What’s Happening in Digital Prototyping?
Digital prototyping, according to Autodesk, Inc. (autodesk.com), “gives conceptual design, engineering, and manufacturing departments the ability to virtually explore a complete product before it becomes real. Manufacturers can design, visualize, and simulate products from the conceptual design phase through the manufacturing process, boosting the level of communication with different stakeholders while getting more innovative products to market faster.”
Hasn’t computer-aided whatever (CAx) been doing that for years? Yes. “Anybody using a computer-aided design [CAD] system is really doing some digital prototyping, though they may not look at it that way,” says John MacKrell, vice president at CIMdata (cimdata.com). “They may think of it only as digital design.”
“Digital prototyping,” “virtual prototyping,” “digital mockup”—all these terms have been used interchangeably for the last five to 10 years, says Bill Boswell, senior director of Teamcenter marketing for Siemens PLM Software (plm.automation.siemens.com). The objective of all of these is to get rid of physical builds by replacing them with hundreds of digital prototypes, thereby improving product quality and cutting costs by working on the digital model. With digital prototyping, adds Edward Ladzinski, systems engineering leader for the Americas at Dassault Systèmes (3ds.com), “you’ve created a part or some thing that didn’t exist before. It might not even exist in real life. It’s in digital format. It’s static. It’s not performing. In virtual prototyping, you’re going to activate that thing. It’s going to do more than just sit on your screen and make pretty pictures. The only way I’m going to know if that thing is going to work is if I put it through its paces in the virtual world.”
What’s making this now possible? In the past—think 10 years or more—the limiting factor was that “CAD systems didn’t let you do things like set up all the joint conditions in an assembly and then operate that assembly. They do now,” says MacKrell. Another limiter was in pulling all the data to generate a visual prototype. Today, plenty of “neat visualization tools”—MacKrell’s label—exist to combine data from multiple CAD systems, parts libraries, computer-aided engineering (CAE) systems, and other data sources so people can digitally build big, complex parts, assemblies, equipment, and entire production facilities. Add that the source data available and gathered today is “pretty high fidelity,” says MacKrell. CAD files, for example, now contain information way beyond geometry and surfacing, such as joint conditions, finishing requirements, tolerances, and weld information.
Last, the price is right. In the early days, companies would pay tens of thousands of dollars per seat, sometimes over $100,000 per seat, plus in some rare instances drop a half a million for a virtual reality room. Today, digital prototyping can be had for $1,500 per seat, sometimes less.
In varying degrees, the CAx and product lifecycle management (PLM) vendors are pushing the envelope in digital prototyping in several ways.
“There’s an attitude, a vision, that we have about digital prototyping,” says Keith Perrin, Autodesk’s senior industry manager of manufacturing. “Our strategy is to democratize digital prototyping. We’re driving the technologies so that they take away the pain, the costs, and some of the expertise that have been traditionally required to look at things digitally. We’re making tools so that more people can come to grips with them.” Autodesk is doing this in at least three ways. First, cost. Autodesk has a whole range of tools, including programs for the iPad and iPhone. “You’re not going to get everyone to use a sketch tool if it costs $400,” says Perrin. “But $2.99 on an iPhone, there’s a good chance you’ll get them.”
Second, attainability. “Most people who pick up a product these days don’t expect to go through a week or three of training to get up to speed. We believe the days of people putting up with that sort of nonsense is gone. Especially for the younger generation.” Related to attainability is accessibility: performing digital prototyping on a computer people are using. Digital prototyping “shouldn’t require a Cray,” comments Perrin. This is why Autocad from Autodesk is now available on the Apple Mac, and Autodesk Moldflow is available on the “cloud” (computing), where processor speed and memory requirements are no longer limitations, and customers can now analyze models at least an order of magnitude larger than they had been able to do on conventional workstations.
