Mechanical Engineering

The role of virtual prototyping in product development

When you have to make a bunch of something or something where failure isn’t an option (a parachute, for instance), you better make sure that you’re making the right thing and that you’re sure it will work.

It is product developer’s job to answer three questions:

  • What should we make that the user will want and, more importantly, will succeed in the market?
  • Can it work?
  • Will it work?

What’s the difference between “Can it work?” and “Will it work?” When you build the first one, if it fits together and performs its function, you get a good feeling. This lets you know that it can work. But you might need to make tons of them. Conversely, you may only need to make a handful, but someone will get hurt if something goes wrong. There will be variation in size, material properties, friction, spring force and environmental inputs, etc. If we can convince ourselves that the design will be tolerant to these variations, then we know that it will work.

These three questions correlate loosely to three stages in product development that start after user needs and marketing requirements have been established. These are:

  • Concept development
  • Preliminary engineering
  • Detailed engineering

In a general way, the progress through these three stages follows a hockey stick-shaped relationship between design fidelity and time.

These three steps are very unique from each other. Concept development is done by a small team considering lots of different options. Even though the team is coming up with and comparing many different things, this stage doesn’t take very long.

As we move into preliminary engineering, the pace slows and the team grows. There is a ton to do in a short period of time. Design Concepts uses a variety of simulation and math modeling tools including FEA and CFD software packages, MathCAD and SAM. Together, we call these methods “virtual prototyping.” We have also developed a number of strategic alliances with virtual prototyping experts that let us share the load and use tools and techniques that are specific to each design challenge.

As we finalize the design, the team continues to grow and the pace slows even more. Each design risk is probed and the design and documentation evolve as the virtual prototyping and physical prototyping inform the design. As manufacturers come on board and provide feedback, the refinements needed for manufacturing and assembly also feed the design engineer’s efforts.

That’s not to say that the process is inefficient. By combining physical prototyping and testing with virtual prototyping, we hope to accelerate the process by accelerating the test loops. Once we have a robust virtual model of the product, it is much quicker to probe the design for potential failures, tweak the design and determine if we have improved the situation. The schedule will expand if we have to rebuild the design in the real world each time it fails. Even worse, testing often only shows failures and not situations where you are approaching failures. These remain hidden. Virtual prototyping shows trends and “cliffs” – thresholds where the design goes from working to not working. It is even possible to estimate how many of our assemblies will fall off that cliff.

By combining physical prototyping and testing with virtual, we hope to speed the process by accelerating the test loops.

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