What Is Simulation-Driven Design?

Engineering.com speaks to Shaun Kroeger, director of Partner Sales (Americas) at solidThinking, to learn about simulation-driven design.

Industry 4.0 is not only giving us the ability to do things faster, better and cheaper (to use obsolete NASA terminology), but it is changing the way we look at the entire product lifecycle. No longer are we slaves to the iterative design cycle, but instead we are able to use simulation and other CAE tools to inform our design choices from the very outset.

One such company that is very much pushing the boundaries of this simulation-driven approach is solidThinking, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of simulation giant Altair.

Engineering.com spoke to Shaun Kroeger, director of Partner Sales (Americas) at solidThinking, to get the lowdown on how simulation is shaping design, and how it is not only changing the products that we design, but also changing the way we look at the design process as a whole.

What Is It?

First up, let’s get up to speed on the concept of simulation-driven design.

“Simulation-driven design is taking simulation technology and moving it from the middle and the late cycles of the design process to the very front of it,” said Kroeger. “This drastically lowers the time it takes for companies to develop products, because instead of going back and forth between detailed design and validation, we put validation or simulation at the front of that process. We use simulation to design the product using things like topology optimization, or we integrate control systems at the earliest stages, and then when we get to validation, it’s a simple check box instead of an iterative process. So, simulation-driven design is putting simulation at the front of the design process and using simulation technology to create a design instead of using simulation to analyze it later.”

This is very much a common thread in Industry 4.0-enabled manufacturing and design. In the old days, we used to have to wait for a design to come downstream before testing, building or simulating a design. Then, if the design wasn’t up to scratch, we would literally have to go back to the drawing board and try again. Rinse and repeat.

Now, armed with design and simulation software, we can effectively simulate early, and decide what strategy to use before getting too deep into the product lifecycle. We are now entering a world of pre-validated design.

How to Do It?

We’ve been hearing a lot about generative design and topology optimization these last couple of years, with all of the big software companies having their own take on this new way of doing things. Largely, it has been spurred on by the rise of additive manufacturing, which is permitting the creation of new geometries never before seen in manufacturing.

“This is a completely different concept that started about five or six years ago as additive manufacturing technologies made it more possible to print these organic surfaces and structures that previously you couldn’t machine or cast because it was an organic, bone-looking design, right? That change started about five years ago, and that’s when simulation-driven design really started to move from design validation, where you used simulation to validate a design, and change it from validating to becoming the actual main driver to inform the design.”

Needless to say, solidThinking also has several products geared toward this new trend. One software package in particular is Inspire, which is currently available as the Inspire 2018 release.

A model with generated lattice structures, analysed in Inspire. (Image courtesy of solidThinking.)

A model with generated lattice structures, analysed in Inspire. (Image courtesy of solidThinking.)

“Inspire is our flagship product…it’s essentially becoming a full-blown environment for simulation-driven design” continued Kroeger. “It has topology optimization and generative design capabilities to create these designs. It has finite element analysis to analyze components of those designs. It’s got motion tools in there to understand the mechanical performance, evaluate loads, and take those loads into optimizations—that’s something that no one else can do. We can basically do a motion simulation, and bring those loads and motions into an optimization. We’re optimizing full assembly-level designs, which is something that no one else is really doing either. We can have multiple components all being optimized at one time.”


But is it really that easy to use? It’s all very nice having generative design, which presents you with a variety of design solutions at the click of a button. But while the product lifecycle may be moving into the 21st century, modeling itself is still a fairly archaic task that seems destined to remain in the past. Not so, says solidThinking. Behold, the PolyNURBS!

“We created a whole suite of modeling tools called PolyNURBS that allow you to take those concepts that are generated and quickly generate smooth, organic surface design. If you’re familiar with parametric modeling, it’s very difficult to do organic surfaces in,” explained Kroeger. “PolyNURBS make it very easy. I call it ‘3D tracing for engineers,’ so you’re basically tracing over the top of an optimized shape and you end up with a final printable design or a design that’s ready for machining. It’s called a PolyNURBS because it’s a hybrid between a polygonal model and a NURBS model.”

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the concept of NURBS, there’s a good chance that you use them anyway, especially if you’re using CAD. We can assume that you use CAD because you’re reading this article. But for a summary of NURBS, you can click this link to get more information from Wikipedia.

“A polygonal model is where you’d use blocks to model things…and what we did was we said [that] for every poly (or every block), we’re gonna create a NURBS underneath that, and you can hook those together. It’s almost like molding clay, but you’re still getting fully defined parasolid geometry that can be used in any manufacturing process,” explained Kroeger.

