New developments such as cloud computing are making digital prototyping even more beneficial than before, says Colin Watson of Symetri
UK manufacturing output may continue to contract, but despite pessimistic forecasts and perceptions, there are still pockets of industry throughout the country that continue to thrive. Nobody would argue that even these businesses are having it easy, yet if there is one common factor that divides those businesses still making respectable profits from the rest, it’s an ability to embrace change and new ideas.
Often, this change involves adopting technologies and processes to design products more efficiently. For many, this has meant changing the way prototypes are developed.
Increasingly, designs are created, visualised, simulated and analysed on screen, eliminating the need for multiple physical prototypes. More recently, the continuing development of software such as Autodesk Inventor, coupled with the power of further new technologies, is making the digital prototyping proposition even more compelling and opening up opportunities for everyone.
It has been estimated that digital prototyping enables manufacturers to halve the number of physical prototypes they build, so cutting prototyping costs by 48%. Because this reduces design to production times, digitalprototypers also get their products to market 58 days faster, on average.
One of our customers, Malcolm Staff, managing director of the Yorkshire-based company, Halifax Fan, explains: “We used to design standard industrial fans, but this generic business has dried up and moved out of the UK. So today, we build very complex, bespoke fans.
“Using digital prototyping software we can ensure that each new product design is accurate, resulting in a working model on screen, without the need for expensive physical prototyping.”
But if digital prototyping is fast becoming standard practice, how can early adopters continue to differentiate themselves, or newcomers ensure they do more than just catch up?
Cloud on the horizon
The cloud has probably been the most talked-about new development in the computing world for years. Now, however, its use is moving beyond mainstream IT and into the world of design and engineering – and it looks set to make a dramatic impact.
Cloud computing has many advantages over a traditional IT infrastructure. Offered as a service, which is sold by the minute or hour on demand, it enables users to buy as little or as much as required at any given time. This therefore eliminates the need for a huge capital investment in high-performance computing power and IT support.
The service is fully managed by the provider who is responsible for maintenance, upgrades and security.
Now, work on digital prototypes can be taken to the cloud. Tasks such as rendering jobs or huge calculations – which take time and prevent designers from doing anything else on their computers while they are running – can be completed quickly and in the background. Importantly, it also means that designers can create and test numerous design iterations faster, enabling them to reach optimum solutions early on in the process.
Large quantities of product information can be shared and accessed at any time from PCs, laptops, tablets or smartphones, enabling more input from stakeholders and faster decision-making from any location.
Because large quantities of data can be computed and managed in the cloud, this is giving rise to a new generation of ‘lighter’ versions of applications such as product lifecycle management (PLM). These can be installed very quickly and with no specialist IT knowledge as opposed to the lengthy implementation process previously required to install older, traditional systems.
The benefits of PLM – including reduced time to market and faster, better decision-making – have never been denied. However, previously the sheer time and expense involved in deploying PLM put these advantages out of reach for many designers and manufacturers. This alternative PLM provides smaller – or even just leaner – companies an opportunity to compete at the same level.
Simulation for all
This ‘democratisation’ is happening in a similar way in the field of simulation. As designers strive to understand their products within a digital environment, so there’s a need for simulation processes to be integrated more closely to the design creation function.
Until recently there have been a number of barriers to carrying out simulation on an everyday basis as an integral part of the design process; not least its complexity, costs and demands on computing hardware. Simulation is seen as a separate task, often involving the re-creation of data and specialists either within a company or outsourced. As a result, it is usually reserved only for certain designs.
Over the past five years, Autodesk has spent around $500 million acquiring a simulation portfolio in order to make these tools more available to a wider market. Now this, coupled with the ability to carry out simulation on digital prototypes in the cloud, means that designers themselves can carry out many simulation tasks as they create designs. This enables continual feedback and adjustments in order to reach the best option possible.
One of the main advantages to working this way is being able to begin carrying these processes much earlier in the design process. New applications such as Autodesk Force Effect enable designers to sketch out an idea and prove its viability on, for example, an iPad or other tablet computer, before creating its geometry.
Being able to create digital prototypes has always brought benefits. Suddenly, however, these developments are making it an even more attractive way of working. Could it help drive the manufacturing industry’s recovery? Sadly this will probably take more than new technologies and processes. But, it will certainly put design and engineering business in the best position possible to take advantage of new opportunities when they do arise.