MCAD Tech News #139

16 Feb, 2005

To Simulate, or Not? Virtual technologies have a growing influence on manufacturing

Cadalyst MCAD Tech News

To Simulate, or Not?

Virtual technologies have a growing influence on manufacturing

Whether called digital or virtual prototyping, these technologies basically simulate something in the physical world. They encompass simulations of everything from the machining of a part to placement of machines on a plant floor.

Although some vendors would beg to differ, digital prototyping is not CAD or CAM. In fact, digital prototyping primarily involves digital simulation and test techniques to verify and validate designs and processes. Some vendors use the term "digital simulation" to simply imply or define themselves as computer-aided engineering (CAE) providers, although most don't.

Prototypes, whether physical or digital, help predict real-world behavior so you can make better design, manufacturing and business decisions. The ideal, intelligent approach to digital prototyping is not solely computer-based, but a synergy of simulation (virtual) and testing (physical) information.

Areas Of Influence
Much like CAD/CAM, the main benefits that digital prototyping promises are:

  • accelerate time to market

  • reduce cost

  • increase safety of the designed product

  • improve product quality, primarily reliability and performance

One of the greatest benefits of employing math-based methods in product testing is that you can actually see cause and effect and track things that you can't physically measure easily or at all. Numerical methods capture reality and present it graphically. Digital prototyping is changing the traditional product-development cycle from design / build / test / fix to design / analyze / test / build. This newer methodology reduces cycle times and is much less physical-facility intensive. However, for its value to be fully realized, analysis through digital prototyping should be regarded as important as design. That said, expect to definitely see test and analysis performed more often and earlier in the product-development process at the design stage.

Reducing Obstacles to Acceptance
A major obstacle to wider acceptance is a relative lack of interoperability between CAD, CAM and digital prototyping. In this context, data translation is not a value-added activity. Actually, overall, one of the goals of digital testing and simulation is to make engineering more of a value center and less of a cost center. Another dream, or goal, is the ability to simulate the entire product lifecycle — from concept through production through disposal.

Like all aspects of the product-development process, to justify its existence, simulation and testing productivity is becoming more of an issue. Vendors say that in many cases, customers are demanding tangible and significant proof of ROI in months, not years.

Although overall they've made great strides, many digital prototyping tools are still too difficult to use, and vendors would be well-advised to continue to pay attention to ease of learning and use. Ease of use is important because customers, even Tier 1 automotive suppliers with their low margins, cannot afford to hire and employ many PhDs to run their digital prototyping software. On the other hand and in their defense, vendors are not interested in simplifying ("dumbing-down") their software so much that it can solve only relatively simple problems.

Many vendors feel the legacy workforce is not well-suited or qualified to use the digital prototyping tools available today. One way to address the ease-of-use issue is to provide a scaleable user interface on test/analysis applications to suit different user needs and skill levels.

Finally, the trust factor can be an obstacle. In the simulation/test industry, an adage says, "Everyone trusts test results except test engineers, and everyone trusts analysis results except analysts."

Just about everyone agrees, however, that physical testing will never go away. The decision whether to use physical vs. digital prototyping is a delicate balance of tradeoffs. In fact, many companies employ virtual testing and simulation to help them decide whether to conduct physical testing.

So how will digital prototyping ultimately succeed? It's not software that makes or breaks digital prototyping, it's people. While great people can overcome marginal or bad software, marginal people can cause the best software to fail. In the end, implementing digital prototyping is no different than implementing any other technology with regard to the absolute importance of the "people factor" for success.