If you’re not yet sold on the idea of PolyNURBS, then watch the video below. It’s fairly mind-blowing.

Did you watch the video? Pretty cool, huh? The designer makes it look so easy. Now that means he’s either a CAD and simulation guru, or else it’s super easy to use? Or maybe both?

“This environment was built for design engineers—someone who is designing parts who needs to come up with lightweight and efficient structures,” continued Kroeger. “We’ve taken the complexity of simulation and made it very simple. You’ve heard the term democratization of simulation—all that means is that we made it easy enough for everyone to use. I think we’ve taken that to the next level. If you look at the ease of use of our interface, we’ve made it very easy to train designers how to use it—and once they start using it, they really become addicted to the PolyNURBS style of modeling. And that has really been driving the interest in simulation-driven design.”

Indeed. We coined the phrase “gamification of design engineering” in previous articles to describe this phenomenon. And this PolyNURBS method does look fun—almost like a video game.

Who Is Using It?

“The main driver that interests people to start with is the idea of lightweight. You hear about lightweighting all the time—these were the types of products that were initially interested in simulation-driven design,” said Kroeger. “So, obviously the aerospace industry, anything going into space, any company that has a mass budget instead of a dollar budget—they’re using this to take as much weight out of the design as possible. The by-products of that are an accelerated development cycle as well as cutting costs by material reduction and a compressed design cycle.”

A model of an aerospace bracket, light-weighted using generative design. (Image courtesy of solidThinking.)

A model of an aerospace bracket, light-weighted using generative design. (Image courtesy of solidThinking.)

“So, automotive, aerospace, general machinery, medical devices are now starting to use it, especially as we look at lattice structure optimization, being able to encourage bone growth through the lattice structure—those things are very important for the medical industry, so we’re seeing more traction there as well.”

The Path to Mass Adoption

So, you’ve seen the features available in Inspire (and in other generative design-oriented packages). With something so revolutionary available to engineers, we should be seeing a lot more of these highly optimized designs trickling into our daily lives, right?

Not quite. There is resistance to mass adoption whenever a new technology comes along, not just due to the technological hurdles but also due to cultural hurdles.

A model of a jaw implant, made lightweight using generative design. (Image courtesy of solidThinking.)

A model of a jaw implant, made lightweight using generative design. (Image courtesy of solidThinking.)

“On the cultural side regarding the more organic shapes…it’s half the weight yet twice as strong, which is pretty counter intuitive to engineering principles, right?” asked Kroeger. “There’s that old mantra of when in doubt, build it stout…simulation-driven design takes that mantra and reverses it and says that’s not the best way to do it. The best way to do it is to put the material where it needs to go so it accommodates the forces that you’re designing for. So, it creates these very organic structures. People think that more material makes it stronger—and that’s not the reality, so that’s one of the biggest issues is getting past that.”

“I think that’s the biggest challenge to adoptionchanging the way that people think about design, from the 20th century concept of form follows function to the 21st century paradigm where form follows forces.”Shaun Kroeger, director of Partner Sales (Americas) at solidThinking

“Also, [there is resistance to] changing the way people design,” continued Kroeger. “Any time there’s a philosophical change in the way that we design something, there’s always resistance to change, so I think that’s the biggest challenge to adoption—changing the way that people think about design, from the 20th century of form follows function to the 21st century paradigm where form follows forces.”

What’s Next?

So, we’ve seen what solidThinking has on offer right now, and if you’re a regular reader of engineering.com, then you’ll be familiar with what other companies are doing in these areas. What does solidThinking see on the horizon in terms of CAD and simulation in Industry 4.0?

“We’re still in the early stages—traditional design groups are starting to adopt this approach—we’re seeing this adoption more in the bleeding-edge companies, right? SpaceX, BlueOrigin—those kinds of companies and organizations are really pushing the edges of that, and now we’re starting to see that trickle down into traditional manufacturing industries as well.”

“As we look into the future, we are going to see topology optimization techniques hooked up to DOE techniques to iterate through numerous different concepts very quickly—so you can look at a lot more concepts and understand what’s gonna work and what isn’t gonna work. Then you take the best concept and move forward with that design.”

If you’d like to know more about Inspire 2018 or request a trial of the software, you can do so by clicking this link.

Additionally, there is a webinar available to watch at this link. Just enter your details into the form, and away you go.

This article is sponsored by Altair solidThinking. All opinions, unless stated elsewise, are mine – Philip Keane.