If you want to track the migration of engineering tools and concepts from one industry to another, then track the career paths of engineers.
Take the once esoteric technology of finite element analysis.
Born in the aerospace industry, it started its life as a critical tool for determining structural integrity. And for a very good reason. "You can't crash prototypes in aerospace," says Dick Miller, an engineering consultant who has worked for several software companies.
But as aerospace engineers moved on to other industries, they brought FEA with them, showing their new employers that even when you can crash prototypes, computer simulation is a better and cheaper way to test designs.
Curtis Niemeier and Les Brown are two former aerospace engineers who have been making that case for years. And they have a string of successes to show for their efforts.
Most recently, Niemeier, who used to design deployable space structures like antennas for Harris Corp. and is now lead engineer at Whirlpool Corp.'s Refrigeration Product Development Center, used ANSYS (www.ansys.com) software to show that he could cut 10% from the cost of components in a side-by-side refrigerator. That represents a materials cost savings for Whirlpool of about $2 per refrigerator.
Analyze this: Engineers at Whirlpool used
FEA to optimize design of a refrigerator, saving about $2 per
Multiply that by the projected 1.2 million units per year the company plans to make and you get a savings of $2.4 million per year.
"My goal was to see if there was some optimum combination of thickness of all the steel components that would minimize the cost without any degradation in the product," he says. Those components included the wrapper, or outer steel; the back panel; the glider rail; the corner bracket; and the front, back, and s-channel rails. He started with a solid model of the geometry in Pro/Engineer (www.ptc.com) and then built his FEA model, meshing the sheet metal components with shells and the welds, lance locks, toggle locks, and screws with beams.
The result: He found he could make the wrapper, back panel, and bottom rail thinner, while making glider rails and corner brackets thicker. "I couldn't have done that optimization by building and testing products," he says.
Brown also found that FEA can be a great tool outside of aerospace. Senior research engineer at Gates Rubber's Materials/Composites Research Center today, he formerly used FEA in rocket design at Morton Thiokol. At Gates, he is using MSC.Marc to develop an electromechanical belt drive system to lower emissions and raise fuel mileage in cars.
He came up with a design for a flexible belt composite that would provide four times the torque capacity of their existing production belts and meet the requirement of 500,000 starts combined with a 150-mile durability rating.
Engineers in other industries say they are reaping the same general benefits Neimeier and Brown claim. Which means that FEA has made the transition complete from aerospace to the mainstream, right? Not exactly, they say.
"We're at the crux of that," Brown asserts. But, adds Neimeier, there are still a lot of companies with ingrained design practices that are reluctant to truly integrate FEA.
Still, their experience is a start.