Last, Autodesk is changing the user interface to make its products—both flagship and newly acquired products—more consistent across the board. Says Perrin, “You’ll find that 3DSmax, Inventor, and Autocad have a very similar look and feel. If you can rotate a model in Inventor, then you can rotate the model in 3DSmax.” Autodesk has also acquired software products that help that consistency. For instance, Autodesk Navisworks, a review and aggregation tool, can take in data from almost anywhere, such as Google Sketchup, the usual CAD suspects (i.e., Dassault Catia, Autodesk Inventor, Parasolids, PTC ProEngineer, and SolidWorks), and scanned point clouds. With Navisworks, which includes a Gantt chart organizer, users can coordinate work and resources, such as all that happens in a manufacturing facility. “We can lay things out, organize time lines of construction, organize system integrators and contractors to know where things are, perform clearance checks, do a whole bunch of stuff,” explains Perrin.
Dassault talks about “RFLP” (Requirement/Functional/Logical/Physical), a development process that translates customer requirements into product by “decomposing” the product into functions. The key, says Ladzinski, is to ensure the traceability of requirements and systems, and to ensure that those requirements are viewed and reviewed by all the people involved in a design’s development. Behind that traceability are both PLM and a multidisciplinary system that mimics real life, such as seeing actual laminar flow versus some turbulent representation of water flow, or the actual operation of electronics.
Mimicking the world is difficult. It requires several types of very complex software. For starters, new methods are needed to view parts, such as what’s found in the gaming world, or the new televisions that can display 3D images without the use of special glasses. Current virtualizations and analyses guesstimate a lot of things, in many cases applying general rules of thumb. “You can’t mesh the world,” says Ladzinski, “so you had to mesh the parts you thought were going to fail. You were taking your best guess even at that.” With compute power a commodity these days, the mathematics of virtualization and simulation are now “performing some very sophisticated, even stochastic, analysis, and determining the outliers. Innovative thought can come out of an outlier.”
Last, Ladzinski sees a large increase in adding the physics behind the modeling. In the past, virtualization only tied materials to a part. Photorealistic aluminum parts looked pretty and shiny, and they looked even better when they were “made” of chrome. Finite element analysis (FEA) added some physics, specifically moments of inertia and mass. But now there’s more. For example, in addition to a design having mass, the digital model of that design can create torque, generate horsepower, produce heat and vibration, rattle off a table, and when it falls, break somebody’s foot.
“People are understanding more about building complex products,” says Boswell. “The early generation stuff was very much CAD/CAM focused. These tools have had to develop to keep up with the product development processes. Now there are collaborative environments where different stakeholders are looking for different answers from a digital prototype. For multidisciplinary decision making, you need to go from a visualization platform to a decision-making platform that lets more stakeholders use the same digital model.”
Generally, PDM/PLM systems have all the information for decision making: specifications, requirements, CAE simulations, quality data, and much, much more. But, says Boswell, “you typically have to sort through menus upon menus. Some information is formatted in a report. Some isn’t, and you’re clicking through text-based information. You wind up navigating from the information you’re looking for rather than navigating for information off the model you’re using.” A better way would be for information to be in context and both available and presented in a more intuitive way—for technical and nontechnical people. Data visualization can do that.
The latest entry in product data visualization is Siemens’s HD3D. Introduced in NX 7 and Teamcenter 8.3, and eventually to be in all Siemens’s software products, HD3D is a user interface, specifically, a visual, digital reporting environment. HD3D helps provide the information required to make decisions about the designs in development, but it will provide that information relative to the 3D model on display. “This is light years from where we were 10 years ago, when digital prototyping meant bringing all the CAD data together in a neutral format before it was useful for making decisions,” says Boswell.
So what of this thing called digital prototyping? “Something is changing,” says Perrin. “I think it’s a realization that these tools and technologies, while good, require something new and different, something around the idea of getting these tools into the hands of more people and making these tools easier to use.” Concludes Ladzinski, “The only thing that’s holding us back is writing code!”