Making Simulation Accessible to the Masses – American Composites Manufacturers Association

Composites simulation tools aren’t just for mega corporations. Small and mid-sized companies can reap their benefits, too.

In 2015, Solvay Composite Materials began using simulation tools from MultiMechanics to simplify testing of materials used in high-performance applications. The global business unit of Solvay recognized the benefits of conducting computer-simulated tests to accurately predict the behavior of advanced materials, such as resistance to extreme temperatures and loads. Two years later, Solvay invested $1.9 million in MultiMechanics to expedite development of the Omaha, Neb.-based startup company’s material simulation software platform, which Solvay predicts could reduce the time and cost of developing new materials by 40 percent.

Commitment to – and investment in – composites simulation tools isn’t unusual for a large company like Solvay, which recorded net sales of €10.3 billion (approximately $11.6 billion) in 2018 and has 27,000 employees working at 125 sites throughout 62 countries. What may be more surprising is the impact composites simulation can have on small to mid-sized companies. “Simulation tools are for everyone,” asserts Flavio Souza, Ph.D., president and chief technology officer of MultiMechanics.

The team at Guerrilla Gravity would agree. The 7-year-old mountain bike manufacturer in Denver began using simulation software from Altair more than a year ago to develop a new frame technology made from thermoplastic resins and carbon fiber. “We were the first ones to figure out how to create a hollow structural unit with a complex geometry out of thermoplastic materials,” says Will Montague, president of Guerrilla Gravity.

That probably wouldn’t have been possible without composites simulation tools, says Ben Bosworth, director of composites engineering at Guerrilla Gravity. Using topology optimization, which essentially finds the ideal distribution of material based on goals and constraints, the company was able to maximize use of its materials and conduct testing with confidence that the new materials would pass on the first try. (They did.) Afterward, the company was able to design its product for a specific manufacturing process – automated fiber placement.

“There is a pretty high chance that if we didn’t utilize composites simulation software, we would have been far behind schedule on our initial target launch date,” says Bosworth. Guerrilla Gravity introduced its new frame, which can be used on all four of its full-suspension mountain bike models, on Jan. 31, 2019.

The Language of Innovation
There are dozens of simulation solutions, some geared specifically to the composites industry and other general finite element analysis (FEA) tools. But they all share the common end goal of helping companies bring pioneering products to market faster – whether those companies are Fortune 500 corporations or startup entrepreneurships.

“Composites simulation is going to be the language of innovation,” says R. Byron Pipes, executive director of the Composites Manufacturing & Simulation Center at Purdue University. “Without it, a company’s ability to innovate in the composites field is going to be quite restricted.”

Those innovations can be at the material level or within end-product applications. “If you really want to improve the micromechanics of your materials, you can use simulation to tweak the properties of the fibers, the resin, the combination of the two or even the coating of fibers,” says Souza. “For those who build parts, simulation can help you innovate in terms of the shape of the part and the manufacturing process.”

One of the biggest advantages that design simulation has over the traditional engineering approach is time, says Jeff Wollschlager, senior director of composites technology at Altair. He calls conventional engineering the “build and bust” method, where companies make samples, then break them to test their viability. It’s a safe method, producing solid – although often conservative – designs. “But the downside of traditional approaches is they take a lot more time and many more dollars,” says Wollschlager. “And everything in this world is about time and money.”

In addition, simulation tools allow companies to know more about the materials they use and the products they make, which in turn facilitates the manufacturing of more robust products. “You have to augment your understanding of your product with something else,” says Wollschlager. “And that something else is simulation.”

A Leap Forward in Manufacturability
Four years ago, Montague and Matt Giaraffa, co-founder and chief engineer of Guerrilla Gravity, opted to pursue carbon fiber materials to make their bike frames lighter and sturdier. “We wanted to fundamentally improve on what was out there in the market. That required rethinking and analyzing not only the material, but how the frames are made,” says Montague.

The company also was committed to manufacturing its products in the United States. “To produce the frames in-house, we had to make a big leap forward in manufacturability of the frames,” says Montague. “And thermoplastics allow for that.” Once Montague and Giaraffa selected the material, they had to figure out exactly how to make the frames. That’s when Bosworth – and composites simulation – entered the picture.

Bosworth has more than a decade of experience with simulation software, beginning as an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering as a member of his college’s Formula SAE® team to design, build and test a vehicle for competition. While creating the new frame for Guerrilla Gravity, he used Altair’s simulation tools extensively, beginning with early development to prove the material feasibility for the application.

“We had a lot of baseline data from our previous aluminum frames, so we had a really good idea about how strong the frames needed to be and what performance characteristics we wanted,” says Bosworth. “Once we introduced the thermoplastic carbon fiber, we were able to take advantage of the software and use it to its fullest potential.” He began with simple tensile test samples and matched those with physical tests. Next, he developed tube samples using the software and again matched those to physical tests.

