The Path to Simulation Democratization
Michael Alba posted on June 20, 2018 |
(Image courtesy of EASA.)
(Image courtesy of EASA.)

The Conference on Advancing Analysis & Simulation in Engineering (CAASE) 2018, which occurred earlier this month in Cleveland, Ohio, saw a congregation of the world’s foremost experts on computer-aided engineering (CAE). While these experts discussed numerous CAE topics—from topology optimization to biomedical simulation to blockchain—one topic received particular emphasis at the conference: democratization.

Democratization of simulation is not a new concept. It’s been tossed around at least as long as Ruben Bons, Simcenter STAR-CCM+ industry lead for electronics & semiconductor at Siemens PLM, has been in the business.

“It was already beginning when I started in the field back in the mid 90s,” Bons said. “Already then you were having structural simulation tools being embedded in the CAD tools. I don't think the term [democratization] was used that far back. But the efforts to bring simulation to more of a design or development team level, and not solely keep simulation in the hands of a small group of experts, has been around for at least 25 years.”

A Google Maps for Simulation

Like this, but for simulation. (Image courtesy of Google.)
Like this, but for simulation. (Image courtesy of Google.)

What is simulation democratization? As with most buzzwords, democratization is interpreted differently by different people. But all would likely agree on the broad strokes of its meaning: the goal of simulation democratization is to empower more people to take advantage of simulation technology. Who those additional people are, and how exactly they can be empowered—those questions are up for debate.

Take an analogy brought up in the CAASE 2018 round table on simulation democratization: GPS, the Global Positioning System. Deploying a GPS is no easy feat. You’ll need a knowledge of wireless communications, orbital mechanics, general relativity, and a whole lot more. Locating oneself with a GPS used to require just as much expertise, in the form of specialized equipment and operators who knew how to use it.

The complexity of GPS has not changed. What has changed is who can effectively make use of it: everyone. If you own a smartphone, you have access to GPS. You don’t need any knowledge of GPS to use it—you just pull up Google Maps and tell it where you want to go. The details are irrelevant to the end user.

Such is the dream of simulation democratization (or, as one CAASE attendee called it, the “pie in the sky”). There are far more people who can benefit from simulation technology than who know how to use it. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a Google Maps for simulation—an app that lets the user ignore all the details and get nothing but the answers they need? Of course—but how can this dream be reached? Is it even possible?

Maybe. It might just take a revolution to get there.

The Simulation Revolution

The RevolutionInSimulation logo. (Image courtesy of RevolutionInSimulation.org.)
The RevolutionInSimulation logo. (Image courtesy of RevolutionInSimulation.org.)

"If you look at most complex technologies, they have a certain curve,” said Malcolm Panthaki, CTO of Comet Solutions. “Very slow to gain traction initially. There are very few people who use it. And they either then flatten out and die, or they take off. And the takeoff and usage only occurs when that technology is wrapped in such a way that the power is made available, while the technology itself eventually vanishes. You've got to make it vanish.”

Notice that this curve applies to our earlier example of GPS: at first, GPS was limited to a small subset of people. But then it took off, in Panthaki’s words, and the technology itself has now vanished to most end users. With GPS, this takeoff was the result of a number of factors: the U.S. government opening up what had been military technology, improvements in electronic manufacturing and miniaturization, and the popularity of smartphones, to name a few.

The path to simulation democratization will undoubtedly be different, but Panthaki wants to ensure that a similar takeoff occurs. So dedicated is Panthaki to this goal that he spearheaded the launch of RevolutionInSimulation.org, an online community meant to hearken a takeoff of simulation.

“It's time where we now have to take simulation, take all this expertise which is absolutely essential to make it work in a safe reliable way, and wrap it into a form that ten to a hundred times more people can actually start using it—without even worrying about how you spell the word simulation,” he said.

How to Take Off

(Image courtesy of Eduard Marmet.)
(Image courtesy of Eduard Marmet.)

Organizations dedicated to the goal of simulation democratization—like Rev-Sim.org and ASSESS (Analysis, Simulation & Systems Engineering Software Strategies)—are certainly a positive influence for change. But it’s one thing to support democratization, and quite another to actually implement it. How can simulation actually takeoff within an engineering company, let alone the world at large?

It may not be as easy as simply giving your design engineers simulation tools, as one audience member at the CAASE 2018 democratization round table attested. His design engineers were given a couple training courses on Altair Inspire, a relatively user-friendly software tool, and each engineer learned their way around the program. The problem? After the training courses were completed, none of the engineers ever touched Inspire again. Clearly, there’s more to democratization than the simple provision of simulation tools.

“The most difficult thing in simulation democratization is actually not the technology—it’s actually the culture,” claimed Juan Betts, managing director of Front End Analytics. In Betts’ view, democratization can only be successful when an entire organization—from the managers to the analysts to the design engineers—are on board with the shift in thinking.

