Design optimization was an idea first borne in the labs of universities and specialists groups within the aeronautics and automotive industries. Today, however, it has moved from research labs into mainstream product design and engineers and designers are increasingly using simulation tools to guide their design choices.
While conventional analysis techniques use a pre-existing product or concept and predicts performance, design optimization reverses this process. It establishes the best form for the design and determines optimal values for the defining parameters based on a set of performance metrics defined by requirements. In order to work, it is important that the analysis results are accurate, and the geometric features of the model are sufficiently flexible in their definition.
Though the industry is pushing towards improving upon optimization technology, there are several hurdles yet to be overcome before design optimization is widely embraced by real-world users. Simulation tools, however, are being used to optimize designs today so let’s take a look at how they are helping companies improve upon designs and get them to market faster.
How analysis is used in product design
The shift from simulation tools being used for product validation to an essential part of upfront design requires a paradigm shift involving changed processes, new tools and new ways of thinking for engineers. Simulation tools provide engineers with a way to make better decisions in order to design better products faster and at lower cost.
As designs progress throughout the cycle, a sequence of decisions and adjustments are made, affirming that the design is on the right path. Calculations, prototypes, and analysis are all tools that provide guidance to engineers as the design moves through the design cycle. Most product geometries are too complex for hand calculations and physical prototypes are costly and built too late in the cycle to be used to optimize designs upfront.
As a result, analysis techniques, such as finite element analysis (FEA), are more useful to engineers to rapidly explore variations of designs until truly optimized designs can be achieved. The integration of CAD and FEA enables engineers to test ideas, adjust designs, explore, and verify to confirm that designs are on the right track, minimizing the risk of flawed designs moving forward when changes are most costly. In other words, design-integrated analysis enables design teams to explore more design variants in less time.
Design culture must adapt to maximize benefits
The reality is that FEA tools are as a whole being underutilized at most companies. Dennis Nagy, an industry expert on FEA, estimates that companies are using only 10%-15% of the capabilities of already purchased CAE software. Possibly the problem is more cultural, than technological. Many engineering managers have not mandated or allowed a process change that leverages simulation.
In order to truly maximize their investment in analysis tools, companies need to stop propagating the idea that simulation can’t drive design; it can only validate them. Without a process change, designs being validated digitally are the ones that would have been validated through physical prototyping. So where’s the value add?
Better user training is also in order. Users need to better understand what simulation results are telling them, either about the design or about the quality of the simulation. Additional training on input properties, material properties and failure mechanisms will empower them to make better decisions and look further to find the optimal configuration.
The democratization of simulation will require that simulation tools are available to engineers within their CAD software and integrated closely with process automation systems. The key being that design optimization must happen early in the design cycle when changes can still be made without significant rework, lost cycle time or significant expense.