The world of Product Realisation and Engineering is changing fast

Having attended the recent Develop3D live event on 31st March and held at the Warwick Arts Centre in Coventry, there are clearly some trends happening in the Product Realisation and Engineering processes being driven by technology advances. I do not want to provide a comprehensive report on the Event, more to pick-out some areas I see as worthy of comment or recognition.

The auditorium was a great place for the presentations and I wish I could have spent more time attending these, but as always it’s a question of time and priority.

I thought it was a well-run Event and well attended by a selection of software and service companies involved in both well established and upcoming areas and technologies that affect the Product Realisation and Engineering process. 

My view is the Event showed well; both by the number of companies offering software solutions and/or services in a specific area, as well as the interest they attracted from the attendees,  what technologies have (or are) becoming accepted and mainstream, and those still needing some time before becoming mature and accepted, as well as adopted by industrial companies.

It’s been clear for some time that Rapid Prototyping and Manufacture is now embedded in many companies and there are now a large number of companies providing capability to service this sector. It seems any company involved in creating and developing new products use rapid manufacturing processes at some or many design points. The move to metallic is also becoming accepted and maturing. However there are still clearly some major areas that need to be resolved before the dream of pushing a button and producing products of the quality and material properties to be used in ‘real life’ are possible. Surface finish (especially on bearing or visible surfaces) still has some way to go. Material strength and stability are still not there yet and distortion in hot processes (additive manufacturing) are still to be resolved. However the ability to build quick prototypes, tooling or indeed actual hardware is now able to address many stages of the development process, removing past long lead manufacturing processes.

Capturing form and the existing environment by Scanning and collecting vast amounts of information quickly and with good accuracy is now very mature, as is managing and manipulating the resultant point-cloud information. Also the ability to take the point cloud data and reconstruct quickly into useable surface geometry as required by the associated processes (CAD, CAE, NC manufacture etc.) is also moving apace there is a clear growth in companies involved in this area.

Virtual Reality continues not to be fully embraced by industry and is still very much seen as academic or only for the big OEM’s. The cumbersome nature of either projected surface systems (Walls, CAVEs etc.) or the head mounted displays, along with the inability to easily share the experience in a design team environment continues to leave the technology a little isolated. The restrictions on the ‘Use Cases’ supported by VR impart on a business’ ability to use the technology effectively in the design process and constrains the technology so it continues to be defined as ‘niche’ and expensive by possible users. The rate of development in both hardware and software is relatively slow and systems are still relatively expensive when considered against the benefits they can give. I feel it will be a few more years before we V.R. becoming truly mainstream. When companies deliver solutions to address the need for teams to share the experience and interact together as in current design review practice, as well as at a cost of ownership acceptable to the community, then I believe VR will step into the mainstream. This needing to be coupled to a VR model ‘world’ that more closely represents the real world by including environmental behaviours (wind, water, rain, gravity) and models that have real life behaviour including; flexible objects, soft parts, objects in contact, haptic feedback, electro-mechanical function, and manufacturing process information. One area still very

much ignored is the unnatural sensation due to visible ‘motion’ with static position that frequently causes fatigue and nausea. Head mounted systems do address this better in some cases, but not all.

 The world of photo-realism and using digital assets to create images, videos and film is now a key tool accepted by industry. The merging of gaming, film, CAD, and other related technologies and tools now means it is possible to exploit digital assets like CAD data, scan information, and merge these with images and video to render output the customer perceives to be real. This saving huge amounts of time to get the upcoming products into the hands of customers before any physical product is available. The IKEA presentation at the Event was brilliant at explaining the art of the possible and how IKEA has moved through the past 10 years to now be in a position to create digital brochures, web experience, advertising and film without needing physical environments or products to fill them. However there are still some areas the software companies need to address in order to enable industry to further accept the digital approach and to further accelerate its adoption. Standard agreed formats are needed by all in the sector to enable mobility of texture definitions, background scenes and image data as has taken place with CAD data industry.

For the CAD vendors, it’s clear that geometry creation and management is highly mature and there is little that is new to really excite us. It’s now a case of evolution and incremental change.

The ‘Cloud’ was very much being promoted at the Event with many CAD and CAE solutions offering ‘pay-as-you-go’ Cloud enabled offerings. I would expect to see this areas blossom in the coming years.  However there is still some resistance from some industry sectors who voice concern over data integrity and security as well as how they protect their Intellectual Property (IP).

Finally there were some Simulation and Analysis solution being shown at the Event, these tended to be either ‘Cloud’ based solutions to enable companies to access as needed, external computing resources or in some way linked to Geometry creation in CAD based tools. These tend to be focused to specific processes like topology optimisation, casting simulation, injection mould filling and other. What is clear is that there is a real need for a capable, easy to use and low cost of ownership toolset in the analysis area that couples with the Product Realisation process at all stages. Covering concept studies, detail geometry creation, engineering validation, optimisation and others. As well as offering a wide span of capability to encompass linear problems, fatigue analysis, frequency and vibration tuning, non-linear events  like abuse, drop and crash as well as simulating and validating flow, thermal and other tasks. This is the domain of tools such as midas NFX, a capable, accurate, fast solution that has a cost of ownership compatible with the needs of companies involved in the Product Realisation process.

