If you're a design engineer with limited computing resources, or working as a consultant, or doing a moonlighting job here and there, you probably don't want to invest in new CAD, motion simulation, or FEA programs. At least three companies make it possible for you to subscribe to or lease their software online.
Alibre offers a native-Web mechanical collaborative product development service. Through Alibre Design, engineers collaborate in real time over the Internet on 3D models. Among the users: GE Power Systems, which hopes to use Alibre Design to cut product-development time.
Collabware also enables engineers to use CAD through their ASP model.
MSC.Software now has a Simulation Center website where you can lease any or all of their programs for short periods of time and run them on MSC's servers.
Alternatively, if you're an analyst in a large company that uses MSC.Nastran, when your computers are busy with other work you can go to the same website and run very large FEA problems online, using MSC's computers. By the end of the year, you'll be able to run your problems on MSC.Dytran and MSC.Marc as well, and visualize the results with MSC.Patran.
When MSC.Software first started its application service provider (ASP) offerings a few months ago, you needed to go to www.engineering-e.com, which acted as a portal to a number of services and purchase options. Engineering-e.com still provides access to some interesting services, such as onDemand leasing of MSC software. Through onDemand leasing, engineers can obtain software either on CD-Rom or downloaded from the Internet, and lease licenses to MSC's Nastran, Patran, Dytran, FEA (integrated Nastran and Patran), and Marc for short periods of time, at a fraction of the cost of purchasing the software.
"To make it easier and more direct to use the site for working on the Internet, we broke out the two online service options—the Simulation Center and Engineering Exchange—into separate sites," says John DiLullo, Vice President and General Manager of MSC.Engineering-e.com. "Engineer- ing-e.com now functions primarily as the infrastructure for the services needed to run the web business. A user doesn't have to go to it to access the Simulation Center. Rather, he or she simply enters www.simulationcenter.com."
In its first four and a half months of service, the Simulation Center "has been used by hundreds of engineers in Europe—mostly Germany, the United States, South America, Japan and India," says Patrick Lee, manager of the Simulation Center.
MSC promises full confidentiality to its users, and keeps its promise, making it possible to speak directly with only one user, Scott Stanford, a design engineer with the Information, Telecommunications and Automation Department of SRI International, Menlo Park, CA, who agreed at the outset of his project to speak publicly about his use of Simulation Center. SRI started its history as the Stanford University Research Institute, but has been a separate, non-profit research organization since 1970.
Stanford used the Simulation Center to perform motion simulation on an artificial muscle developed by SRI as part of a project to design a small six-legged robot inspired by cockroaches. SRI undertook the project for the Office of Naval Research. He says, "The robot, called Flex, moves entirely by artificial muscle and is autonomous, being powered by an onboard video camera battery. The artificial muscle—Electroactive Polymer Artificial Muscle (EPAM)—works by applying electrodes to either side of a sheet of polymer and applying a voltage. The electrodes attract each other, causing the polymer to compress and spread outward. Then, with some clever design, you can harness this motion to make various actuators. They don't last long—maybe a couple of weeks, but you can do interesting things with them."
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Stanford wanted to see if the Flex design would work and move as required, and because he was looking at six legs, each with two degrees of freedom, motion simulation was too computationally intensive for his computers. "So we went to the Simulation Center," he says. "They could crunch the numbers three times faster than my machine could, and running the simulation on their servers freed up my machine so I could do other work. Plus they ran it non-stop. The main benefit for us was being able to get a simulation at all. It simply wouldn't have been feasible on our machines here." The simulation was so computationally expensive that it would have taken several months. As it was, even on MSC's servers, it took several weeks. "I don't have any numbers for the monetary cost of computing time, but I figure that what would have taken three months of computation time—plus the cost of not having a computer to work on myself—got compressed into about one month," Stanford says.
To use the site, a new user fills out an Internet form and selects a password to start up a free membership. To use MSC.eVisualNastran, the user clicks on the name of that program and reaches a screen that allows him to lease the software for $395 a month. To use IronCAD from Alventive—an MSC.engineering-e.com partner—the user clicks on that name, and can lease the CAD program for $295 a month. At the moment, users can mesh their CAD models for finite element analysis without any charge using MSC's new eMesh—which also heals geometry and cleans up the model prior to analysis. Running the session feels like working on your own computer. Technical support engi- neer Manuel Salguero points out, "You might expect a work session to be slow, because you're working over the Internet. But it's just as fast as if you were working on your computers in your own office."
Nastran users can use a special eSubmit command to download Nastran .dat files and run them on MSC's computers—for a fee of $15,000 a month. The large companies that would choose to do this can well afford the fee, "when their own computer resources are tied up too much to make it easy to run long, difficult analyses," DiLullo says. Before the end of the year, eSubmit users will be able to run Patran, Dytran, Marc and other MSC high-end analysis tools in addition to Nastran. Right now, after running a Nastran analysis, eVisualNastran offers the only tools for visualizing results.
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