How Can Engineering Simulation Software Reach Smaller Businesses and Less-Experienced Users?

5 Aug, 2020 By: Mihails Scepanskis

Viewpoint: In the quest to the fill this gap in the software market, open-source simulation tools are underrated as potential democratization drivers.

Increasing competition pushes engineering companies to advance the efficiency of their design and engineering work by means of digital transformation. Over the past few decades, we have been observing the winning march of CAD programs, which have become the market standard even for small workshops. Now, it’s time for software that covers the next step of the engineering design workflow: computer-aided engineering (CAE) software (also known as simulation/modeling software).

Traditionally, enterprise-grade simulation software applications — such as Ansys products, Dassault Systèmes SIMULIA, and Altair HyperWorks — are used by a relatively small group of highly experienced engineers in corporate research and development centers. A couple of decades ago, that group made up almost the entire addressable market. However, the demand in the small and medium-sized business (SMB) sector has been gradually growing — a change that was not addressed by the big developers.

In addition to overall advancement of design process efficiency, simulation is frequently considered as an enabler for the adoption of additive manufacturing and digital twin technologies, which ensured the recent jump of the demand for simulation. Today, many production engineers at plants and SMB suppliers say they want to use simulation but cannot (see “Cloud SME – Sustainable computer aided engineering for SME's” by C.Veiga et al.). 

In the keynote at the 2019 Heat Treat conference in Detroit, IMS International Chairman Jack Harris gave an example that illustrated this software gap: Boeing tried to push down SIMULIA software adoption in its supply chain. In return, it harmed the suppliers and entire supply chain, since the software was an expensive investment for many SMBs and they were not even able to use the software properly due to lack of trained staff.

Let’s take a look at what the demand for simulation democratization looks like, and what the CAE software market offers to address that demand.

Demand for Simulation Democratization

In 2011, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software developer Symscape conducted a survey titled, “What is the biggest barrier to CFD adoption?” The results highlighted software price as a major factor that holds back adoption of simulation software at SMBs — 49% of respondents indicated it was the biggest barrier. (Software complexity came in second at 17%.)

In 2019, a survey by European startup CENOS (the company that I cofounded) showed the dominance of the same two answers, but with the priority swapped: 28% of respondents highlighted the price point, and 40% selected software complexity (along with similar factors, such as long learning period and lack of simulation engineers). The difference between these surveys probably indicates the progress in democratization over the past decade, and the shift of focus from price point to the accessibility of the engineering tool, such that it can be utilized without special education in production plants and by engineers at SMB suppliers.

It is also nice to see the rise of portals like Revolution in Simulation that highlight the demand for simulation democratization.

Next, let’s examine the software companies’ approaches to the issue.

Democratization Driver No. 1: Cost Savings

As price point was the most painful aspect of simulation adoption in smaller companies, the software costs of Ansys, Dassault Systèmes, Altair, and other major market players became a primary focus of attack for newcomers. One of these was Comsol, with its multiphysics platform, which ensures interconnectivity between mechanical, fluid, electromagnetic, and other models. Comsol Multiphysics was adopted by academic customers first; industrial customers appeared mostly at price-sensitive mid-size companies, which used the opportunity to buy separate modules at a lower price than they could get from the traditional enterprise-grade competition. Therefore, it seems that Comsol’s primary emphasized benefit of multiphysics has never been accepted by the target market, and didn’t lead to a real democratization of simulation. That is because multiphysics is not something SMBs need. Quite the opposite — they need an easy-to-use tool which is specialized for their specific application.

Democratization Driver No. 2: Pay-as-You-Go Model

Although Comsol’s attempt garnered some market share, at the end of the day it just demonstrated the potential of the academic community to alter traditionally expensive enterprise sales processes of the market leaders. The real attempt to liberalize the traditional pricing policy came from the software world. The simulation software companies were pushed to leave the traditional software purchase model, which requires a significant upfront investment, and offer a software-as-a-service (SaaS) business model as an alternative. Furthermore, with the development of cloud computing services, they were pushed even further, to the pay-as-you-go model.

Initially, that sounded great, and the new model was adopted by enterprise customers looking to optimize costs and cash flow. It has not resulted in revolutionary democratization of simulation, however, because the software itself remained a very heavy simulation tool designed for use by a privileged group of simulation engineers in R&D centers of enterprises.

Democratization Driver No. 3: Cloud Computing Services

The first real cloud computing service for engineering simulation came from SimScale, a Munich-based startup, which armed itself with the pay-as-you-go model and declared something really revolutionary: simulation in a browser. The newcomer identified hardware limitation as an obstacle for SMBs to adopt simulation practice. Indeed, in the CFD domain (the sector SimScale was focused on), a high-performance computer (HPC) is a must to get simulation results in a reasonable timeframe. Obviously, the HPC requirement is a real obstacle for the majority of potential simulation users; SimScale’s cloud-based simulation product became an enabling tool to democratize simulation in CFD. Excellent job, SimScale!

Nevertheless, the hardware issue is nonexistent outside the CFD domain. In heat transfer, electromagnetics, and structural mechanics, the majority of simulation tasks can be successfully performed on just a powerful PC. Therefore, the advantage of cloud-based simulation in a browser in these domains is not enough to overcome the resistance to cloud computing due to restrictive security policies intended to safeguard engineering data. Such friction seems to be natural for many SMB suppliers bound by strict non-disclosure agreements with original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

Therefore, except for CFD, SimScale’s solution doesn’t seem to be a real driver for simulation democratization. The main problem remains unsolved: Simulation is still too complicated for mass adoption. This is why the cloud-based followers of SimScale (companies like OnScale) have focused their business strategies on the enterprise segment — to compete with traditional on-premises software products like Ansys or SIMULIA.

Democratization Driver No. 4: Appification

It seems now that the real mover of simulation democratization should solve the software complexity problem. Simplification of naturally complex things costs a lot and leads to a very narrow focus of the solution. Therefore, good niche products focus their business models on the enterprise segments to justify the development costs and the narrow market they operate in.

An admirable effort to “appify” simulation models in a scalable way was undertaken by EASA software: They proposed to create custom Excel-level web apps as a simplification layer on top of complex simulation tools. Smart idea, but again, it’s designed for enterprise customers.

Finally, the idea of the smart “appification” framework was recently proposed by CENOS, which claims its platform solution is able to create multiple industry-focused products in a scalable way to avoid the cost trap of enterprise-focused niche products.

The platform technology also claims to solve the second issue of simulation democratization: software cost. The name CENOS — which was created as the acronym of “Connecting ENgineering Open Source” — demonstrates the way our company approaches the cost issue. Overall, we believe that community-driven open-source tools like FreeCAD, Salome, Gmesh, OpenFOAM, Paraview, and many others are underrated as potential democratization drivers.

It’s clear now that while the demand for simulation democratization has been increasing over the last decade to enable simulation-driven design for SMBs, the market-leading solution providers haven’t been able to find a solution for this gap. Therefore, some new players have appeared and are looking for a solution to serve the rising SMB segment of the market. The newcomers bet on different drivers to democratize simulation, like the pay-as-you-go model, cloud computing, and “appification.” While it is clear already that the SMB segment is growing fast enough to allow all of them to find their market share, we’ll see in the new decade which approach will end up with the biggest exposure in the market.


About the Author: Mihails Scepanskis

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