The Importance of Engineering Simulation for Innovation

The ability to quickly test new ideas is critical to innovation.

by Nicholas M. Veikos, CAE Associates

NickVeikosInnovation. We hear the word with increasing frequency in today’s business environment. In the April 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review (HBR Vol. 92, No. 4), the editors used Google’s Ngram Viewer to track the frequency of a variety of familiar business terms used in books over the past century. Their premise was that language is a reflection of our culture, and the phrases used reflect our shifting priorities. In this study, the word “innovation” showed more than a five-fold increase in frequency of use over this period; much larger than either “management” or “leadership.”

In the same issue of HBR, “innovation in response to customer requirements” was highlighted as one key way in which manufacturers in developed countries are competing successfully with those in emerging economies with much lower labor costs.

The U.S patent office received over 575,000 patent applications in 2012, more than six times the number received in 1962, and 60% more than in 2002. So, innovation is not only increasing, it is accelerating rapidly.

Enabling Innovation

There are many factors that enable innovation. A culture of creativity and flexibility is key, but so is the ability to quickly test new ideas and identify those that merit further development.

With the use of computer aided engineering (CAE) simulation, today’s trials can be virtual. This approach can be orders of magnitude faster and cheaper than innovation by building one physical prototype after another. In our rapidly moving and competitive world, vetting new ideas and processes in a virtual environment provides significant advantages compared with traditional physical experiments. An engineer can dream up a new concept during a morning shower, flesh it out a bit more during the drive to work, simulate it by lunchtime to prove feasibility, and have a solid, defensible proposal on the manager’s desk by 3 o’clock. With sufficient computer hardware, a hundred different variations of the original concept will be ready to review by morning. Someone taking the traditional physical testing approach would be lucky to have the paperwork requesting lab resources completed in this same timeframe.

Savings in time and cost are not the only advantages that simulation has to offer. Sometimes, innovation happens by accident. For example, making minor modifications during product testing or changing materials may yield huge performance benefits. The reasons for the improvement may not always be understood; testing is great for answering what happened, but not always so good for answering why it happened. You need a lot more testing for that—or you can simulate.

Because simulation can help engineers visualize the relevant parameters, it can provide insight and understanding not easily achievable by testing. New products that rely on multiple physics working together are the most complex to test and are those where simulation brings the most benefits. Simulation answers the “why” question, which is critical when filing for a patent or when deciding whether to further pursue a concept.

Simulate Early and Often

The pace of change is fast and getting faster with breakthrough technologies like additive manufacturing. Traditional manufacturing constraints will soon disappear, opening a new universe of potential designs for even everyday items.

With this increased pace comes increased risk. A company may be looking at dozens of innovative ideas. How does it decide which ones to proceed with? While the basis of this decision is multi-faceted, simulation can certainly help. One obvious way is to model the innovation to ensure that it can achieve the performance and benefits required for success. In addition, CAE simulation can help determine the manufacturing methods, tolerances and material requirements for a successful implementation, thereby helping to put a number on production cost and timeframe. Without simulating early on, it is difficult to rationally draw these conclusions before committing significant time and resources.

Like most things that have increased risk, there is also potential for increased reward. Businesses at the forefront of innovation who embrace simulation level the playing field as they compete with more established and conservative rivals.

Nicholas M. Veikos, Eng.Sc.D., is president of CAE Associates Inc. He has more than 30 years of experience in engineering analysis. Contact him via or [email protected].

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