configurations, determine the most efficient cooling systems and predict volumetric shrinkage. It can also use simulations to predict how long it will take for a plastic part to reach ejection temperature and how long it will take for a part to warp.[Page Break]
The cost of creating injection moulds often plays a major role in the total cost of manufacturing – in some cases up to 75 per cent. “If the mould isn’t designed correctly, it can wreak havoc on the entire production process,” says project engineer Scott Leatherman. “A great deal of money is wasted if we have to go back to them after the mould is produced,” he adds. The simulation software also helps find and fix potential defects such as short shots, air traps and weld lines well before manufacturing begins. “We can save months of production time and significant costs,” says Leatherman.
It is even helping the company in its bidding process. “Before this, we approximated cycle time based on part volume and our previous experience. Once we bid, we were locked into a quote, so we always estimated conservatively to reduce our risk,” he adds. Now Primera can perform simulations to develop more accurate quotes. “We can virtually explore a range of issues before we deliver a quote and start manufacturing a plant,” Leatherman continues.
“If you underestimate a cycle time, you’ll cut into your profit, but if you overestimate, you might not get the business. With more accurate predictions, we have much more confidence in our quotes.”[Page Break]
However, as product complexity continues to grow, more and more computing power is needed to perform multi-physics analyses and this can exceed the scope of the desktops and workstations used by most engineers and designers. Yet, fortunately, this is a shortfall that new cloud technology can fill, enabling users to maximise the use of simulation-driven design.
No longer do engineers have to spend time simplifying geometry prior to analysis, the infinite computing power available in the cloud means they can now perform complex multiple pre-processing or multiple simulation tasks in parallel.
The software automatically acquires all the appropriate geometry and inputs (limits and parameters, etc) and then transfers the information to the high performance computing in the cloud. This then performs the meshing, executes the necessary solvers, runs the appropriate post processor and then returns the results to the user who has been able to continue with other tasks on their own computer in the meantime.
Cloud-based simulation is a game-changer as it can significantly lower the costs, so making it available to smaller businesses unable to invest in local high performance IT infrastructure. [Page Break]
By performing computer-intensive tasks in the cloud, designers and engineers can test multiple ‘what if’ design scenarios in parallel. “The ability to run multiple simulation studies in the cloud in the same time as a typical singular study with single variables, really opens up the game for us by helping us understand much more of the system in a shorter amount of time,” says Matt Nowicki, senior product engineer at BioLite, a manufacturer of camping stoves. “It’s impressive how easy, valuable and seamless simulating in the cloud can be for a company such as ours.”
The fact that there is even an app for simulation now is a measure of how far the situation has changed over the past few years. Autodesk ForceEffect is a mechanical statics application for iOS and Android devices enables designers to quickly and easily simulate design options during the concept phase determine the viability of a design.
While there will always be room for specialists, these new cloud-based simulation solutions break down all the major barriers to wider adoption, dispelling the 'smoke and mirrors' surrounding the process. With the continuing pressure to get products to market faster, to be constantly innovating and to minimise overheads, few businesses can afford to ignore this development.
Erwin Burth is with Autodesk, Farnborough, Surrey, UK.