“It wasn’t until I was much further down the rabbit hole that I actually started developing the frame model,” says Bosworth. Even then, he started small, first developing a computer model for the front triangle of the bike frame, then adding in the rear triangle. Afterward, he integrated the boundary conditions and the load cases and began doing the optimization.

“You need to start simple, get all the fundamentals down and make sure the models are working in the way you intend them to,” says Bosworth. “Then you can get more advanced and grow your understanding.” At the composite optimization stage, Bosworth was able to develop a high-performing laminate schedule for production and design for automated fiber placement.

Even with all his experience, developing the bike frame still presented challenges. “One of the issues with composites simulation is there are so many variables to getting an accurate result,” admits Bosworth. “I focused on not coming up with a 100 percent perfect answer, but using the software as a tool to get us as close as we could as fast as possible.”

He adds that composites simulation tools can steer you in the right direction, but without many months of simulation and physical testing, it’s still very difficult to get completely accurate results. “One of the biggest challenges is figuring out where your time is best spent and what level of simulation accuracy you want to achieve with the given time constraints,” says Bosworth.

Wading into the Simulation Waters
The sophistication and expense of composites simulation tools can be daunting, but Wollschlager encourages people not to be put off by the technology. “The tools are not prohibitive to small and medium-sized companies – at least not to the level people think they are,” he says.

Cost is often the elephant in the room, but Wollschlager says it’s misleading to think packages will cost a fortune. “A proper suite provides you simulation in all facets of composite life cycles – in the concept, design and manufacturing phases,” he says. “The cost of such a suite is approximately 20 to 25 percent of the yearly cost of an average employee. Looking at it in those terms, I just don’t see the barrier to entry for small to medium-sized businesses.”

As you wade into the waters of simulation, consider the following:

Assess your goals before searching for a package. Depending on what you are trying to accomplish, you may need a comprehensive suite of design and analysis tools or only a module or two to get started. “If you want a simplified methodology because you don’t feel comfortable with a more advanced one, there are mainstream tools I would recommend,” says Souza. “But if you really want to innovate and be at the cutting-edge of your industry trying to understand how materials behave and reduce costs, then I would go with a more advanced package.” Decide upfront if you want tools to analyze materials, conduct preliminary designs, optimize the laminate schedule, predict the life of composite materials, simulate thermo-mechanical behaviors and so on.

Find programs that fit your budget. Many companies offer programs for startups and small businesses that include discounts on simulation software and a limited number of hours of free consulting. Guerrilla Gravity purchased its simulation tools through Altair’s Startup Program, which is designed for privately-held businesses less than four years old with revenues under $10 million. The program made it fiscally feasible for the mountain bike manufacturer to create a high-performing solution, says Bosworth. “If we had not been given that opportunity, we probably would’ve gone with a much more rudimentary design – probably an isotropic, black aluminum material just to get us somewhere in the ballpark of what we were trying to do,” he says.

Engage with vendors to expedite the learning curve. Don’t just buy simulation tools from suppliers. Most companies offer initial training, plus extra consultation and access to experts as needed. “We like to walk hand-in-hand with our customers,” says Souza. “For smaller companies that don’t have a lot of resources, we can work as a partnership. We help them create the models and teach them the technology behind the product.”

Start small, and take it slow. “I see people go right to the final step, trying to make a really advanced model,” says Bosworth. “Then they get frustrated because nothing is working right and the joints aren’t articulating. They end up troubleshooting so many issues.” Instead, he recommends users start simple, as he did with the thermoplastic bike frame.

Don’t expect to do it all with simulation. “We don’t advocate for 100 percent simulation. There is no such thing. We also don’t advocate for 100 percent experimentation, which is the traditional approach to design,” says Wollschlager. “The trick is that it’s somewhere in the middle, and we’re all struggling to find the perfect percentage. It’s problem-dependent.”

Put the right people in place to use the tools. “Honestly, I don’t know much about FEA software,” admits Montague. “So it goes back to hiring smart people and letting them do their thing.” Bosworth was the “smart hire” for Guerrilla Gravity. And, as an experienced user, he agrees it takes some know-how to work with simulation tools. “I think it would be hard for someone who doesn’t have basic material knowledge and a fundamental understanding of stress and strain and boundary conditions to utilize the tools no matter how basic the FEA software is,” he says. For now, simulation is typically handled by engineers, though that may change.

Perhaps the largest barrier to implementation is ignorance – not of individuals, but industry-wide, says Pipes. “People don’t know what simulation can do for them – even many top level senior managers in aerospace,” he says. “They still think of simulation in terms of geometry and performance, not manufacturing. And manufacturing is where the big payoff is going to be because that’s where all the economics lie.”

Pipes wants to “stretch people into believing what you can and will be able to do with simulation.” As the technology advances, that includes more and more each day – not just for mega corporations, but for small and mid-sized companies, too.

“As the simulation industry gets democratized, prices are going to come down due to competition, while the amount you can do will go through the roof,” says Wollschlager. “It’s a great time to get involved in simulation.”

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