Despite recent declines in the auto industry, today's vehicles are certainly quieter, more durable and safer than 10 years ago. Much of this is due, in no small way, to increasing sophistication in the design and simulation tools available to engineers, particularly finite element analysis (FEA) software.
In my years as a vehicle CAE manager, I personally witnessed the explosion of FEA capabilities and applications. The software helped my design and development teams model, simulate and analyze the behavior of automobiles under a wide range of loads and conditions. Our expertise evolved along with FEA, going from "classic" linear contact simulations to complex, nonlinear analyses such as those found in Abaqus full-body noise and vibration (N&V), which simulates rolling tires, wind loads and more.
Our CAE models' fidelity became so good that over time we found less and less need to build physical prototypes for validation and comparison. High-quality simulation results helped us present realistic cost forecasts to our senior management before they signed off on any production go-ahead. Such simulation-driven advantages will continue to prove their worth to the automotive industry as it focuses on vehicle redesign as the foundation of its revival strategy.
But the future potential of CAE is certainly not limited to automakers. Given today's economic environment, manufacturing companies across the board are being pressed more than ever to improve engineering efficiency, lower development costs and accelerate product innovation. I see simulation playing an increasingly prominent role in helping every industry achieve those goals. As compute power goes up, the models get finer and finer and the software gets better aligned, you'll see much tighter integration all around. Eventually, you won't see anything — except 3-D "reality" — at all.
The automotive industry has certainly been one of the major staging grounds for large-scale use of FEA. The application of N&V analysis alone has grown tenfold in the last decade. And automotive engineers eager to share their results have spread the news of these capabilities at regional and global engineering conferences. The CAE "lessons learned" in automotive are feeding into other industries including construction, heavy vehicle, military, off-highway, aerospace and shipbuilding engineering.
But newer, mechanized industries such as life sciences are learning that the design challenges they face in N&V control of machinery and devices — such as oxygen delivery breathing apparatuses or hearing aids — can also benefit from such knowledge. As a result of the automotive industry shedding talented engineers, we are likely to see an acceleration of FEA/N&V knowledge transfer to medical, pharmaceutical and other industries that are in a better position to hire skilled engineers.
Those automotive companies willing and able to continue investing in realistic simulation technology and skilled staff will certainly benefit as they develop the next generation of green vehicles. But the cat is out of the bag: Engineers who excel at using N&V simulation technology will be in high demand elsewhere — as innovation leaders who can apply their knowledge of FEA across many other industries, as well.