Despite the many obvious benefits, the “missing middle” – that large, heterogeneous group of small to medium sized manufacturers (SMMs) – have been slow to adopt the tools of digital manufacturing.
There is no question that access to simulation software like computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and finite element analysis (FEA) can help SMMs design and build better products faster and more efficiently. But until recently, the cost of the requisite hardware, software and IT infrastructure, as well as the need for in-house expertise, have kept many SMMs tied to solutions characterized by desktop systems and 2D CAD.
However, change is in the air. The manufacturing industry’s independent software vendors, sensing a growing need and a massive potential market, are leading the charge to rectify the situation. And Autodesk is one of them.
Last year Autodesk acquired Blue Ridge Numerics a company with 20 years experience developing CFD tools. The Blue Ridge software was a major addition to Autodesk’s simulation portfolio, which includes Autodesk Inventor, Autodesk Algor Simulation and Autodesk Moldflow, the gold standard for plastic injection molding design software.
Enter the Cloud
With the launch of Autodesk Simulation 360 on Sept. 11 of this year, Autodesk’s is now making these tools available in the cloud on a pay-as-you-go model – the first in the industry.
Luke Mihelcic, technical marketing manger for Autodesk Simulation 360, points out that this approach directly addresses the problems of cost and complexity.
Says Mihelcic, “Traditional simulation software tools run anywhere from twenty to thirty thousand dollars all the way up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, not counting subscriptions and other fees.” He notes that other barriers to entry include inflexible licensing structures, the need to purchase, install and maintain costly high performance computing hardware and software, and beefing up the IT organization and infrastructure.
Addressing the issue of complexity, Mihelcic says, “Over the past several years we have made our CFD tool really easy to use. For example, based on our experience with the software and knowing what the majority of users do with the tools, we have automated a lot of what’s involved in many common procedures – such as setting up a mesh or defining boundaries. This allows engineers and designers to get results in hours rather than wait months for a CFD specialist who has the expertise, software and appropriate licenses to schedule and run their jobs.”
The cloud approach also simplifies the user’s computational requirements. “You can have a relatively light weight client that is connected to your CAD in the cloud – you no longer need all that horsepower on a local machine,” he says.
Engineers and designers typically want to explore alternative designs to test out ideas, for example, to make components cooler, use lighter, less expensive materials, or understand the performance of a component over time. On the desktop, only one simulation can run at a time, but in the cloud, the various jobs can run simultaneously. Rather than run five simulations one at time over a period of five hours, you can run five jobs in an hour. And once the results are in, Autodesk cloud provides an array of easy-to-use performance measurement tools to analyze the data, verify the design, and move ahead with the manufacturing process.
Mihelcic points out that Autodesk’s simulation tools are positioned to operate at the front end of the manufacturing process, rather than the traditional approach of which occurs at the tail end of the cycle. “With Autodesk Simulation 360, users can run multiple simulations and identify and fix problems early on,” he says.
“And it's a lot less expensive,” Mihelcic continues. “With Autodesk Simulation 360, a one year subscription costs $3600 with all other fees included. This allows you to run 120 jobs. We also have a $7200 entry point that gives you an unlimited number of simulations, including CFD and mechanical jobs.”
One of the other major benefits of Autodesk’s cloud-based approach is that it allows more people within an organization to access the simulations. Previously, involving a number of people in the design process required multiple workstations and software licenses. With the cloud, Autodesk provides price points that allow engineers and designers to purchase a number of seats and access Autodesk’s rich simulation pool at a fraction of the cost.
Cutting Edge Camp Stove
Although the announcement of Autodesk Simulation 360 was made only recently, a number of companies have been using the service. The company’s poster child for the offering is BioLite, Inc.
According to Autodesk, here’s what their customer is up to: “BioLite has developed both a CampStove and HomeStove that use some of the excess heat energy of a fire to generate electricity. This electricity is both used to run a fan that increases the efficiency of the fire while reducing emissions through more complete combustion, as well charge portable devices, such as cell phones or LED lights. Utilizing patented technology developed in-house, BioLite has developed products that can both help make for a more fun and easy time for campers, as well as a healthier and safer life for people cooking on open fires in poor countries.”
Autodesk CFD tools, accessed in the cloud, have been used through the design process to optimize the design of the combustion chamber and, in the prototype phase, help the designers to understand how the placement of air holes could affect the combustion properties.
Below is a CFD model of the combustion chamber with vectors showing airflow and colors representing temperature. The flow is well distributed through the jets at the top, apart from where there are no jets near the heat probe. The air that goes halfway around the circumference of the chamber gets pre-heated more before being jetted into the combustion region.
Comments BioLite, “By using sustainable design practices, along with user-centered designs and excellent engineering, BioLite has managed to develop two very exciting products that can help people around the world.”
No Longer Missing
BioLite is one of those small to medium sized manufacturers that have dropped out of the missing middle, embracing digital manufacturing technology to create new, innovative products for a global marketplace.
Autodesk’s cloud-based approach to simulation will allow other SMMs to realize the benefits that the use of these once inaccessible tools makes possible.