Issue: Volume: 24 Issue: 12 (December 2001)

Virtual Tests, Real Results

There’s not much to cheer about on the high-tech financial front these days. Take the mechanical CADE/CAM/CAE industry. Prior to the terrorist attacks on September 11, research firm Daratech had already shaved 2001 growth forecasts for this market from 11.4 percent to 7.9 percent. Now it has lowered expectations further, estimating that revenues will increase only 4 percent this year to reach a total of $6.26 billion. And that may be optimistic.

The acceptance of these programs, which are being used to test the performance of virtual products, has been growing rapidly. According to Daratech CEO Charles Foundyller, whereas 10 to 20 years ago users relied almost exclusively on hardware prototypes and physical tests-for example, to gauge the durability and crashworthiness of vehicles-many now simulate the majority of these tests using virtual prototypes and conduct physical tests at the end of the development cycle, largely to verify the virtual test results.

General Motors is a prime example of this migration from physical to virtual testing. "In 1991, we crashed about 80 vehicles when doing front and rear barrier tests for the Caprice," says Steve Rhode, GM's technical director of vehicle synthesis, analysis, and simulation, and keynote speaker at the Daratech conference. "Ten years later, for the 2001 Impala, we were down to 28 hardware tests. The rest were done virtually." Meanwhile, the number of regulations for testing was expanding geometrically. "The only way we could contain this," he says, "was through the use of simulation technology."

The results justified the effort. In the past three years, GM has seen a 50 percent productivity rise in its testing program, more than a billion dollars in savings, and cycle reductions of more than 18 months, shortening new vehicle development time to less than two years. Similar success stories were recounted by Boeing, DaimlerChrysler, Deere, TRW, and a host of other manufacturers and suppliers.

While virtual prototyping and simulation technology is paying huge dividends, there are still challenges ahead before it can reach its full potential. Foremost among these is improving the accuracy of the simulations to the point where they can ultimately replace physical prototypes altogether. One approach to achieving this goal has been to feed the results of the physical tests into the virtual simulations so engineers and analysts can better evaluate their assumptions and refine their models.

Tools from suppliers such as MSC, PTC, and Dassault enable this to be done in some fashion. But two companies taking the lead in this approach are LMS and Mechanical Dynamics, Inc. (MDI). LMS has just unveiled Virtual.lab, a single, unified environment that integrates virtual and physical test data and provides visualization tools with which users can easily compare the results of both types of data. And MDI offers post-processing tools in its Adams software to facilitate data transfer between the physical and virtual worlds.

As these tools improve, it will become more obvious that the benefits of investing in them are too good to pass up even in the worst of economic times.