Virtual Design Takes off at P&G

DN Staff

July 30, 2009

8 Min Read
Virtual Design Takes off at P&G

When TomLange enters a supermarket or Big Box store, he sees waste. A lot of it.

"About 10 percentof the packaging in stores serves no useful purpose," he says. "It doesn'tprotect the product. It doesn't improve the customer experience. It doesn't doanything. It's only in there because no one engineered it out"

As seniordirector of modeling and simulation at Procter & Gamble, it's Lange's jobto reduce waste not only of finished products but also in the process ofdesigning, testing and creating finished products. Lange is also chieftechnologist for reliability engineering at P&G, and head of computer-aidedengineering.

P&G hasmade a significant commitment to virtual computing in product design anddevelopment. During a conference call with investment analysts in 2003, P&GCEO A.G. Lafley said: "We are significantly expanding capabilities in computationalmodeling and computer-aided engineering, so we can do an increasing percentageof product and process design through virtual simulation."

In the 2008annual report, Laffey further commented: "Virtualization is enabling P&Gbrands to co-design products with consumers. The same technologies allow us toshow retailers virtual in-store displays for half the cost and less than halfthe time required for physical shelf designs. Computer modeling and simulationsaved P&G about 17 years of design time in the last year alone."

Lange saysthe traditional paradigm of focusing solely on physical prototypes no longermakes sense. It's a very expensive and time-consuming process and isn't thebest way to determine if a product is fit for use. "We don't build two or threebridges and then break them to see if they work," says Lange. "Why would we dothat for products we're developing?"

Virtual designs

One of thebig virtual success stories at Procter & Gamble was the development of thefirst plastic coffee canister.

TheAromaSeal canister is a high-density polyethylene coffee container thatreplaced metal cans in use for 150 years. The new design is blow-molded with aproprietary six-layer barrier coextrusion that provides 12-month shelf life.The new plastic container is dent-resistant, lightweight and stackable. Abuilt-in handle makes the can easier to hold.

Thepeelable seal includes a patented, one-way valve in the center, allowing freshlyroasted coffee to off-gas in the container, eliminating back pressure and thepotential for package explosion. Because of the seal, the canister can befilled and sealed immediately after it's roasted, instead of having to cool andnaturally off-gas prior to being packaged. The seal also helps preservefreshness, keep air out and equalize pressure during shipping, which is importantbecause the coffee is made in New Orleans andthen shipped over the Rocky Mountains to theWest Coast.

"Withoutfinite element analysis, we would not have been able to develop this canister,"says Lange.

The coffeesold in the plastic canister boosted Folger's market share from 15 percent to25 percent in three years. The Folger's brand is now owned by Smuckers.

In anotherexample, P&G used FEA simulation to examine fitness of a large number ofmoving parts in a Braun electric shaver. Virtual simulation identified a singlepiece in an early design that couldn't pass a required drop test. The shaverwas redesigned based on virtual examination.

P&Galso does significant virtual testing of bottle strength when stacked inpellets during warehouse storage. "The bottle is a structural element in thewarehouse," says Lange. Various load cases in bottles are tested. And that'sincreasingly important as P&G engineers take thickness and weight out ofbottles to reduce solid waste, and cut resin costs.

Engineersalso virtually simulate tendencies of metalized labels to peel. "It's all aboutmaterials' properties," says Lange. "You can answer those types of questionsvirtually. If you go ahead and make the stuff, it's an expensive proposition."

10,000 simulations

Langeestimates that P&G conducted 7,000 to 10,000 design simulations in 2008. That work was carried out by a group of 10highly skilled people. "The only way youcan do that much work is through automation of the analysis," he says.

"In a physicalexperiment, the test includes everything, even the things you don't know about"says Lange. "In the virtual mode, youknow everything that's included in the test. But you don't know what you don'tknow. Is one risk better than the other?"

He pointsout that virtual modeling, however, is based on testing conducted on realmaterials. P&G's simulation groups include scientists who conduct tests tobuild databases for the simulations. In an example outside of P&G, Moldlfowintroduced simulation of plastic flows inside mold cavities in 1974. Today,simulations by Moldflow (now part of Autodesk) are based on tests performed onmore than 8,000 standard plastics compounds, and more than 4,000 proprietarycompounds developed for specific customers, such as General Motors.

Lange isquick to point out that the trend to virtual simulation is being driven in partby rapidly dropping costs for super computing. In 2001, a unit of computing powercost $1.50 in his estimation. Today, that same unit costs 15 cents. Within fiveyears, he feels it will drop as low as one cent.

