Multiphysics for the masses. COMSOL wants to democratize simulation in the design process– TV-report

Simulation is key to making virtual product development a reality. So it’s no wonder that simulation software is growing rapidly in terms of software spending and usage in product development processes.

Simulation is key to making virtual product development a reality. So it’s no wonder that simulation software is growing rapidly in terms of software spending and usage in product development processes.

As a matter of fact, the Simulation and Analysis (or Computer Aided Engineering ”CAE”) piece of the PLM investment pie was 12.3% in 2013, making it almost as big as the cPDM component at 13.8%.

While a few big providers lead the CAE market, there are still major opportunities for other market participants including COMSOL, a developer of multiphysics solutions. Over the last five years or so they have seen their revenues increase by 20% per year to around $65 million 2013. This makes them one of the market leaders in the multiphysics CAE sub-segment.

The special feature of multiphysics is that performing simulations of several “problems” at once can give a better overall picture of how a 3D product model will truly perform compared to simulations of individual phenomena. After all, the real world is multi-physical. One factor influences another, affecting the third and so on.

By providing multiphysics capabilities, COMSOL’s software has reached an installed base of over 100,000 users. This is a surprisingly big number given that there are only so many globally qualified experts solving such intricate advanced problems. According to the company, the user base is so large that it is approaching the limit of market penetration. “The snag is that there simply are not that many more people with this level of qualification. So to continue the strong growth we have looked at the next step: to involve all those user’s colleagues, partners and clients”, says Svante Littmarck, co-founder and CEO of COMSOL Group in this TV-report, adding that this opens a potential market that is many times greater.

When you consider possible collaborators to the expert analysts using COMSOL, the market can be much larger. ”Now we are talking about maybe ten times as many users. The ‘only’ problem we had was; how could we reach them”, Littmarck asks rhetorically. In response, he pointed out two on-premise and cloud related innovations in COMSOL Multiphysics 5.0 called Application Builder and COMSOL Server.


To reach a broader market, Svante Littmarck, COMSOL Group’s CEO says that the Application Builder and COMSOL Server initiatives will revolutionize the multiphysics business.

”It’s a revolutionary approach to multiphysics. With the Application Builder and Server, simulation becomes available in a whole new way. Advanced computational COMSOL models developed by experts can be turned into easily created apps in a Windows browser, and then widely distributed, used and understood also by non experts in the product development chain”, the COMSOL chief asserts, clearly in a good mood after the software’s was recently named ”Product of the Year” by NASA Tech Brief’s readers.

If you are curious as to how Application Builder is designed to broaden the number of people who can access multiphysics simulations, skip down to the case study about Arkansas Power. It describes a typical challenge faced by many ”design to order” companies.

Will multiphysics simulation ”go through the roof”?

So, will we see multiphysics simulation sales go through the roof? According to analyst CIMdata the CAE market will be one of the more rapidly growing sub-segments in PLM over the next four years. The final numbers for 2014 aren’t ready yet. However, CIMdata did forecast that it will grow 8.8% overall to revenues of $4.6 billion. Through 2018 the growth is expected to be 7.7% a year. That’s faster than PLM in general, which is expected to grow by 5.5% during 2014 and 5.8% annually until 2018.

It’s no surprise that ANSYS is the leading player when it comes to revenues. Here’s how the Simulation and Analysis market looked according to CIMdata 2013 report:

In the light of these figures COMSOL is still is a minor player in the market with a 1.5% market share. However, in its niche of multiphysics they are one of the major providers.


Isaac Newton portrayed by Godfrey Kneller.
Newton’s partial differential equations
are the foundation that
COMSOL Multiphysics solution is built on.

Newton, differential equations, and why COMSOL touts their technology as unique

There’s an interesting connection between Isaac Newton and COMSOL’s software. When Newton (and Gottfried Leibniz, some claims) in the 1670’s formulated the differential and integral calculus theorem he gave humanity tools to mathematically describe mechanical movements. It’s around these partial differential equations (PDE’s) that COMSOL built their multi-physical solution. ”Reality is full of complex relationships and it’s multi-physical”, says Svante Littmarck. His point is that this fact should be reflected in all types of virtual product development processes.

“A bulb for instance requires electric current; when you turn it on, heat is a by-product, which in turn results in tensions in the glass envelope. But heat also impairs the electrical conductivity”, he explains, concluding that, “analyzing one problem at a time is not only complicated, impractical and time consuming but can also end in misleading results”.


