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Breaking Down Autodesk’s Vision for Simulation

References Cited

Mechanical Computer Aided Engineering (MCAE), Autodesk, Product Data Management (PDM)

Five years ago, if you asked which software providers had the strongest set of design and simulation capabilities, it’s safe to say that Autodesk wouldn’t be the first one out of your mouth. Many would admit they’ve developed and provided a number of design and engineering accelerator type technologies, but analysis and simulation? But lo and behold, fast forward to today and the story has changed a bit. Autodesk still might not be the first software provider mentioned, but they’re not far down the list. Before we talk about the simulation capabilities they provide and their vision for the future, let’s rewind and revisit some recent history. Let’s not forget. The past is prologue.

Dates and Events

In August 2007, Autodesk acquired Plassotech (press release) to gain structural and thermal analysis capabilities for parts and assemblies. Then in January of 2009, Autodesk completed the acquisition of Algor (press release) who was then a smaller but capable provider of structural and vibration simulation software. Then at an analyst meeting held on October 26th and 27th 2010 up in Boston MA, they shared some of their vision for simulation, especially with respect to the cloud. I’ll share more details on that vision in the next section. And then most recently on February 17th, Autodesk acquired Blue Ridge Numerics and their CFdesign offering (press release). With all that covered, let’s talk about what the software can actually do and how Autodesk intends for it to be used.

Capabilities Provided

There’s a lot of functionality to cover, so let’s split it up and talk about it piecemeal. Then we can back up and take a look a the big picture.

First, let’s start with the basics. The acquisition of Plassotech enhanced some of the core simulation and analysis capabilities that existed in Inventor. In short, it provided the first set of static, dynamics and thermal capabilities in addition to optimization functionality. This was then further augmented by the capabilities provided by Algor. Together, Plassotech and Algor provided a lot of functionality that became the underlying baseline for simulation going forward in Inventor.

  • One thing to know about the analysis capabilities in Algor is that they are very broad. You can perform linear as well as non-learn structural analyses including vibration. You can also perform multi-body dynamics, where loads from motion are transferred into structural analyses. Also, you can perform fluid and thermal analyses. Furthermore, you can run electrostatic simulations.
  • Next it’s important to understand that you can combine different variations on these analyses together into multi-physics simulations, which has been getting a lot of attention in the industry over the past few years.
  • There are lots of modeling automation like mesh generation, controls over that mesh, mesh sensitivity studies to validate that your mesh is fine enough and modeling wizards. There’s also integration for just about any CAD software available today. However I’d expect the integration within Inventor to be the best.
  • Lastly, there’s tools for visualization, plotting, graphing, animating and real-time tracking of results as you would expect.

So there was a lot of functionality that came along with that acquisition. But it’s also been enhanced along the way. In fact, in December 2009, Autodesk enhanced their portfolio of simulation software with fatigue analysis capabilities (press release). This announcement flew under the radar a little bit. But it’s actually an important enhancement. Engineers worry not only about initial loading but long term fatigue.

Now in their latest move, Autodesk’s acquisition of Blue Ridge Numerics acquisition provides more fluid and thermal dynamics capabilities. Specifically, the CFdesign software has been targeted specifically at simulation driven design efforts and more upfront simulation. Additionally, it’s been focused on serving markets where electronics cooling is important.

The Future Vision

Autodesk’s analyst meetings in Boston were interesting. There they painted a vision for the use of the cloud with respect to simulation. And it was a compelling argument.

Basically the logic and story is as follows. There’s a lot more computing power in the cloud than there is on the desktop. So much so that there are simulations that can be run in the cloud that demand too much computing power to be run on desktops… at all. Overall the advantage is you can run far more simulations in far less time in the cloud than you can on your desktop. Furthermore, it can be run in the background while you continue to do design work.

While it seems promising, there might be some roadblocks. Specifically, CAD models and even some simulation models can be excessively large. And as I’ve written about the issues facing a move to the cloud for engineering software before, the connectivity pipe between the desktop and the cloud will be the key.

