Virtual Reality

1 Mar, 2006 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Digital prototyping is affecting everything from parts to plants

Regardless of whether it’s called digital prototyping or virtual prototyping, the concept comes down to simulating something in the physical world. It could be simulating the machining of a part or simulating workflow based on the placement of machines on a plant floor. Digital simulation might be the best description.

Keep in mind that digital/virtual prototyping of anything is not exactly CAD or CAM, but can be akin to one or both. It primarily involves digital simulation and testing for verifying and validating designs and processes, and is an intensely math-based method of viewing them. In other words, it can require some heavy computational horsepower. Some people term digital simulation and testing simply good, old-fashioned computer-aided engineering, although most don’t.

Prototypes, whether physical or digital, help us predict behavior so we can make better design, manufacturing and business decisions. Ideally, intelligent digital prototyping is not only computer-based, but a synergy of simulation (virtual) and testing (physical) information.

Much like CAD/CAM, digital prototyping mainly aims to influence product development in these ways:

  • Accelerate time to market
  • Reduce cost
  • Increase product safety
  • Improve product quality, primarily reliability and performance

Figures bandied about by various analysts predict that by next year, integrated digital prototyping could result in a cumulative savings for product design and manufacturing approaching $3 billion or more, and that’s only the beginning.

Benefits and Obstacles

One of the greatest benefits of using math-based methods is that you can actually see cause-and-effect and track things you can’t physically measure. Math captures reality. Digital prototyping is changing the traditional product-development cycle from design --> build --> test --> fix to design --> analyze --> test --> build. This new paradigm 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, we should definitely see test and analysis done more often and earlier in the product-development process.

Like all aspects of the product-development process that must justify their existence, the productivity gained through simulation and testing has become a bigger issue.Vendors say that in many cases, customers are demanding tangible and significant proof of ROI in three to six months, not years -- and I’d have to agree that this timeframe is becoming a realistic expectation.

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. (Is it ever?) One of the goals of digital testing and simulation is for engineering to become more of a value center and less of a cost center. Another goal is to be able to simulate the entire product lifecycle, from concept through production through disposal and eventual recycling -- an idea that brings interoperability front and center. This is still a dream for the most part.

The People Factor

Integrating the analytical, virtual and physical is disruptive and is an obstacle to acceptance because it forces people to change how they do their jobs. This integration only works through evolutionary implementation, not everything at once. Not too surprising.

Many digital prototyping tools today are still too difficult to use, and vendors would do well to pay more attention to this. Ease of use is important because a manufacturer, even a Tier 1 automotive supplier with low margins, cannot afford to hire and employ a Ph.D. to run its digital prototyping software. On the other hand -- and in the software vendor’s defense -- it’s not practical to “dumb down” the software so much that it can solve only simple problems. Many vendors point at the legacy workforce, which they say is not well-suited or qualified to use the digital prototyping tools available today. This attitude is changing, but slowly. All in all, this issue is even more significant for digital prototyping than it is for CAD software, which has made great strides in the past couple of years in terms of ease of use and learning.

One possible solution to all this: Provide a scaleable user interface on testing and analysis applications to suit different user needs and skill levels.

Finally, the trust factor can be another obstacle. In the simulation and testing industry, a saying goes, “Everyone trusts test results except test engineers, and everyone trusts analysis results except analysts.” Just about everyone agrees that physical testing will never completely go away. Deciding whether to use physical versus digital prototyping isn’t easy because each involves tradeoffs. In fact, many companies use both, using virtual testing and simulation as a decision-making tool for conducting physical testing.

So how will digital prototyping ultimately succeed? It’s not hardware or software that makes or breaks digital prototyping, it’s people. Great people can overcome marginal or bad hardware and software, but marginal people can cause the best hardware and software to fail. Digital prototyping is really no different than any other technical endeavor with regard to the absolute importance of the people factor in its success.

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