How to Update Your Organization’s Simulation Process

Reassessing how one uses simulation tools may produce benefits for companies

While there are benefits to following some traditions, the downside to blindly following tradition, especially in a corporate environment using computer-aided engineering (CAE) technology, is that sometimes it obscures the way to progress.

As President of CAE Associates, I have seen simulation blossom from its limited use by Ph.D. experts creating meshes manually, to pushbutton phone apps than can be used in real-time by non-engineers.

I have watched some companies adopt new simulation processes to keep pace with the rapidly changing technology, and I have seen others reach a certain level of maturity, then progress no further. I call the latter “The Traditionalists.”

Traditional CAE Users Lack New Simulation Best Practices

Many of the Traditionalists were early adopters of simulation decades ago. They developed sophisticated CAE processes, putting them at the leading edge of simulation at the time. Simulation became part of the development process, working so well for them that it became the norm.

A victim of its own success, nobody thought to reassess how simulation was being implemented. Sure, it still works just as well as it did 20 years ago, but it provides nowhere near the benefits of today’s best-in-class implementations.

If you are a skier, the analogy goes something like this:

Suppose you bought a pair of state-of-the-art skis and boots in 1990. You were ecstatic with their performance and comfort and couldn’t imagine how they could be better. During the next 27 years, you hang on to them because they work so well for you, not bothering to look for any alternative. In 2017, your binding finally breaks and you try out some new equipment.

How long will it take before you stop kicking yourself for not acting sooner?  In your own little bubble, those old skis were working just great. However, in the context of the rest of the planet, you were skiing on old whisky barrel staves.

It’s the same with simulation. Unless the simulation process in an organization comes under periodic scrutiny, it is difficult to know where you stand in comparison to current best practices. Companies who have been using simulation for decades and were originally pioneers are now the laggards.

Their paradigm has not changed, but remains mired in the past. Their competitors, newer to the simulation game, are adopting best practices and developing better products faster, cheaper, and with higher quality.

New Versus Old CAE Best Practices

What you don’t know can hurt you, but the pain comes in opportunity cost, which rarely shows up in budget statements.

Below are some common features of traditional simulation processes:

·       Simulation is used on most new designs, but in an ad-hoc manner. No systematic procedures are in place.

·       Individual components are analyzed, using individual physics. System-level and multiphysics simulations are rarely performed.

·       Simulation is used after the design is finalized, as verification, or if something breaks during testing or in the field.

·       There is no time to use simulation to understand design sensitivities and robustness, or help optimize the design since it happens so late in the design cycle.

·       Problems found via simulation at this late stage require re-design and are extremely costly and time consuming to fix.

Let’s contrast these to the current best practices:

·       Use simulation in a systematic, gated manner, with prescribed metrics in place at each phase.

·       Use it as a tool at the concept phase to help innovate and come up with ideas for new products or solutions.

·       Use it throughout the design process, from preliminary design to final verification. Problems can be identified early, when they are much easier and less costly to fix.

·       Use simulation to optimize the design for weight, cost, etc.

·       Conduct system-level, multiphysics simulations to predict how the product will perform in the field, when all components are assembled together.

·       Perform design sensitivity studies to ensure a high quality, robust product.

It may be difficult to understand why the Traditionalists ignore the new methods. From conversations with clients, it seems to be a curious mix of simulation not being well understood by upper management, typical engineering conservatism, resistance to change, and risk aversion.

Upper management, uncomfortable with what it doesn’t understand, passes the simulation decisions to middle management. Without any pressure from above, middle management finds it easier to maintain the status quo. They don’t want to take the risks or fight the battles of changing how simulation should be implemented.

This is the perceived safe route. Safe until a competitor swoops in with a disruptive technology, fueled by simulation, to grab their market share.  

Assessments of Simulation Best Practices Can Boost Workflow

One way around this problem is to implement periodic “simulation assessments.” This can be done in the same way design reviews, budget planning, and strategic planning occur. The biggest challenge here is to ensure that simulation has a high enough profile in the organization to be even considered for such an evaluation.

The simulation assessment can take several forms. It could be on a component level, assembly level, product level, or engineering department level. The basic steps could be as follows:

1.     Lay out the current design process.

2.     List the challenges, bottlenecks, timeline, and risks at each phase in the current process.

3.     Identify causes of prior premature field failures or other quality issues.

4.     Brainstorm about how the use of simulation could alleviate problems, cut costs, and reduce overall time. Be creative. Some examples are:

a.     During preliminary research to help come up with novel ideas to address a need.

b.     At the conceptual design level to further develop potential solutions.

c.     During the selection phase to help choose the best candidate solutions.

d.     Throughout preliminary and final design.

                                               i.     Ensure fulfillment of design criteria.

                                             ii.     Optimize to minimize weight, material, cost, etc.

                                            iii.     Ensure robustness of design and quality.

e.     Before prototype testing, to help develop a thorough test plan.

It may be helpful to engage a third party consultant at this step to ensure that all of the possibilities for using simulation are identified.

5.     Identify the costs, benefits, and risks of simulation implementation at each phase identified. These must be computed as quantitative factors, which will come in the form of time, money, and resources. This is the most important part of the exercise, because it will be the only way to convince upper management to adopt a change.

6.     At this point, you should have a chart of costs vs. benefits. Use this to decide where simulation makes sense in the process, depending on the resources available and other imposed constraints. To gather support, it might be best to start with low-hanging fruit, where there is big benefit for relatively small investment.

7.     Implement the changes and make sure to measure the quantitative benefits.

Simulation Embedded in the Design Process

Simulation Embedded in the Design Process

Going through this simple exercise may be a tremendous eye-opener for some companies. The cost-benefit comparison story becomes very clear. With numbers in hand, it becomes easier to make concrete CAE proposals to upper management which break old habits and move the organization forward.