Computer Aided Engineering (CAE) tools that use finite element models to analyze designs have been around for some time. They typically solved one type of physics problem, including stress and thermal analysis. As devices become more complex and design time pressures increase, engineers are turning to systems that can solve multiple physics simultaneously.
One of these is COMSOL. Using an integrated solver that uses partial differential equations (PDEs) to solve multiphysics problems, COMSOL can combine a multitude of physics and solve them simultaneously. The solver can also use ordinary differential equations and algebraic equations where appropriate.
Jean-Francois Hiller, Vice President of Sales at COMSOL, told Design News:
Companies are turning to COMSOL Multiphysics to build accurate simulations. With realistic computer models engineering productivity increases. Multiphysics is crucial to mimic the real-world case by including all physical effects in the simulation. Models developed in COMSOL are being used for conceptual design studies, virtual testing, and design optimization. Multiphysics simulation means significant productivity gains throughout the product design cycle.
The COMSOL product is interesting in that while it has its own built-in CAD capability, it interfaces with a number of CAD packages. These include AutoCAD, CATIA, Pro/ENGINEER, and SpaceClaim, to name a few. These links are live (called LiveLink), which means that changes in the CAD package are reflected in COMSOL and vice versa. The latest version, 4.3a, includes some interesting new features. One is a LiveLink for Excel. Using this feature, simulations can be run from within Microsoft Excel. There is also a Java API that allows programmatic importing of system matrices into COMSOL.
Since the types of problems that can be addressed with COMSOL can be large and complex, the approach to computation is of great interest. COMSOL supports multicore and distributed systems. The product uses various techniques to accomplish this efficiently. COMSOL does not support GPU computing. The extensive changes to the code do not, at present, justify it.
For very large applications, or for a situation where the engineer does not have the computing power installed, COMSOL now supports the Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2). This capability could, in theory, allow unlimited computing power to address a problem in a very cost-effective way.
These product features are very useful and interesting. What really is important, though, is the multiphysics aspect. This has been built in from the start. COMSOL has many modules that address specific physics areas, as well as an extensive materials library. These are all extra cost options. While, in theory, almost all of this can be entered by the user, it is very much cost effective to use the modules, since all the equations have been entered and checked.
Using multiphysics can, as Hiller points out, increase engineer productivity. A user of the COMSOL product once told me that the product does not solve your engineering problem for you. That is quite correct. COMSOL and other CAE tools are just that -- tools. They make the task easier and handle the bulk of the computation. It is still up to the engineer to come up with and refine the model.