So we’ve covered a lot of ground so far. Now let’s talk about what it all means.

Analysis and Commentary

There’s many points and perspectives to take into consideration. So let’s break it down by asking pertinent questions.

  1. How does Autodesk’s offering stack up to competitors? Over the past two years, the story has changed dramatically for Autodesk. On paper, there’s a huge variety of analyses that can now be run with Autodesk’s suite of simulation software. The only ones with comparable breadth are ANSYS (Workbench), MSC Software, Siemens PLM (NX) and Dassault Systèmes (SIMULIA). When you add CAD into the mix with simulation software, then only Siemens PLM (NX) and Dassault Systèmes (SIMULIA) really fall into the same category.
  2. Why is simulation breadth important? An emerging idea is to use the same model and same mesh for multi-physics simulations. An underlying enabler is to be able to take information from one analysis and use it in another analysis. To do so, you have to have similar fields of information to move between analyses. That’s why a single model used across many simulations is useful.
  3. What does it mean to the Simulation Analyst? It’s a pretty good story for the dedicated Simulation Analyst. Lots of capabilities through one suite of simulation software. However, the one place where Autodesk is lagging compared to competitors is specialty simulations (crash tests, NVH, etc.). Some portion of Simulation Analysts are focusing their efforts towards those use cases. And Autodesk can’t support them there today. The other four competitors can to varying extents.
  4. What does it mean to the common Engineer? From my perspective, I’ve always been impressed with Autodesk’s effort to add in engineering automation tools. And not just tools to automate the generation of CAD geometry. But tools to help engineers make good decisions. As it stands today, I’m not sure if Autodesk’s simulation suite is engineer-ready. As I’ve written before, engineers with responsibilities across the lifecycle can’t afford to be experts in any software. It doesn’t matter if it is CAD, CAE, PLM or any other software application or system. If you’re really considering this software for engineers to use, take a good hard look to make sure it really has been simplified for engineers to use but still has built in checks to ensure the accuracy of the simulation results. I think Autodesk will get there eventually, but there’s a lot of integration work to do.
  5. Why is another CFD software needed? Algor already offered some fluid and thermal dynamics analysis capabilities. Why was another software needed? Autodesk states that the Algor CFD capabilities are now targeted at the everyday Engineer for quick and simply analyses. However they also say CFdesign is built for deep dives by these same Engineers. Maybe Autodesk just hasn’t had a chance to fully built an merged plan for the two products. However, I hope that these two CFD simulation sets are integrated in some fashion. It could be bad if an Engineer runs an analysis in Algor and a Simulation Analyst runs a simulation in CFdesign and the answers don’t match. Which one do you trust?
  6. Can this enable Simulation Driven Design? Ultimately, as I understand it, that’s the goal in mind. But as I’ve written before, I think a successful Simulation Driven Design initiative requires a little more than easier to use simulation software. In fact, because all four necessary sets of skill and knowledge is practically impossible to find in one person, simulation driven design has to be a team effort. I don’t think Autodesk has provided those collaborative capabilities as of yet.

Summary and Conclusions

Between the Algor acquisition, further software enhancements, the Blue Ridge Numerics acquisition and their vision for the future of simulation, Autodesk has gained a position amongst the top competitors in the simulation space. They stand with ANSYS, MSC Software, Siemens PLM and Dassault Systèmes in terms of breadth of offering. The biggest benefactor is the Simulation Analyst, where yet another suite of software offers a breadth of simulation capabilities. For the Engineer, the tools may not be quite ready today, however as Autodesk has done in the past, they will provide the simplicity and quality checks to make it valuable. And last but not least, I believe that some collaboration tools to enable teamwork is necessary to drive a Simulation Driven Design initiative. And Autodesk has not provided those capabilities as of yet.

Now it’s time for you to weigh in. Simulation Analysts, are you looking more closely at Autodesk’s simulation suite now? Engineers, can you share any stories about using their simulation tools? Sound off and let us know your perspective.

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.

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