“A unique solution”,
says COMSOL’s CTO, Ed Fontes.

Some solutions are better than others at reflecting the interactions on the real world. COMSOL’s CTO Ed Fontes asserts that the company’s solution is unique in that the user can formulate an arbitrary multiphysics coupling resulting in the program generating a fully coupled mathematical model (PDE). Only when this is ready are the PDE’s discretized by finite elements and finite differences to then generate a numerical model.

”Our built-in library of PDEs, which represents physical laws, not only can be connected arbitrarily, but also combined with the user’s own PDE’s. When the automatic development of the numerical model is taking place, COMSOL doesn’t make a difference between built-in and user PDE’s”, Fontes explains, adding that the competitors always have underlying numerical models as a basis, ”i.e. they can not be adapted to arbitrary multiphysics to the same degree.” Nor is it possible to formulate their own arbitrary PDE’s, when the underlying numerical model lack this flexibility.”

The COMSOL multiphysics software includes:

  • A Graphical User Interface, GUI, where the user make their input and receive output
  • The geometry core, where the user can create, receive, and generate a geometric representation suitable for multiphysics
  • The logic that generates the mathematical model, i.e. systems of PDE’s, based on user input and associate physics with geometry
  • The mesh generator that creates the finite element grid
  • The solver that solves the numerical model equations
  • The post processor that generates graphs, tables and reports based on user specifications directly in the GUI or to a file

Daniel Ericsson demonstrates the new
Application Builder on his tablet.

How can product developers use multiphysics?

I talked to COMSOL’s Daniel Ericsson, Sales & Marketing Manager in Sweden, about how product developers can use multiphysics simulations. ”Consider your cell phone”, he said. ”The antenna receives electromagnetic waves, the touch screen or buttons are mechanical and electrical components that interact with each other, the battery involves chemical reactions and the movement of ions and electrical current, and so on.” It’s a single device, but a lot of multiphysics. ”If you are going to build the most advanced cellphone to date, you would also need the most accurate engineering software for the development process. And that’s one reason why people are moving towards more multiphysics simulations.”

Ericsson also pointed out, ”The automotive industry was among the first to adopt modeling and simulation as an integral process in product development. Crash tests are almost replaced with simulations and wind tunnel experiments can be done by CFD simulations.” But, needless to say, there’s a lot more that goes into making cars nowadays, Ericsson continues, ”Today consumers expect and enjoy touch-screen functionalities and LED lighting, to name a few. Automobile manufacturers need to keep up with — and stay ahead of — these trends. Many of the new products and features that we see in our cars have been developed through multiphysics modeling, and couldn’t have seen daylight without it.”


The Application Builder in action. This model of a three-cylinder reciprocating engine is turned into an application where the user can change operating parameters to predict the resulting force and stress in the engine components.

His conclusion is that with multiphysics simulations, you can study test cases and physical phenomena that aren’t always possible to build or measure, at least not

in a realistic or competitive timeframe. ”Simulating the design provides an accurate and efficient method of analysis where a model can include any number of physical effects and their interactions to easily model multiphysics phenomena such as Joule heating, thermal expansion, convective cooling, or fluid-structure interaction. A model can be as simple or complex as is necessary. The results from the simulation can be obtained in a matter of minutes, providing valuable insight into your design long before experimental results are available. The risk of product failure and delays to market can be drastically reduced.”

Several important roles in simulation-based design

As product development moves towards completely digitized processes , multiphysics simulations can play several important roles in simulation-based design.

Ed Fontes pointed out three major roles:

  • ”The first is about understanding a system or a design. The coupling between several physics phenomena may be simple, in principle, but the implications of these couplings on the simulation results may be quite complex. The most efficient way of  obtaining an understanding is to solve the multiphysics model equations many times, for different inputs and assumptions, and then study the results.”
  • ”The second role is in verifying suggested improvements to a process or design. Once an understanding of a concept has been achieved, it may be possible to predict how a design can be improved. If the model is validated in a proper way,  improvements can be verified using multiphysics simulations.”
  • ”The third role is in optimizing a process or design. This implies that the model is run in an algorithmic way, which may require that the geometric representation and the physics settings are generated automatically using associativity. An optimization scheme then searches for an optimal set of geometry parameters based on the criteria for the design.”