The Develop3D live Event is definitely the place to be to understand the ‘art of the possible’, the maturity or otherwise of differing Product Realisation technologies and to learn from leaders in their sectors what they are doing and what can be done to accelerate getting best in class products to your markets more efficiently by exploiting the available tools, methods and technologies. 

 To read more about the Develop3D Live Event go to :

 To be exposed to more about midas NFX go to:

Topology and Idealised Form / Performance

At the beginning of my career as a manual Draughtsman, it was a reality that the geometry we were able to define, the ‘form’, ‘shape’ or indeed ‘topology’ of the intended 3D product, was restricted to a major extent by the limitation imposed from the mechanics of the manual draughting process. We defined out planar views with: straight lines, circles and parts of circles, conic curves and the occasional ‘free form’ curve. The very process of manual draughting dictated to a great extent the 3D form we could define with reasonable unambiguity. The ‘shapes’ defined would be subject to some basic stress calculations, mostly manually calculated and very occasionally a design would be subject to detail stress calculations, or indeed some early Finite Element Modelling (FEM) and solving (Analysis FEA) with, by today’s standards, an incredibly coarse mesh. Larger than desired safety factors were implemented to provide some allowance for the fact the calculations were not ‘accurate’. This process ‘locked-in’ most of the design freedom at the draughting stage. The Topology of the part already highly restricted any further modification or correction.  

As 3D CAD with its complex 3D surface definition capability coupled with solid modelling methods developed, we were able to define a closer approximation of the 3D part we had intended. However once again the process of modelling and the functional limitation of the specific CAD system limited our ability to define a more optimal ‘form’. This was also coupled, as had always been the case, with the limitations of the proposed manufacturing method and material choice. We were however then able to better inform the structural validation with FEM methods becoming more refined and available. However Stressing, was move a validation process, post geometry (topology) definition with most focus on adding material where a risk of failure existed. Still, a more resolved solution was possible than was the case previously. This process also ‘locked-in’ the topology, and limited the subsequent freedom to modify the ‘shape’.

We then moved into the era of ‘Parameterization’ initiated by PTC, but followed by all the major CAD vendors, this gave us, we were told, freedom to modify the design downstream, including post analysis. If we consider this proposition, it is not the whole story, we were still constrained by the way the model was built (its tree structure that defined dependencies) and the fundamental ‘topology’. So, for example we could drive changes to a cylinder, but we could not easily replace this with a tapered elliptical form that may have been a better solution for the situation. It was also difficult to ‘optimise’ from say, three radial triangular webs to seven arbitrarily placed buttresses. The result is once again that the ability to ‘optimise’ and refine the design is still constrained by the topology (and parameterisation) that has been defined and the geometry (topology) stage. Even if we couple the geometry to an FEA tool and drive our model parameters from this, we are far away from an idealised solution as both the topology and parameterisation regime has already ‘locked-in’ and limited the freedom to optimise.   

Today we see the rise and adoption of what are described as “Topology Optimizers”, where we can define the structural environment the part(s) are to perform within (the boundary conditions) the material characteristics (properties) and some limited manufacturing consideration. The “Optimizer” then uses these inputs to evolves us an ‘ideal’ form, or set of ‘idealised’ forms, that meets the defined conditions. At last the opportunity to truly optimise the part topology in line with required performance? Well partly is the answer, it’s not the full story for as long as every possible set of

conditions was informed on the model we are getting closer. Do we know all the conditions, and even if we do, can we inform them all on the model at the same time? We could have natural frequency objectives, many loading situations, many more abuse cases and certification cases to consider, fatigue requirements and many more. Even if we have covered all the external influences on the model that play a part in defining the optimal solution, is the resulting geometric form useful to us? The answer is that it probably only has limited use. It will likely be a faceted model (following the FE mesh boundaries created in the optimization code) not smooth forms that can easily be made. It may also contain zero radius internal corners that are in real life a likely initiator of cracks and failure. Also, the solution(s) the optimizer produced for us were defined, limited by the algorithms and technology applied. As an example, it may have generated a skeletal solid form that could be manufactured by rapid manufacturing methods but not mass produced in a traditional factory environment. Worse, it may for example, have given us a monolithic solid solution when in fact a lattice or cell interior, with a solid shell may well have been a better solution.

In conclusion, as with all tools and technologies, we need to understand the limitations of optimization in all its guises, just as we need to trade off; material choices, manufacturing methods, modelling method and design tools. As long as we as engineers use our knowledge, experience and most importantly judgment, and take the useful benefits of topology optimisation as helping us achieve a more optimal product design, we will take significant benefit from the technology. But never forget that every tool we use to define the geometry and performance of our products, limits our freedom the optimize it, including the tools currently being presented as ‘optimizers’. This is not to say ‘Topology Optimizers’ are not an extremely useful addition to the engineer armoury, they are. just understand that they don’t give us a final design solution, but they can be exploited to help us get to a final solution, faster.

It is a fundamental truth that topology and performance are coupled, but they are bound by the limitations of the tools we have available to design, analyse, optimise and manufacture real parts and products.

Post Script.

‘Rapid manufacturing’ methods along with close to ‘net metal’ manufacturing and ‘additive manufacturing’ are being coupled with optimization tools and promoted as future product development and manufacturing approaches. This will be the subject of a later article.