The Design Future

This blog debates how simulation technology is becoming a dominant technology within the product development process. This initial entry presents a historical personal perspective of this evolution. (Apologies for the entry length, but please stick with it!)

It seems a long time ago (showing my age – the early 80s) when people at my university (Swansea) carried around their finite element programs in computer punch cards stacked so high you couldn’t see their faces. Professor Zienkiewicz, a pioneer of the finite element method, announced the arrival of a ‘real’ virtual reality where complex physical events would be simulated in real time. As one of his disciples released into industry in 1984, my first assignment was the impact simulation of a nuclear flask, where I needed to design my mesh on graph paper because I could only afford 2,000 solid elements. Consequently, the ‘actual’ reality was still a long way from achieving his vision.

Early Impact Simulation Containing Just 2,000 Elements

Throughout the 90s, simulation increased in industry use, but in a rapidly evolving design environment it was having limited impact. I remember asking a designer why he had placed a reinforcement rib in a certain location and being told, “why not?” In the absence of simulation input, he had a point because simulation wasn’t quick enough to give him the input. Depressingly, on occasions, I would stumble across simulation projects performed solely as a ‘check the box’ exercise to satisfy an OEM, with the results never used. At best, simulation was a verification tool.

The start of the millennium witnessed the emergence of new computer architectures (clusters, CPU processors), and as simulation was always shackled to the power of the computer, we started to feel a sense of liberation. Importantly, new intelligent software technologies began to mature with the potential to inject design innovation, most notably the emergence of structural optimization technology.

My own epiphany occurred around 2000, when Altair used optimization technology to develop a process to automatically evolve the optimum geometry of a bracket required to absorb knee bolster impact. We worked with Jaguar to reduce a six month manual ‘trial and error’ process to two weeks (the newly defined process is still in use today). Below are some pictures from an initial numerical experiment where the technology demonstrated it could automatically evolve a simple single strut to an optimized crash performance geometry. A paper describing full details of the case is available on the Altair HyperWorks site.

In addition, we performed our first commercial aerospace study on a wing rib of the Airbus A380 and developed an optimum minimum mass/maximum strength design using optimization techniques that are routinely used today. (The full paper on the project also can be accessed via the Altair HyperWorks site.) Both of these projects demonstrated how intelligent software technology could inject innovation (gold dust!) into design.

Free Form Optimization Used to Design Light Weight A380 Wing Ribs

By 2010, all OEMS acknowledge simulation as a key component of a modern product design process and are increasing their investments and ambition. Companies are considering ways to introduce a more aggressive deployment of simulation technology and are developing execution models such as optimization centers (e.g. Airbus) or cells (e.g. Renault), in order to integrate the technology into established design processes and quickly deliver the business benefit.

And so, on to the future and the crystal ball. In our everyday lives, intelligent software and inexpensive computing has revolutionized our access to information and the immediacy with which it is communicated (e.g. smart phones, social media). This new era of digital technology will also transform the product development process. The rapid generation of engineering data and its ability to generate optimum geometry will be transformational. The general availability of digital data through the complete product development process will force a more collaborative way of working. The future of design will be more multidisciplinary, which will require less attribute silos.

I hope that upcoming blog entries from my colleagues and friends in industry will give their thoughts on how they see simulation technology impacting the future product development process, as I feel we are getting closer to the Professor’s vision of the ‘real’ virtual reality.

Realistic Rendering of a Full Vehicle Crash Simulation

Royston Jones
Royston Jones

About Royston Jones

My name is Royston Jones and I have been at Altair sixteen years. I was born in the green valleys of North Wales and eventually left my village for the bright lights of South Wales; Swansea University. It was there I was eventually persuaded to help the English with their engineering and left the principality. It’s been a great thrill seeing my passion, engineering simulation, gradually increase its impact on the design process. However, a bigger thrill has been seeing Manchester United dominate English football for two decades. I enjoy seeing my boys grow up and I am excited about how engineering simulation has become a key technology in creating highly engineered; Green products.