Engineering Where the Most Opportunity Exists
Matthew Loew posted on May 31, 2013 | 9365 views

Tools for the Conceptual Design Phase

It should be accepted that the best chance for a product to be developed to strike the balance between obtaining the highest performance, lowest cost, and any other requirement exist at the earliest stages of development. Organizations may refer to this as the Conceptual Design (Waterfall development) or Discovery (Agile development) phase.

The ability to consider multiple concepts and measure/simulate performance against requirements early, i.e. before any detail design activities begin, maximizes the opportunity for a product to be successful. In other words: the best concept yields the best product. Toyota calls the process of creating multiple concepts simultaneously, and at multiple levels of the product structure, Set-Based Design as part of the Toyota Product Development (TPD) system. Other companies may simply call this Concept Development. Regardless of the semantics, a commitment to compose multiple, competing concepts, and then evaluating the system-level performance (virtually through modeling and simulation and/or physically in scale or in prototype form) is what is required to realize the potential for true early stage conceptual engineering.

So if the best potential for success is in the concept development phase, where are the conceptual engineering software tools?

Most of the CAD vendors talk about Conceptual Design (and not Conceptual Engineering) tools that now mainly have direct modeling methods to enable what I call "fast-CAD" geometry to be created. Many of of the makers of simulation software (for mechanism, structural, thermal, flow, etc. analysis) want engineers or designers to conduct early simulation that typically requires some CAD geometry. Fast CAD is still just CAD; there is no fundamental engineering being conducted with these tools. Sure, one can use CAD to make geometry that is used in subsequent simulation, but this workflow will almost always be iterative back to the CAD model to address performance deficiencies. Any analysis process that is dependent on CAD geometry runs the risk of being delayed and also tends to limit the number of concepts the group wants to consider. This is because making CAD models (even fast CAD) simply takes time, may be conducted by someone other than the user of the simulation tool, and there is usually little understanding or discipline around tailoring the geometry to be suitable for engineering purposes (differentiated from product geometry). The closer the early CAD geometry tends to look like a real product, the higher the risk of premature selection.

Beyond conceptual design CAD and early geometry-dependent simulation software there are some commercial tools for conceptual engineering; many companies also have many proprietary tools that are used for concept engineering. From what I have found these tools fall into two general categories: 

  • System-level modeling tools that are general-purpose, highly abstracted, and may have little or no connection to any type of geometry (MSC Software Easy5, MathWorks Simscape, Maplesoft MapleSim, all the flavors of Modelica, etc.)
  • Domain-specific tools that encompass geometry (but typically limited to 1- or 2-D) and may have limited bi-directional associativity with other software (Enventive, GEOMATE Turbocalc, Romax Concept, Altair Optistruct, WATT Synthesis, and many others)

As far as I can tell, there is not an engineering workspace that allows for system engineers, domain experts, machine architects, etc. to build physics-based models (in whatever dimension or fidelity-level is appropriate) along with conceptual geometry models (I call these Engineering Models) and capture the product and project requirements. I want to drive early conceptual product development with models that capture the correct physics of the underlying systems along with the early use of structural analysis, multi-body dynamics, etc. This would need to work for multiple concepts (not just parametrically different, but entirely different system architectures and different topologies) early in the product development phase at multiple levels of fidelity. The workspace would need to enable multiple users to simultaneously collaborate on building and evaluating concepts and still not be enslaved to a product structure prematurely. Clear reporting of simulation results against requirements and best-practices in a dashboard are critical for rapidly developing iterations of concepts. A true, variable-dimension, multi-fidelity, engineering authoring and data/project management tool still eludes me.

If this sounds complicated or complete overkill, please bear with me; I'll present a simple example next week. I'll follow up with a list of the tools I feel support conceptual engineering along with links. If you know of any tools or have questions please comment or contact me.

Image is based on “Cost-committed and cost-incurred” from Newcastle University Engineering Design Centre:

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