Simulation tools have evolved from complicated, pricey programs to intelligent tools for use throughout the R&D process.

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Gaming system showing airflow and thermal simulation results using Autodesk Simulation CFD. Image: Autodesk

To remain competitive, manufacturing companies need to understand how their product designs will perform before those products exist in the real world. Without this critical insight, customers are faced with potential product failures and liabilities that can have a significant impact on their businesses.

For example, when early versions of the game console Xbox overheated and then stopped functioning, Microsoft extended warranties to restore customer faith in the product, a sensible investment as the Xbox went on to become one of the best-selling consumer products of all time. However, not many other companies could afford to do the same. Most products made, marketed, and sold with design faults become nothing more than costly—or even dangerous—mistakes.

Computers have been used to carry out physics-based simulations to predict the performance of a product for more than 40 years. Yet during this time, simulation has generally been seen as complex, expensive work for experts. Only very large companies could afford to hire full-time simulation specialists to develop methods to apply to their particular products.

There have been attempts to introduce simulation to non-experts. But computer-aided design (CAD) operators are not typically trained to calculate the engineering evaluations involved, and the tools were only able to carry out simple linear analyses on single components.

At different times in the product lifecycle, the needs of the designer, engineer, or analyst are very different. The historical answer to this challenge was to take an analyst-level solution and to simplify it for use in different situations and by different people—a solution that has never worked and has solidified the perception that simulation requires extensive, specialized knowledge and training in order to use it effectively.

Consequently, simulation experts rejected them as over-simplified and their view was backed by the fact that sometimes, parts verified by these tools failed the final validation tests. There were examples of success, but only for those organizations that were prepared to invest in training, standardizing processes, and generally working hard to force the technology to fit their needs.

The integration of intelligent 3D modeling technology with multiphysics simulation makes simulation-driven design early in a product development process a reality. This can have an enormous impact on product cost, quality, and development time. And the power of simulation is the ability to make a better decision earlier in the design process. This design process can be used in mechanical, injection molding, and computational fluid dynamics (CFD).

Perkins Specialized Transportation Contracting, Northfield, Minn. , a provider of highway transportation services for long, heavy, and oversized objects, used simulation software for the custom design of a 400-ft-long truck to transport nuclear generators. The simulation software enabled Perkins to perform motion analysis and check for interferences through a full range of motion as the various axles turned and rotated. It also helped the company optimize its designs, ensuring the transporter had only the support beams necessary to successfully distribute weight among the various axles.

Articulinx, a Cupertino, Calif.-based medical device company that develops implants for osteoarthritis patients, used cloud-based simulation software to assess the unique material properties required in creating a new type of implant. The company ran multiple simulation computations in parallel, and enabled designers to optimize injection molds to reduce or eliminate design changes.

Daktronics, a New York-based supplier of electronic scoreboards, digital billboards, and large-screen video displays, used simulation software to make certain that its displays withstand all types of weather, dissipate heat generated by light-emitting diode components, and are readable even when facing bright sunlight. The software enabled the company to eliminate the time-consuming CFD process to analyze complex product design factors early in the design process and compare benefits and costs for different combinations of components, fans, heat sinks, enclosures, and materials.

An additional factor breaking down the barriers to mass simulation adoption is the cloud. The virtually infinite power of the cloud allows complex engineering tests that were once limited to simulation specialists to be performed by mainstream designers.

Autodesk’s aim is not to dethrone the experts, but rather to democratize the technology, making it available and accessible to more sizes and types of businesses.