Can the push from CAD firms enable engineers to get products to market faster?

Written by: Justin Cunningham | Published:
Can the push from CAD firms enable engineers to get products to market faster?

With only three months to go until the New Year, the CAD companies are already talking about what is on offer for 2013 and just what users can expect.

Autodesk has made the recent announcement that it is putting its simulation capability on the web. This is now available to users and 2013 will no doubt see an increasing quantity of its CAD and PLM portfolio migrate to the cloud.

"It is a change in our business model," says Erwin Burth, head of simulation sales EMEA at Autodesk. "Cloud-based technology is changing the way we provide our services to customers and also how we get paid for delivering those."

Delivering services over the cloud has no doubt many advantages. For starters, it means that provided there is sufficient bandwidth, almost infinite computing power is available. For simulation or renders that can take days on a desktop, this has obvious advantages.

There is also usually a trade-off between computational time and accuracy, and working on the cloud helps alleviate this. It also means software upgrades can be instant, feedback on problems are not lost and it makes the bond between the user and CAD provider more tangible and perhaps more robust.

One of the key things Autodesk wants to achieve by offering simulation online (dubbed 'Simulation 360') is to bring the power of tools like CFD and FEA much further forward in the design process. One of the advantages of faster analysis is that multiple scenarios can be assessed at the same time.

Applying this to conceptual design means multiple initial concepts can be analysed to allow more informed design decisions. Of course, the analysis would be far less detailed than simulations run later in the design process, but early simulation doesn't need to be. It is there to allow engineers to make informed decisions on early concepts and is not meant to replace the 'heavier' simulation that normally comes later. It is about empowering more users with simulation tools, not moving the process all together.

"Simulation software is often used by specialists, is not easy to use and can take days to run," says Burth. "Our strategy is to remove these barriers and give access to simulation to more generalist designers and engineers."

The company is also keen to note that this approach is not about offering 'lite' versions of its software online as Jonah Normand, simulation sales for Northern Europe at Autodesk explains. "A lot of the time if you are looking for a low-cost solution, you also look at a low-functionality solution," he says. "But, we are taking our fully-featured simulation products and putting them on the cloud at an access point that is accessible for both small to medium sized businesses as well. It is not CFD or FEA lite, it is everything within our portfolio."

Changes that need to be done after detailed design work has happened are often both costly and time-consuming. Autodesk aims to give engineers who don't necessarily have FEA and CFD experience the ability to run some initial analysis and hopes this can highlight weak areas or thermal hot spots, for example, so they can be identified and reworked much earlier.

The ultimate aim of all this is to compress the design cycle to make it more accurate and get products to market faster. By empowering more engineers with these tools, it is hoped that more informed decisions can be made, and ultimately better products result.

The idea of having specialists on one side of the desk and engineers on the other, passing each other work that might have to be done overnight or perhaps even take a couple of days is something Autodesk want to show as being unnecessary when users have the ability to utilise services in the cloud.

There are criticisms, however: the biggest one being security. Autodesk says it keeps no data from the simulations whatsoever and that security – though often a concern of customers – needn't be. Ultimately, time will tell if customer concerns are warranted or not.

The other CAD giant making waves is Siemens PLM. It is continuing to get its customers to better utilise its products and shorten the design cycle. Siemens PLM software is immensely powerful and it boasts some tremendously large, multinational, customers to its name. One of the problems it continues to have, however, is actually getting users to exploit its capability fully.

Siemens, arguably, has a much broader portfolio of software on offer which falls under two umbrellas: its PLM function and its design engineering function. Though Siemens is not considering hosting its services on the cloud, it has been busy ensuring that its CAD and simulation offerings are what designers want. So what has the company done to help efficiency and productivity?

"We needed to get out of the way," says Karsten Newbury, a senior Vice President and general manager of Siemens PLM mainstream engineering software. "People have become so used to focusing on the tool and that is all wrong.

"The number of IQs that are tied up in doing history trees is outrageous. Smart people should be worrying about building a great product, adding value, finding solutions and what something should look like. Not worrying that if they make a change to the model it might break something."

Many of the big CAD and PLM giants have recognised in recent years the need to simplify the usability of software to free up engineers time to create. As a result, Siemens has developed a tool that, it claims, is intuitive. Its Synchronous Technology allows users to pull and push geometry and manipulate models much more freely.

There has been a lot of talk within the CAD industry, generally, about direct manipulation of models, though Siemens say this is not quite the same. Newbury describes Synchronous Technology as 'intelligent direct modelling'.

"We've made great strides with Synchronous," he says. "It makes it a lot more fun and easier to get excited about products when you are not worried about managing models and data. You are thinking about great designs, engineering, and products."

Since its launch, Synchronous modelling has been periodically improving and has moved away from the history based approach which proved difficult and time consuming to manage and change. Rather than creating a feature tree, it allows users to push and pull geometry in a much more free and open manner. However, one of the problems and the difficulties with direct modelling, generally, is if there is a hole in a part and the outside geometry is manipulated, the holes may distort, move, or perhaps not move at all.

However, Synchronous Technology uses all kinds of clever algorithms to look at a model and establish 'design intent'. Siemens claims this means the designer does not have to worry about having to redraw existing geometry to change one part, or that the model will do things that are unwanted.

"Imagine a wheel," says Newbury. "If you change one wheel, then it can be a big effort to change all four by direct editing. Imagine if you have four wheels and five assemblies. That is a huge amount of effort to change. We've had customers literally go from days to hours and hours to seconds in terms of changing geometry. The benefits can be huge."

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