Magnetic Field Modeling in the new COMSOL Multiphysics version 5.0:
Simulation of a 4-pole pair Halbach rotor. Results show the magnetic flux density at a cross section.

In each of these three possible roles, multiphysics contributes accuracy and fidelity that may be impossible to obtain with simpler models, according to the COMSOL CTO. However, there are cases in simulation-based design when full multiphysics simulations are too expensive. ”In such cases, multiphysics models and simulations serve as validation tools for simpler models. Simpler models are then adapted for a limited range of parameters and operating conditions using multiphysics models. The simpler models can then be solved quickly and efficiently within this limited range in the search for an optimum.”

Arkansas Power Electronics are benefiting from the use of Application Builder

The Application Builder, which allows users to build an intuitive interface to run any COMSOL model was released in late November 2014. Users are now building applications and exploring the benefits of sharing their models with colleagues and customers.

One such company is Arkansas Power Electronics Intl. (APEI), a manufacturer of high power density and high performance electronics products. “I’m building applications to help us expedite our design processes,” says Brice McPherson, a Senior Staff Engineer at APEI. “Our engineers often spend time running analyses for the sales or manufacturing departments to find model results based on diverse conditions and requirements. The Application Builder will be hugely important for accelerating our work in this respect; any colleague outside of the engineering team will now be able to confidently run these studies by themselves, with no learning curve.”


APEI building their first multiphysics app: Bond wires used as interconnects in semiconductor devices must be properly sized and arranged to minimize heating. Top: A parametric sweep created by the user for a specific wire diameter, current, loop height, ambient temperature, bond length, and number of bonds shows the relationship between the number of bonds and the temperature in the interconnect. Another tab in the application (bottom) helps the user select the appropriate wire diameter, loop geometry, and number of wires to find the maximum current the bonds can carry without overheating.

The first application built by APEI looks at fusing current and ampacity of wire bonds – very small wires used to interconnect semiconductor devices with their packages. “Designing a new wire bonding scheme for a power semiconductor usually requires a simulation specialist who needs to spend time setting up the model and analyzing the temperature increase under a variety of conditions,” says McPherson. “We decided to use this common design request to take a first look at the Application Builder and to aid our colleagues working in manufacturing.”

“The Application Builder let us build a powerful, yet easy-to-use application,” says McPherson. “When dealing with power, we have to be mindful of how much current we can safely transfer through the wires. This is heavily dependent on the geometry of the wire and the loop. One function of the app we created uses a parametric sweep to show how the number of wires affects the peak wire temperature at a set current. Previously, we had to look these values up using tables that we generated from many sweeps in COMSOL Multiphysics,” McPherson continues. “Now we can have a clean, simple application to get that data without requiring an engineer, and the results are more accurate than what we would have achieved using the tables.”

Can COMSOL bring multiphysics to mainstream?

Ease-of-use is critical if a solution is to spread complex information to the broader design community. Multiphysics is a challenge in this respect. But COMSOL has some history in making multi-physical simulations available within mainstream CAD environments. Via their so called Live Links–based on bi-directional solutions–they made it possible to seamlessly interact with CAD software like Autodesk Inventor, PTC, SolidWorks and others.


COMSOL Multiphysics with LiveLink for PTC Creo enables a
user to benefit from the advanced capabilities in Creo to produce state-of-the-art designs and then integrate them into a COMSOL Multiphysics model for analysis and optimization.

The main idea behind the Application Builder follows that track. A simulation specialist can set up a specialized interface for a specific model and share the app throughout the organization and networks. The geometry of the model can be built with the most common CAD products on the market. The LiveLink products for CAD enable a smooth transition between a CAD model and a simulation model. Since the coupling between them is bi-directional, it is possible to let the simulation perform an optimization of the geometry and send back the optimal configuration directly to the CAD package. It’s possible to efficiently integrate simulation into the design workflow even if there is no simulation specialist running the applications.

Connections to PLM and the next step for Application Builder

But there are other challenges. There are no APIs to couple simulation results to a PLM/PDM system, for example. While the Application Builder is a great initiative, the solution is essentially a one-way sharing tool. In this first version there is no functionality to systematically collect, organize and evaluate reactions from participants in the product development chain.

If COMSOL’s goal of democratizing simulation is realized, it will create a market that is much larger than CAE is today. The downside, as always, is that putting more sophisticated simulations in the hands of non-experts can lead to users who do not understand the implications and limitations of their results.