This is a big ask, but it’s not impossible. One member of the CAASE round table audience—Glenn Valine, engineering IT director of GKN Driveline North America—can attest to that. He’s been a proponent of democratization for over a decade and has successfully begun implementing the concept within his own company.

“When I first started talking about democratization at NAFEMS [National Agency for Finite Element Methods and Standards], I had people looking at me like, ‘What? What are you talking about? You're nuts.’ I kept talking about it because we were doing it, and we were seeing the benefits,” Valine said.

Valine elaborated on some of the questions he asks when he’s attempting to democratize a process.

“When we're looking at a tool, is it a process automation to improve the analyst's consistency and repeatability? Because that may be enough. Stop there. Because we've all seen that if you give the same problem to two or three or four analysts, you're probably going to get a different result. And that's not good. So when you automate it, you eliminate that, or you certainly greatly reduce that variability,” Valine said.

Does mere automation really count as democratization? Not according to Sebastian Dewhurst, director of business development at EASA Software.

“To me, democratization is the nonexpert,” Dewhurst said. “And that is really, really hard.”

Democratization: Who’s It For?

The topic moderators of RevolutionInSimulation.org. (Image courtesy of RevolutionInSimulation.org.)
The topic moderators of RevolutionInSimulation.org. (Image courtesy of RevolutionInSimulation.org.)

The question of who democratization is for—broadly, expert or nonexpert users—is of the utmost importance in successfully implementing a democratization strategy, according to Valine.

“I think the real intent of democratization is when you take it to the next step, and you expose that to the nonexpert,” Valine explained. “And that goes back to who it's for, if it's for the application engineer, or the design engineer, or project development engineer, any non-analyst. You really want to ask yourself, who's it for? What do you want to expose? Because from the process automation, you're still probably exposing a whole lot of stuff that the nonexpert doesn't need, doesn't care about. This is what we've learned. I always ask that question when we start talking about a new opportunity: Who's it for? What are we going to do with it?”

The goal in implementing democratization, then, is to figure out exactly what an end user needs to know about a simulation—and to make everything else vanish. One popular approach is in creating so-called web apps, a comparatively simple user interface that permits entering a select few parameters. Web apps are ideal for specialized applications. For example, Panthaki’s Comet Solutions has developed the Brake Analysis SimApp (the company’s term for web app) that allows engineers to utilize templates to design and analyze a brake system for vehicles, elevators and more. This app uses finite element analysis (FEA) techniques, but these are not exposed to the end user.

This leads us to an important caveat—while the end user may not need to delve into the details of an analysis, they still must be able to evaluate the results. In other words, blind trust in the simulation is not the goal. The engineer must still be able to ensure the results make physical sense. With this in mind, what exactly do we mean by nonexpert?

“Nonexperts in what?” asked Hubertus Tummescheit, cofounder of Modelon and topic moderator for Rev-Sim.org. “They are not simulation experts; they are [for example] thermal management experts. They can see whether the simulation results make sense. But they don't have to learn all the intricacies and solvers to make the simulation work. It is an expert engineer that you don't have to train on that expert tool.”

A Different Perspective on Democratization

So far, we’ve discussed democratization as a strategy that can be undertaken by engineering organizations, software vendors, and the industry at large. This strategy involves both the technological tools to enable democratization as well as the know-how and shift in attitude needed to advance it.

Mark Zebrowski, a former simulation analyst at Ford, proposes a different perspective on democratization. To him, democratization isn’t a strategy—it’s a result. According to Zebrowski, if you do simulation right, democratization should just “fall out.”

“We were doing what is called democratization,” Zebrowski said.“But it was an outgrowth of process automation. And process automation was to improve the situation for experts and novices both.”

Something of an iconoclast in the CAE community, Zebrowski’s view wasn’t shared by the majority of CAASE attendees—certainly not those most focused on democratization like Panthaki and the Rev-Sim.org team. Nonetheless, Zebrowski was awarded the attendee-voted Best Workshop award at CAASE 2018. Now retired, Zebrowski has some fascinating insight into simulation that we’ll discuss in a future article.

The Future of Democratization

Screenshot of ANSYS Discovery Live. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)
Screenshot of ANSYS Discovery Live. (Image courtesy of ANSYS.)

Whatever your perspective on democratization—whether it requires a conscious effort or whether it’s an outcome of other goals—it certainly seems that simulation is headed toward broader accessibility. Under the banner of democratization or not, many prominent CAE companies are developing tools that meet exactly this aim. ANSYS, for example, recently partnered with PTC to integrate its Discovery Live simulation within Creo Parametric. For design engineers, simulation results are now as accessible—and as quick—as switching from a shaded to a wireframe view.

At any rate, unless the pie-in-the-sky, Google Maps version of simulation is ever realized, democratization will always be a work in progress.

“It's more of the pathway and a process than a specific destination where we could say we've arrived,” said Bons.


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