Analysis for the Masses with CAE 2.0

7 Nov, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

If the developers of SymLab and other CAE applications have their way, a lot more users will be performing analysis, doing it earlier in the design process, and paying less to do so.

A lot of CAD, CAM, and CAE products and services are pitched my way. Some are interesting, some aren’t, and a few are intriguing because they are unique. Recently, through a letter from a reader, I became aware of a CAE company and product line that are truly intriguing and unique. The reader, Richard Smith, is the principal of a company called Symscape, and the product line is known as SymLab.

Smith wrote after reading the October 18 edition of MCAD Tech News that provided an update on CAD’s relative newcomer, SpaceClaim. That company likens itself to CAD 2.0, an analogy to Web 2.0 that refers to a so-called second generation of Web-based communities and hosted services such as social-networking sites (MySpace, YouTube, and Facebook) and wikis (Wikipedia and Wikispaces). Like Web 2.0, SpaceClaim’s CAD 2.0 is intended to facilitate collaboration and sharing between users, where the company defines CAD 2.0 as a multi-CAD environment. The 2.0 version doesn’t eliminate the 1.0 version, but rather broadens the ability to create and distribute content to a larger circle of users.

Smith wrote that he thought the analogy drawn between CAD 2.0 and Web 2.0 could be extended to cover CAE 2.0, which is where his company, Symscape, and its SymLab product line fits in.

According to him, like SpaceClaim, Symscape is a small company (founded in 2006) trying to address the two Achilles' heels of current CAE analysis products: affordability and ease of use. The company’s Web site is also an integral part of its product and strategy -- providing automated purchasing, product documentation, and product updates.

Symscape’s primary mission is to provide a different way of doing things by opening up CAE analysis to the masses via affordability (the prices will surprise you and will be discussed later) and usability with a shallow learning curve. Relying on these two basic tenets, Symscape hopes to expand the CAE market beyond its traditional home in the hands of engineers and encourage greater numbers of users to experiment with analysis.

Traditional CAE
Historically, the CAE industry has been dominated by expensive software applications dedicated to a single, highly specific task, such as meshing. Each application has a unique user interface and terminology. It is not uncommon for an engineer to need to learn as many as four separate applications for performing analyses:

  • CAD to create geometry
  • preprocessor to mesh the geometry
  • solver (or analysis technique) to configure and run the simulation
  • postprocessor to review 3D results and 2D plots

Transferring vast quantities of data between the applications is a time-consuming and tedious process, and if the geometry changes, the whole chain of applications downstream must be and reconfigured and rerun.

Currently only a few integrated systems are available, and they are typically for a single physics type such as structural FEA. Multiphysics calculations are often provided within CAD systems via extensions. However, rarely are these extensions fully integrated, often launching a separate dedicated physics application, again with its own unique user interface. SymLab has attempted to address and resolve these issues.

One interesting aspect of Symscape is that Smith and his wife have done all of the development and marketing work for the past 4.5 years. Smith told me that he is in this for the long haul with no exit strategy. What a refreshing attitude! When asked how the underlying algorithms were developed, Smith said that SymLab and its add-ons are based on three freely available open source components:

  • Open Cascade -- SymLab’s geometry engine that includes components for 3D surface and solid modeling, visualization, data exchange, and rapid application development of numerical simulation software.
  • Visualization Tool Kit (VTK) -- SymLab’s graphics library for image processing and 3D visualization. VTK was chosen because Smith felt it provided more than OpenGL for CFD applications.
  • wxWidgets -- SymLab’s cross-platform GUI/framework toolkit.

The open-source components enable SymLab to be a cross-platform (available only for Windows now) CAE analysis application that is CAD neutral and currently uses IGES, STEP, and some faceted formats.


A SymLab surface mesh.

The SymLab System
SymLab and its add-ons combine to form a CAE software system for assessing the performance of a 3D model. Using SymLab add-ons you can create 2D or 3D geometry or import geometry from another CAD package, then simulate how a gas (air) or liquid (water) will flow over and through the geometry.

You can download the basic version of SymLab (without any add-ons) for free, and it functions as a viewer for SymLab files and lets you get a feel for SymLab's interface and capabilities. To realize SymLab's full geometry creation and simulation capabilities, you will need to expand the free download with one or more of the following add-ons:

  • Builder for creating and modifying 2D and 3D geometric designs
  • Panel Flow for simulating gas or liquid flow around and through a design to determine flow directions and forces
  • Transient for exploring time-dependent simulations and visualizing results
  • Exchange for importing and exporting IGES, STEP, and faceted file formats
  • Viz Export for exporting 3D results to renderers and other visualization packages
  • SymLab Professional combines and includes the entire SymLab add-on collection from above into a single package.

These add-ons are available on a subscription basis or as 30-day free trials. Add-ons used to create SymLab files are not needed to view them, but all add-ons require a SymLab installation. The basic version of SymLab is free, SymLab Professional is $300 a year, and the other add-ons are priced at $50 to $100 per year. Compared with other CAE products, that’s a lot of analysis bang for the buck.

SymLab’s strategy and aspirations are somewhat unusual, and they join a growing number of companies attempting to get analysis and simulation into the design process earlier and more often. That's a very competitive market. However, this is a unique company with a product line that bears watching. I’m eager to download a trial version of SymLab Professional and see what it can do. I’ll report back what I find.

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