Orr on Engineering: Fake it ’til You Make it: The power of Simulation

Nov. 6, 2008
Simulation is oddly like the injunction heard from countless self-help teachers and coaches: “Fake it ’til you make it!”

They are referring, of course, to adopting new behaviors and attitudes — even when feeling insincere — until the behaviors become part of your personality. The phrase works for design, too. “Fake it.” Create something that has some qualities of the end product.

Why fake anything? Because it’s easier, cheaper, and faster to create a simulacrum than the thing itself. Because you want to be able to try things out in a space more forgiving than reality that lets you test concepts and ideas quickly and inexpensively. So when you produce the physical object, what you make will be close to the concept you had in mind at the beginning.

In fact, all design is, in effect, a kind of simulation. You simulate a product or a part in your mind before recording it. Next comes the process of describing it in words, pictures, or 3D, and testing the part against initial criteria. Then change the part to better fit your idea.

We operate this way because design is not a deterministic process. There is no formula in which to drop requirements and get an optimal design. So the fundamental engineering process is always trial and error, or, better yet, a progressive approximation. That’s why we need the capability to make lots of quick trials and inexpensive errors.

Engineers today know about CAD and many use 3D. But simulation software is far from universally used, or even understood. And with good reason. Simulation programs have been around for a long time. They let users represent certain attributes of physical or abstract systems. The software used to be absurdly complex and difficult to learn. Only a small number of specialists could use it.

Designers are increasingly using FEA, but simulation is still considered too rarefied and difficult for the average engineer. That’s a shame. Simulation codes are easier to understand and use than ever before. They can be put to work quickly, and at many levels. For example, many tools are graphical and will animate results. The software works well with analysis tools to generate results in powerful ways.

No IC chip designer would dream of working without simulation today because ICs are supercomplex. Electromechanical and other items are also rapidly increasing in complexity. Designers of these items should also exploit insights garnered from simulation software.

What’s keeping most designers from trying out simulation? My guess: Fear. Designers believe the software takes too long to learn and is too hard to understand. Even worse, they think time spent learning the software will weigh down their already overloaded schedules. Designers already know how to do their job. What’s in it for them to take on the challenges of learning simulation?

How about that doing so enhances your value to your employer and your customers. It also keeps you on the leading edge of the profession. And it enhances a resume, should the need arise to move elsewhere.

Check out National Instruments’ LabWorks, Altair’s Hyperworks, Extend- Sim, MSC Adams (and other products), isee Stella, and many others. These are just a few examples of particularly graphical packages. And by the way — better jump in quickly. Your competition is already churning away.

— Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary at Cyon Research Corp. in Bethesda, Md. Got a question or a comment? Reach Joel at [email protected]

Edited by Leslie Gordon

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