This third and final installment in this series focuses on a revolutionary new generation of fit-for-purpose, product-specific and often user-organization-specific simulation “apps.” By placing advanced simulation and analysis technologies “under the hood” from the user’s perspective, simulation apps are making unprecedented powers of automated design exploration, optimization, synthesis and validation accessible, usable and safe for non-analyst engineers and designers across a wide and still growing range of products and industries.
Bruce Jenkins, Ora Research
Automating the setup and execution of simulation and analysis problems has been a goal of both practitioners and software vendors almost since the beginning of the CAE industry. Early approaches relied heavily on scripting and custom programming. Repetitive, routine processes could be captured and reused in macro languages provided by CAE software vendors as adjuncts to their solvers and pre/post-processors.
Engineering organizations have also used scripting languages such as Java and Python to build powerful, sophisticated layers of automation on top of their commercial analysis tools.
But as powerful as that approach can be, it has limitations. Often narrowly case-specific, custom scripts are generally applicable only to the focused range of problems for which they were first conceived. They tend to be tightly bound to the specific solvers and pre/post-processors for which they were written, and require considerable rework to incorporate new tools entering the organization. And their value is most often to help expert analysts work more efficiently and productively—they often do little to help make simulation available to engineers and designers outside the analysis department.
Second wave: Process automation frameworks
To move beyond those limits, a second wave of simulation process automation has gained momentum over the past decade-plus. This wave consists of environments and frameworks for simulation workflow capture and automation, often featuring drag-and-drop workflow editors that let analysts readily set up sophisticated process flows that can call functionality from a range of modeling, analysis, pre/post-processing and reporting software tools, and control data flows among them. Once defined and validated by CAE experts, these workflows can often be used safely by non-experts—that is, engineers with expertise in their discipline, but without advanced training in CAE tools.
That approach yielded substantial productivity gains for expert analysts, and also captured their expertise and made it available to engineers outside the analysis department. However, practitioners report that often enough, these solutions still suffer from some of the same limitations as custom programming. In particular, when a problem turns out to vary too greatly from the idealized scenario for which the automated workflow was constructed, the system freezes up, breaks down, or requires exactly the manual intervention it was meant to eliminate.
Third wave: Simulation apps
Most recently, a third approach has begun gathering momentum: simulation apps. These provide sophisticated simulation capabilities packaged as easy-to-use, tightly focused apps that automate the design, analysis and verification of a specific type of product, often tailored to the needs of a specific user company. In this approach, the expertise of an engineering organization’s analysts is captured as rules in a set of templates that automate the design of a specific class of product. In use, the templates call on underlying, general-purpose modeling, simulation and analysis software tools for geometry creation and modification, mesh generation, physics calculations in the various disciplines involved, and results presentation in the form of an optimized, validated design solution.
How simulation apps escape some of the limits of older approaches is by capturing the expert rules based on the functional architecture of the product family, instead of on the geometry or topology of particular designs. This is what can make the templates robust even across significant geometry, topology and configuration changes, and across an entire product family. Automation templates constructed on this basis allow any user, expert or non-expert, to explore alternative architectures, and to swap out entire components to find the best design most effectively. Most important is that these apps, designed and certified by experts, are immediately usable by engineers and designers without requiring specialized training—and make the full power of the underlying simulation and analysis tools available to them, safely and reliably.
Important to emphasize is that, for now, simulation apps are not only solution-specific, but also need to be made company-specific to have their greatest impact. Every engineering organization that uses simulation has developed best practices for using particular simulation codes. Thus, solution providers need, at the least, to customize a “starter” app to conform exactly to the company’s best practices, in order for the company’s experts to embrace these tools, and for everyone in the organization to trust the results they produce.
Pioneering simulation-app software and service providers and their offerings include Comet Solutions SimApps, SimApp Authoring Workspace and SimApp development services; COMSOL Multiphysics Application Builder; EASA app development services; ESRD Smart Engineering Simulation Apps and development services; Front End Analytics SmartApps and development services; Xogeny app development services, and more. These leaders spearhead a rapidly expanding ecosystem of app development tools and frameworks, app development services, and off-the-shelf suites of product-specific apps ready to be customized for individual end-user companies by having their in-house experts’ knowledge and best practices captured and embedded.
How simulation apps work
Front End Analytics managing director Juan Betts lists seven core things that simulation apps do:
- Leverage the user organization’s intellectual property—know-how, methods, existing software toolsets and previous designs.
- Work across a wide range of design changes and product families.
- Speak the language of the intended user, and have built-in safeguards that prevent non-expert users from creating invalid designs.
- Automate within or across workflows such as CAD geometry creation, analysis and other engineering tasks.
- Are employable for different levels of model abstraction, from 0D/1D functional and systems-level modeling through 3D CAD, FEA and CFD computational analysis.
