The Future of Engineering Innovation Lies in Simulation

by Trevor English 6 December 2016

Failure is an integral part of engineering innovation and success, and through simulation, we can innovate without the setbacks of traditional failure models. This isn’t to say that as engineers we will never fail now that simulation has become such a vital tool we can utilize, rather our failure becomes a little more digital and a lot less physical.

In many aspects, simulation takes up a large part of the prototyping industry that has grown in recent years with additive technologies. That’s to say that simulation enables us to create products, components, whatever it may be, and test it all within the digital realms of our computer screen.

In terms of lifespan, simulation technologies are only in their infancy, and with the emergence of virtual reality and digital processing, simulation will likely drive its way to the forefront of virtually every engineering discipline. Before we get overwhelmed with the bright future of the industry, let’s look at where it was even just 20 years ago. In many senses, engineering simulation began as computational fluid dynamics models that served to solve highly variant and difficult problems like turbulence and heat transfer. The meshes that were created from these early systems would often take an engineer weeks of work and perhaps even longer for the computer to process. Nonetheless, this intensive problem solving simulation was needed, and it took a lot of the prior guesswork out of many of these situations.

These early models often only encompassed one stress model of simulation, but the intense industry of today is demanding more and more of our computer program friend. Simulation has evolved into comprehensive software spanning virtually all engineering disciplines and physical phenomena, all being able to solve problems the engineers of the past never would have thought possible. And that’s the present state of the industry. Imagine the future.

With the advance of engineering software, the problems left for engineers, as you likely know, are not easy ones to solve. For the most parts, our jobs have been drastically simplified thanks to the much welcomed help of simulation programs. We can not only design parameters and dimensions of a component, but we can also determine how said component will act in nearly infinite stress states. Our problems moving forward become problems that, for the most part, are unsolvable given straight homosapien processing power. Currently, these are the problems that you likely know far too well because you largely ignore them or use an estimation based model to overcome. As engineers we make these decisions daily, and unfortunately, many a problem has arisen from our lack of exact knowledge of physical properties and finite element analysis. This is where simulation is aiming next, and get ready to take off.

So, virtual reality. Before you get all “this is a simulation article not a virtual reality article on me,” just hold onto your office chair and get ready for the roller coaster that is the future of engineering simulation. Virtual reality poses to bring the everyday engineer directly into the world of virtual simulation. It means bringing the simulation world into what otherwise feels like a real ‘work’ to the engineer. It means designing in a completely virtual realm that simulates every property of the physical realm.

So, digital processing. It’s hard to follow up such an invigorating topic as virtual reality, but I’d argue that digital processing can be even cooler. Specifically, advances in quantum computing mean that problems with what are essentially infinite terms of variability can soon be solved. Without getting into the details of what a quantum computer can do, just imagine the world’s most powerful supercomputer sitting on your desk, the size of your pen. This may be a slight overstatement, but it proves my point. Now, you’re probably saying, “but our quantum computing capabilities are nowhere near levels that would allow this state of simulation.” That’s true, but keep in mind that the days of the first home computer were only slightly over 30 years ago.

With virtual technologies and quantum computing combined, we are going to see the world of engineering simulation reach endless possibilities. Our jobs are going to get a whole lot more fun, so buckle up.