If the history of simulation has an arc, it’s one that bends towards democratization.
It used to be that simulation was a massively complex undertaking. Within an organization, you might have one particularly brainy Ph.D. sitting in front of a complicated piece of software that was running on a high-performance computing system that cost tens of thousands – and possibly even hundreds of thousands – of dollars.
Given these conditions, you’d want to think twice before running a simulation, perhaps only doing it at the very end of the design process, as a final validation.
But then a funny thing happened: simulation software packages started becoming more accessible – not just from an economic perspective, but also from a “know-how” perspective. Suddenly, “ordinary” people like designers could start using simulation at any point in the design process to improve and iterate, rather than leaving simulation as the sole province of the analysis engineer or the scientific computing engineer.
The cloud presents an opportunity to democratize simulation still further, by serving up unlimited compute power that companies of all sizes can tap into. Heavyweights in sectors like aerospace and automotive were historically the only ones who could afford to invest in hardware that was powerful enough to support heavy-duty simulation tasks like nonlinear structural mechanics or fluid flow. Today, the cloud opens that door to all companies.
More Than Compute Power
It’s important to recognize that when it comes to simulation, the cloud is more than just a supply of infinite computing power (although that’s a big part of its value) – it’s also a collaboration facilitator.
For example, a simulation expert within an organization can collaborate in real time on simulation settings and setups with a design engineer within the same organization who is less familiar with simulation; alternately, a consulting engineer can easily collaborate with an external client. Regardless of the participants, simulation becomes a much more collaborative endeavor with the help of the cloud.
Before these activities can occur, the web application providing the simulation service needs to be highly capable on several fronts. For starters, it needs to be able to readily handle 3D CAD files in a variety of formats. After all, simulation is not a starting point: people will have already come up with a design that they want to simulate, and any online platform needs to be able to work smoothly with those initial CAD files.
Additionally, simulation platforms need powerful 3D web visualization capabilities. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD), finite element analysis (FEA), and thermal simulations are areas where mediocre rendering performance isn’t an option, making third-party technology components a popular choice for simulation platforms seeking vibrant, uncompromising 3D graphics.
This new, accessible cloud-based simulation is gaining traction in several areas, including small-to-medium sized companies and the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) vertical.
Part of the reason for the popularity of cloud-based simulation in the AEC space is simply because the building industry has been kept very busy over the past decade by an ongoing building boom, coupled with ever-stringent building requirements – which, naturally, requires AEC firms to draw upon more sophisticated simulation capabilities.
For example, AEC firms increasingly need to perform city-level flow simulation to check the urban wind comfort of a large building, or they might have to carry out a thermal comfort analysis of certain occupant spaces inside the building. This advanced analysis can even extend to specific building problems such as analyzing the flow of exhaust fumes to improve contaminant control inside parking garages.
As more of these energy efficiency and regulatory requirements are folded into building codes around the globe, there is a growing need for designers and engineers to quickly iterate on building designs so that they can meet these requirements – and simulation helps them do it quickly and effectively.
A Compelling Option
Nearly every software vertical has embraced software-as-a-service (SaaS) as an option for customers. Engineering software is one of the last verticals where it hasn't fully happened yet – and there’s a reason why that’s historically been the case: engineering software is complex, it's graphics-heavy, and the customers that are using it are very particular, as they have an existing workflow in place centered around their valuable intellectual property.
However, the benefits of the cloud – the unlimited compute power, the ability to collaborate with others – are too compelling to ignore for long. Does this mean the engineering world is going to go 100% SaaS overnight? Of course not. Some verticals might be ready to make that move today; others might take years, while still others might never move to a public cloud application because of specific regulations.
While the vision of an entire engineering software stack is slowly being realized by companies like AutoDesk and OnShape, most of the engineering workflow is already available in the cloud – and that includes simulation. The democratization of even the most sophisticated aspects of the engineering workflow puts simulation into more hands than ever before, and the benefits will accrue not just to the companies that embrace it, but to everyone who interacts with the designed world – which is to say, everyone.
About the Author
Dave Opsahl is vice president of corporate development at Tech Soft 3D, and the managing director of Sagemark LLC, a consultancy working with technical software developers on sales, marketing, and corporate development challenges. He is the founder and first executive director of the 3DPDF Consortium, a former CEO, and a confessed PLM industry geek going back farther than he would care to admit.
This article originally appeared in Automation.com