Why Do Optimal Designs Evade Some, But Not Others?
When Success Slips From Your Grasp (And What You Can Do About It)
You thought you had a success — you set higher performance targets over last year’s design and, after months of hard engineering, you hit them all! But somehow the competition still turned out a better product. Theirs pushes even further, it lasts longer, AND it costs less. They didn’t just get better, they got optimal. You made real progress in our engineering, so how did you still fall behind?
The world is changing. Consumers are demanding better products and experiences, competition has become global, suppliers must become increasingly specialized, and the technology we rely on is more powerful and capable than ever. As CAE engineers, we fail to reach truly optimal designs when our vision and our processes lag behind the demands of and resources available to modern engineering.
Technology Is Moving the Goal Posts
To begin with, computer hardware and networking get faster every year. At the same time, software companies are spending millions acquiring, developing, and interconnecting CAE codes. The result is a massive improvement of process that requires expectations of what a CAE team can achieve to grow accordingly. Doing a handful of static analysis iterations remains perfectly sufficient only when engineering goals have not progressed with the times. That is where new process meets new vision.
If an optimal design is the best you can accomplish within given constraints, those constraints governing your output include not only packaging space, deflection limits, draft angles, and other engineering and manufacturing concerns, but also practical limitations on your business in the form of staffing, hardware, budgeting, and other things that intimately relate to technological change and your willingness and ability to interact with it.
With CAE software, change can come in several forms and raise questions like the following:
- What does it mean for your constraints when FEA software runs four times faster than it used to?
- What does it mean when you can replace three or four totally different niche FEA codes with a single-source, unified solution?
- What about when you can replace old, expedient assumptions with new kinds of high-fidelity simulation?
It all means your definition of what’s optimal and achievable (i.e. your vision) has to grow. But you can only set these new, more competitive targets if you remain up-to-date on and open to these CAE technology advancements. And, importantly, as futuristic and optimistic as these technologies may sometimes seem, they exist right now, as mature products, because developers have found sufficient companies — potentially your competitors — willing to invest in them.
Reflect and Recalibrate for Today’s Engineering
How far can this vision grow? How far back can the constraints be pulled? Let’s go back to our opening story: you’ve improved on the previous year’s model, as you’ve done for many years, but this time, it wasn’t enough. You even ran a rib pattern design study to find the best of a handful of options. But sometimes the biggest opportunities to grow your vision lie not in front of you, but behind you, in a design foundation that is embedded with years-old constraints that simply do not apply anymore.
This kind of retrospection can prompt some thoughtful discussions:
- How constrained was the CAE process during the original design?
- When did you last revisit old assumptions and compare them against what can be simulated today?
- Can you account for every gram of material as it relates to multiple critical load paths utilizing topology optimization?
- Did you test your material choices and generous dimensioning against fatigue simulation?
- Have you truly minimized your stress response by automating a parametric study of feature variations against all load cases?
- Are your solutions to complex, hard-to-predict interactions the result of rigorous simulation-based experimentation or conservative design meant to minimize physical testing?
The earlier and more fundamental the role of growing FEA technology in your design and revision process, the wider your vision can be, the higher your goals can be, the more impact you get per hour of work, per dollar spent.
Optimal design doesn’t just happen when you buy the latest FEA software and force it into old patterns. This is because an optimal design is the best you can do against your given restraints — one of the most important being the potential of the tools at your disposal. If that tool is CAE software, that potential is always growing. Because of this fact, innovative vision requires not only looking forward, but looking backward. A process (and its output) that was optimal in an old context may not be optimal anymore, and if these outdated solutions form a significant basis for the work you do today, you may find your horizons to be narrower than they ought to be.
Take Action to Seize Advantage — While You Still Can
So what do you do from here? The first step is to make sure you’re getting the most out of the CAE software you have. Developers are highly motivated to continuously add value to their products, so be sure to take advantage of any upgrades you may be paying for already with your annual renewal.
For example, there may have been major performance improvements or feature additions, like expanded GPU acceleration or new material simulations. It’s also possible that your license now grants access to more than just the software you originally bought. For example, as of this year, CST licenses (for high-frequency EM simulation) now grant access to Opera, a previously separate offering for low-frequency EM simulation. Ask your software VAR or provider if you don’t know where to look or would like quicker answers. They will be happy to help.
Next, look into solutions adjacent to the products you are already familiar with. They may not be so disconnected from processes you already know. In fact, they may provide solutions to problems you have historically avoided confronting. For example, a fatigue code that works with your static solver may present new lightweighting (and thus cost-saving) opportunities.
If you are ready to be ambitious, these adjacent solutions may also enable totally new processes that could seriously improve your products going forward. If your industry is highly competitive or experiencing disruptive innovation, aggressive new competitors are likely reaping the benefits of new market-aligned technology from the earliest stages of conceptualization, rather than far down a design cycle that was really started years ago under different industry realities and demands. Here, again, your software provider who is already familiar with both your business and the full capabilities of CAE today, can offer valuable guidance.
Be Proactive, Not Reactive
Whether you’re working with your current tools or looking at new ones, the important thing is to not just judge whether new technology is relevant to your current activities, but to also consider whether your current activities remain fully aligned with the most potent opportunities for competitive success in a continually evolving industry. This is a particularly vital question as clever newcomers arise, being — almost by definition — highly attuned to the latest consumer demands and enjoying the full benefits of the latest technology in their development efforts.