As a result,simulations are much more fully fleshed compared to point estimates made inpast years. An example in plastics is development of stress-strain curves thatshow performance of compounds at a variety of temperature and pressure points,not just the single-point information on supplier data sheets. As the qualityof simulation improves, so does the capacity to capture more information andtest more of what you didn't before. Lange describes the simulation process inpart as automation of activities done by experts.

Started with Fortran

Lange has beena big fan of computing power since he first punched code on Fortran cards in acollege class in 1974. "Computing has changed engineering as much as aviationchanged travel," he says. Lange received a BSChE degree from the University of Missouri in 1978. He joined P&G thatyear as a Product Technical Engineer. His group is part of corporate R&D atP&G, which receives $2 billion in annual funding-more than the GDP of someAfrican nations.

P&G'swork in simulation dates to the 1980s when the company began work onreliability engineering - which is basically the study of why systems fail.Lange calls that "pathology work" and it's the low end of potential for virtualstudy. Reliability engineering makes broken systems work faster, rather thandesigning optimal systems from the beginning, in Lange's view.

P&Gengineers studied systems used at Los Alamos,and then developed models that could predict systems' performance. The approachwas first used on a retooling of a production line for Pampers diapers. Thetools were then used to improve product designs, avoiding $80 million incapital costs in the 1990s.

Lange iscareful to distinguish simulation work from the work done by product designteams. "They're worried about, shape, equity and artwork. Lange defines equityas locomotion that gets people excited.We work on the simple things: Can we pack it? Will it break? Does the lid fit?Are we making the most economical use of materials?"

Physicalprototypes become the confirmatory experiment later. "So instead of theprototype being a 'Let's see what happens'; it's 'We expect this to work.'"

Fortouch-and-feel prototypes, P&G makes widespread use of rapid prototypingequipment. "Those aren't what I'm talking about," says Lange. "I'm talkingabout the ones where someone says, 'Make me three pallets' worth I can run onthe packing lines."

Modelingand simulation employees are embedded in the businesses at P&G wheredesigns are made. The core group works on tool sets that are used by thedeployed employees.

As thepower of simulation has grown, so has its deployment within Procter &Gamble. It has evolved beyond product development into process development. Inwhat Lange describes as a virtual race track, engineers start with a CAD fileand simulate the progression of a bottle on a packaging line. Simulations showthe tendency of some bottle designs to bump and fall, clogging the line. Expensivework-arounds are avoided by the line simulation. Sometimes a simple change in container designcan solve the problem.

Role of pathology

Lange saysmany organizations use their modeling simulation groups to perform designpathology work. That is, to determine why designs did not work after the fact.It's a virtual trial-and-error system," says Lange. "I only use pathology workto build the credibility of our organization. The real goal is to conductanalysis-led discovery. I want to develop 128 different versions to make surethat we are optimal when we first go into production." Lange describes analysis-led discovery asdetermination of the optimum space where design engineers should be working. "When you're operating in this space, you'rereally cooking."

As a finalstep, Lange says it's important that engineers involved in virtual simulationformally quantify their savings with involvement of financial staff forcredibility. Savings at P&G are broken into four buckets: capitalavoidance, materials savings, innovation savings, and new business creation,such as the Folgers can. Lange says his group saves about five times its costson average based on data confirmed by P&G finance officers.

"When I goto management ask for $1 million for a new computer, they are taken back," saysLange. "But I ask, how much would it cost for 153 mass spectrometers? How muchwould it have cost for the molds to make those prototypes? How many peoplewould it take to build and test those prototypes? That computer cost isactually pretty cheap."

The P&Gmodeling and simulation group operates in a 3,500 core processing environmentthat includes work for computational chemistry. Lange's group likes to work onbig models. Million-element problems are not uncommon. "We are trying to usemodels that are predictive, not just relatively correct," he says. That's a seachange from the way finite element analysis has traditionally been used, hesays.

There aresome caveats in the outlook for modeling and simulation of engineering work.

One is thelack of adequately trained candidates coming out of engineering schools. Langefeels that schools are still training engineers much as they were 30 years agoand not providing adequate capabilities in computer skills. P&G maintains relationships with 65different universities around the world, in addition to government-fundedresearch centers, such as Los Alamos.

Another isthe lack of engagement of smaller companies. "The Fortune 50 really gets it,"says Lange. "If you have 50 engineers in your company, at least one or two ofthem should be doing simulation and modeling work," he says. "At some point,you have to make a decision to do this." Some small companies, however, aresuccessfully using engineering service providers for modeling and simulationwork.

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