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Pre-CAD Simulation: Where True Engineering Occurs?

April 29th 2013

by Chad Jackson, President and Principal Analyst of Lifecycle Insights


This last week, I attended the Council on the Future of Engineering Software (COFES)in Phoenix AZ. It's a great event that brings together many of the leaders of the industry from the ranks of software providers, journalists, industry analysts and manufacturers. We get together a debate a lot of edge topics relevant to the technology that engineers use to design and develop products. And this year was no different.

Lots of Debates, My Central Theme

Like every year, there are some topics that are edgier than others. And I came across one in particular in three separate conversations and briefings over the course of the event. All of it was essentially based on this premise.

By the time someone starts using CAD, all the major design decisions have been made.

Now, if you've followed my posts in the past, you already know that I subscribe to this concept wholeheartedly. That is, at least in part, why I advocate that 2D still has a legitimate use in design for engineers (see past posts including Every Engineer's Dirty Little Secret? The Stigma of 2D). But I think there are some other serious implications, especially for simulation.

The Importance of Pre-CAD Simulation?

As far as simulation goes, here's my logic. If most design decisions are made before you even start developing 3D models, AND simulation should be the basis of some of those decisions, then those simulations precede 3D models. Follow me? Interestingly, there are some relatively recently developed technologies and approaches that are imminently applicable here, including:

  • Simplified Concept Simulation: Just because many design decisions are made before 3D models are developed doesn't mean engineers don't have some geometric representations of the design. Those representations just aren't detailed designs. They could be 2D sketches. Simulations can be performed even on these conceptual representations.

  • Topology Optimization: Have you seen this technology? Basically, you define boundary conditions and constraints against a block of material. It then removes material that is not stressed by the simulation. Essentially, it comes up with the concept. Imminently applicable. Probably justified for really important parts.

  • Configurable Simulations: The idea here is to build a library of configurable simulation models, which only include simulation abstracted representations, of frequently reused designs. Engineers can iterate very quickly through options and fine tune a design.

  • Calculation Simulations: Basically, this is an effort to move engineering calculations from the sketchpad into software. You declare variables and then use them in equations. As you change things, the equations dynamically update. Lots of iterations can be explored.

It's Not Enough

OK. So those are some of the technologies that can be applied in a pre-CAD environment today. However, in my mind, that's not enough. As I wrote in a blog series (The Forlorn Engineering NotebookDigital Notebooks for EngineeringDigital Sketching and the Engineering Notebook and Closing the Loop on Engineering Notebooks), all of these calculations have a context. They need to be alongside sketches, notes, requirements, pictures and more. But as of today, there is no solution available.

Summary and Conclusion

Let's recap.

  • The idea that by the time you start using CAD, most major design decisions have been made was reinforced in numerous discussions at COFES last weekend.

  • If that's the case, simulations have a major part to play before 3D models are created. There are four major categories of simulations applicable pre-CAD including: simulation conceptual simulation, topology optimization, configurable simulations and calculation simulations.

  • More progress is needed. Such pre-CAD simulations should live alongside sketches, notes, requirements, pictures and more.

OK. Those are my thoughts. What are yours? Do you believe most design decisions are made before CAD is used? Do you think conceptual simulations is applicable? What about topology optimization? Sound off. I'm interested in what you have to say.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.