Empowering Product Engineers to Save Time, Money (and the Planet Too)

July 22, 2010
By making simulation a fundamental part of their best practices, designers and engineers can extend their focus -- and their value -- from fit and form to function.

How should a bag of chips sound when you crinkle it? That's a product engineering question that has long bedeviled the snack chip makers of the world. Recently, Frito-Lay, the maker of SunChips, decided to tackle a related but more important question: How can we design and test a biodegradable bag of chips that will compost in about 14 weeks rather than littering the earth for centuries?

NatureWorks LLC, of Minnetonka, Minn., answered both questions for SunChips by using simulation to study the materials that comprise the biodegradable chip bags, taking into account the real-world stresses and strains they endure, from degrading in compost piles to crinkling when squeezed. SunChips successfully launched its new, fully compostable bag but, as noted apologetically on the SunChips website, was unable to reproduce the traditional crinkle sound.

The business benefits of simulation solutions, the what-if testing element of Digital Prototyping, have steadily been winning design and engineering converts in companies of all sizes. We've observed this trend among Autodesk's customer base; for example, we witnessed an approximately 60% jump in the usage of simulation functionality within Autodesk Inventor mechanical design software over the past two years.

In a March 2010 report, Gartner Research listed simulation's benefits as, "enhancing collaboration, reducing physical testing, reducing costs, shortening product development, and enhancing quality." I would add simulation's ability to save engineers from their own tendencies to over-design and use more material than necessary for safety's sake.

By making simulation a fundamental part of their best practices, designers and engineers can extend their focus -- and their value -- from fit and form to function.

Here are a few other examples of simulation's business value in action:

Balzer Pacific Equipment Co., a design and engineering firm located in Portland Oregon specializing in equipment for the aggregate, concrete and recycling industries, was recently commissioned by a key customer to design and manufacture a new barge to transport materials from a large processing facility to satellite locations. The barge was critical to the customer's growth and market strategy, and would enable them to reduce the number of trucks on local highways by the equivalent of 120 trucks per barge load.

The design and engineering challenges on a project of this magnitude were significant. Even with 80 years of experience, Balzer had never taken on a project similar to this. Potential problems such as how the barge would list as it was loaded and unloaded, how would maneuverability be affected while at its full capacity of 6,000 tons, how to design an efficient unloading system, and how to design a structurally sound barge without putting so much steel into it that it sank all had to be addressed before any manufacturing could begin.

By designing a 3-D digital prototype of the barge, Balzer successfully identified any areas of concern before fabrication started. Balzer was able to rapidly simulate different designs that allowed them to save $20,000 worth of steel as well as meet the customer's deadline. The use of simulation produced cost savings for both Balzer and their customer that far exceeded the initial cost of the simulation software.

Unverferth Manufacturing Co., Inc., of Kalida, Ohio, makes industrial-strength farm equipment. Recently, Unverferth management challenged its design and engineering team to take three months, instead of the usual six, to create its Ripper-Stripper strip-till subsoiler, a twelve-row, folding-frame tilling machine that prepares 10-inch-wide seedbeds spaced 40 inches apart.

At first, like Chief Engineer Scotty on "Star Trek," the teams said it simply couldn't be done in that short of time. However, the designers and engineers then turned to simulation software to create and test a digital prototype of the new machine against various scenarios -- pulling through hardpan soil, lifting out of the ground, folding up its massive 10-foot wings, and being transported.

The benefits of using simulation instead of real-world testing immediately began to accumulate. The team saved time and tens of thousands of dollars by not having to build a physical prototype of the Ripper-Stripper. It found a certain part that had long been considered mandatory for a machine of this type was actually unnecessary, cutting the final cost of the product (and others the company makes) by thousands. It discovered that adding just 1 percent of weight in new steel to a crucial point of the frame strengthened it by 1,000 percent -- a benefit Unverferth has now added to similar products.

Most importantly, the team met the three-month deadline, getting the Ripper-Stripper into the marketplace a year earlier than was thought possible. Simulation, a company executive says, "has changed the way we design products."

If simulation delivers such a cornucopia of business benefits, why isn't simulation more widely adopted? That's the question that keeps me up at night, because all the old barriers to adoption are just that: old. One by one, they are slowly being overcome.

Simulation used to be costly, but vendors have driven the price down to levels even small businesses can afford. The software was previously hard to use for all but the most technical design and product engineers. That, too, is changing as simulation software becomes more intuitive and allows collaboration with non-technical members of the team. And it used to take a long time to get a simulation done, but with smart adoption of cloud computing, design engineers can keep designing on their desktop while even the most complex problems are solved in the cloud. Even engineers' instinctive suspicion of change is softening as the multiple benefits of simulation make an overwhelming argument. You can hear that argument in the crinkling of a novel bag of chips that's helping to save the planet.

Grant Rochelle is Director of Digital Simulation at Autodesk.

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