- Are most often cloud-based and web-enabled, and thereby support global collaboration.
- Are built on an agnostic server-based platform that accommodates a variety of software tool integrations, and that allows an implementation to start small and rapidly begin showing returns.
The process for creating simulation apps typically has three steps: first workflow capture, then app creation, then democratization.
“Workflow capture is really about process capture,” Betts explains. “Then app creation is about being able to amplify that, being able to embed controls so that your non-experts can use this and democratize it across the enterprise. And we find this is an iterative process, because many times your experts don’t know what they know. So we use an agile product development process, where it’s iterative. And democratization is where you take this and then are able to go to the enterprise and deploy it in a controlled fashion.”
Comet Solutions CTO Malcolm Panthaki elaborates. Simulation apps are “simple, targeted, web-deployed engineering calculators,” he says. “They are targeted and narrowly focused. They answer specific questions about the design of a particular product at particular levels of fidelity. They’re dirt-simple to use, and available anywhere. They need to be useful and usable, robust across a range of design changes, and in fact across an entire product family.”
Importantly, he continues, “They need to be expert-certified. The experts are the ones who embed their expertise in them and certify them. And in fact these apps must use the full power of the underlying expert tools, not tools that are in some way limited.” Finally, they provide users with ubiquitous access to whatever amounts of computing power are needed, either on internal clusters or on the cloud.
“These apps can range from the very simple to the highly complex,” Panthaki emphasizes. “There isn’t a limitation. You can go from simple—that is, apparently simple—plastic bottle design, to aircraft and automobile parts and subsystem design, to complex optical systems that require multifidelity and multiphysics calculations such as laser systems, and even shock analysis of PC boards.”
“There’s a huge unmet demand,” he declares. “Product engineers and others in manufacturing companies who are not CAE experts need—and are now using, safely and robustly—simulation capabilities that work across a wide scope.” Such apps have the potential to expand simulation access and usage “from the under a million simulation experts we have today, to—as a first phase—the eight million engineers who could benefit immediately from these tools, and then ultimately to ten times that number of potential users—salesmen, designers and others who would want to use these simple engineering calculators in their daily work.”
And far from reducing the need for CAE experts, Panthaki notes, “the role of the experts is changing—they’re becoming more valuable to the organization. Anyone in their global product development organization who needs simulation can now access it without the need to go to the experts each time. And in setting up each of these models for analysis, you can go from days, hours or weeks of an expert’s time, literally to seconds or minutes of the non-expert’s time—and it’s done correctly the first time, providing the templates are set up correctly.”
Simulation is becoming democratized—at last
The simulation software industry and its customers have made vast strides since their first efforts to expand access to simulation beyond the small number of specially trained analysts compared with the much greater number of non-analyst engineers and designers found in most engineering organizations. Those analysts’ scarcity as a resource often made them a bottleneck in product development—or, worse, irrelevant, when schedule needs forced a project to move on before analysts had time to finish their work, then make their results accessible and comprehensible to other project members.
Thus came the early software products some two decades ago that tried to make some degree of simulation capability usable by non-analyst engineers and designers by integrating finite element analysis tools into CAD user environments. But after early enthusiasm, many users concluded that, in being made safe for generalist users, the tools’ simulation functions had been so curtailed as to deliver disappointingly less value than first hoped for.
But across the past handful of years, software developers and service providers have opened up a wealth of new technological avenues—far more sophisticated and intelligent CAD/CAE interconnections than the early attempts, meshless structural analysis and other techniques to simplify and accelerate problem setup, very affordable cloud-based HPC resources, and a rising wave of new fit-for-purpose vertical simulation “apps.”
All these, and doubtless more just over the horizon, are at last making advanced simulation capabilities accessible, practical and safe for use by non-analyst engineers and designers. One great benefit is to let analysts remove themselves as a bottleneck in product development, and instead focus on amplifying their value to the enterprise by embedding their expertise within digital tools and frameworks that then enable that expertise to be deployed to, and safely applied by, non-specialist engineers and designers throughout the organization.
And, at the same time as amplifying the value available from an organization’s expert analysts, democratization of simulation is helping engineering organizations get more value from all their other simulation assets as well—software tools and technologies, and the methods and work processes developed around them.
Ultimately, democratization of simulation will empower engineers to move beyond the intuition-based, guess-and-correct product development practices still prevalent in too many industries today, and begin to exploit all the possibilities for systematic, rational, rapid design discovery, development, optimization and validation available from contemporary simulation and analysis technologies that, even today, users have scarcely begun to tap.
Ora Research invites all interested parties—simulation app technology and service providers, mainstream CAE and PLM providers, engineering service providers, engineering organizations currently using simulation apps or contemplating an investment, and any others—to join our Democratized Multiclient Study ™ of Simulation App Markets & Opportunities.