Paving the Way towards CAE Democratization
Consider for a moment all the technology you are using on a daily basis without giving it much thought. Imagine that in order to extract any value from it you would need to be an expert in all the physics behind it. This has been true for most products and solutions early in their development life-cycle before they reached the mass consumer. Take anything from photography to GPS – initially new technology tends to be highly demanding of the user, allowing only a narrow circle of experts to benefit from it. And specialized expertise is often not the only obstacle – it generally also requires costly equipment and time-consuming maintenance, which makes it a questionable investment for professionals or hobbyists whose time, money and training scope are limited.
This has been the case for Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) solutions as well. And while most technologies eventually enter the so-called democratization stage – becoming affordable and user-friendly enough for an average user to comfortably operate it – this process has been exceptionally slow for CAE. Until recently it seemed nothing could rock the stable CAE software market, dominated by a handful of major players offering traditional on-premises software solutions. They have been the industry standard for the past 50 years, however the cost of licences and hardware, as well as the knowledge and experience necessary to use these solutions, put them out of reach for most product designers in smaller companies.
So how can we challenge the status quo and enhance CAE democratization?
Democratization of any technology is possible on two conditions: a drop in price and a lowered learning curve. CAE is no exception. Let’s consider the possible solutions in detail.
Lowering the software and hardware costs
Pioneer companies like SimScale and Onshape have already been making large strides in achieving this by harnessing the power of the cloud and introducing a flexible pay-by-use system. Most existing simulation tools are bound to a user’s desktop, and while for some simulations a few cores might suffice, more complex projects are impossible without access to high performance computing (HPC). A cloud-based solution eliminates that problem allowing you to perform the most sophisticated analyses using state-of-the-art simulation methods from your browser on a simple tablet or even a phone while having access to the needed amount of computing hardware remotely.
The struggle with separate licences for different types of analysis is a thing of the past as well. With a monthly or yearly subscription users can get access to all features of the platform, which in the case of SimScale includes simulation functionality ranging from computational fluid dynamics and thermal analysis to solid mechanics. The SimScale pricing model allows you to start with simulation for free through the Community plan or Professional account 2 weeks trial and scale the simulation capacity as it is needed, only paying for the cores that you use. This option opens up CAE to smaller companies which cannot afford to commit to a long-term investment with large fixed expenses and high maintenance fees.
Aside from cutting the costs, the collaborative nature of a cloud-based platform can democratize the environment within companies as well. The fact that a simulation project is 100% accessible from a simple web browser and that anyone within the company can easily share their work with co-workers, partners, vendors, or customers can lead to the spread of knowledge and diffusion of decision-making. As a result, more engineers are let into the exclusive “inner sanctum” of CAE previously only accessible to a small number of experts.
Perhaps the only thing that is still holding some skeptics back from embracing the cloud are the security concerns – new product design often involves highly sensitive and confidential data after all. But while this psychological barrier felt in some of the more conservative circles is understandable, experts say it is expected to melt away much like the skepticism around online banking did years ago. Data transferred to and from the SimScale platform is protected with industry standard encryption technology, using external data centers as well as hard drives on the company’s servers encrypted using the industry standard AES technology – which is also approved for protecting the security of government documents. The communication between your computer and the SimScale platform is done via SSL encrypted connections, a technology that also protects online banking and shopping. You can learn more about the security measures of the SimScale platform on this page.
Bridging the knowledge gap between CAE experts and product designers
With that, the first condition of CAE democratization can be crossed off the list. The second one, however – minimizing the expertise expected of the user – is not as simple. Product reliability is crucial in any design, which therefore must be tested over a huge number of operating conditions. For each type of those analyses and calculations expert knowledge is needed to get reliable results. Most smaller companies simply can’t afford to hire enough engineers capable of using the traditional CAE tools to perform all the simulations that are needed to ensure that their simulations are telling them what they really need to know.
Due to the extremely complex mixed-fidelity and multiphysics calculations involved, as well as user interfaces that are highly manual and lack intuitiveness – for years, CAE has been regarded as something akin to alchemy, the secrets of which would require years of intensive training to uncover. If you are a product designer, however, you would want to focus on your product, and not on the tool. This is referred to as design-centric workflow rather than simulation-centric – the simulation should be just a means to an end and its primary purpose is to drive design-related decisions. But in the end, many of the currently dominant CAE tools that are supposed to shorten the development cycle and make the process more efficient, end up slowing their users down.
This barrier is far harder to overcome and unfortunately there are no “quick fix” solutions here. It takes dedicated effort on behalf of CAE solution providers to educate their users and minimize the time they have to spend adjusting to the tool before they can get solid results. The measures that have proved to be most effective include:
Automation, integration and templates. Performing a complex analysis from scratch takes time and sophisticated training most non-experts do not possess. A tool becomes much easier to use when it is highly automated, templatized and combines multiple functions. Integrating multiple state-of-the-art solvers (such as OpenFOAM, Code_Aster, YADE, SU2 etc. in case of SimScale) into the simulation platform that provides a full set of simulation features in one single tool can significantly reduce the manual workload. In addition to that, there are now more than 20000 high quality simulation projects in the SimScale Public Project Library – freely available for its community to copy and use as templates.
Intuitive user interface. While powerful CAE tools capable of performing complex simulations with intricate settings can only be simplified to a certain extent, a user-friendly, intuitive, interface can go a long way to make it easier for product designers to learn. However simplifying the interface without sacrificing the tool’s functionality, or adding new sophisticated features without over-complicating the interface are not easy tasks, and SimScale is trying to maintain this delicate balance with its regular platform updates.
Learning materials. In the end, no matter how simple and automated the tool is, in order to get reliable results and not just a pretty picture, some background knowledge and training is necessary. Readily available learning materials, as well as interactive webinars and workshops can significantly shorten the time necessary for product designers to get the hang of the tool without being slowed down by it.
It can at times be difficult for the tool developers to put themselves into non-CAE expert’s shoes, however to reach a true CAE democratization, it is essential that experts focus on capturing their expertise in the form of templates and rules, and educate non-experts to interpret them correctly. One of SimScale’s own engineers described her personal experience learning to use SimSale for the first time and gathered a few tips that can be helpful for beginners – read her blog post to learn more: How to Learn SimScale in 30 Days.
CAE Democratization Going Forward
In conclusion, it must be acknowledged that CAE democratization is still an ongoing process that is far from completion. While the barriers associated with the costs of simulation software and HPC have been all but eliminated by the introduction of cloud-based solutions, skepticism caused by security concerns persists. And since reducing CAE solutions to primitive Tinder-like apps is out of the question, the second obstacle – the expertise and knowledge gap – is likely to never be overcome completely and would take dedicated effort on the part of both – the tool providers and users. At the same time there is no denying that a number of newly emerged companies have made significant progress in advancing the CAE democratization. And while there is still room for improvement, the success stories of hundreds of smaller companies and start-ups which would not have been possible without simulation prove that CAE democratization is a cause worthy of pursuing.