solidThinking Inspire Democratizes Optimization-Driven Concept Design (Commentary)

As the revolution in digital product definition continues, strong forces are seeking to democratize the tools that are employed, to make them easier to use and accessible to a wider audience. Particularly as simulation drives into the early part of the product development process, to help select product concepts and to define product architecture, the tools must be simpler, faster, and more capable to support critical product decisions that cross multiple disciplines.

Leading thinkers focus on the idea that the geometry of a product design should be a result of the design process, not a starting point. They envision a systems engineering approach, where the physical design is derived or synthesized from its performance and other requirements. In this paradigm, geometry is fully a part of the design discovery process.

Topology optimization is one way to “discover” structural geometry that is optimized to meet a prescribed set of performance targets while satisfying constraints like minimum weight or maximum stiffness.

Altair pioneered the commercial availability of topology optimization with OptiStruct in the early 1990s. Since then, topology optimization has become routine in industries where efficient structures are important, like aerospace and automotive. The inclusion of manufacturing and other constraints improved the applicability of the technique, but it remained something that required expert knowledge of both FEA and CAD to utilize.

Seeking to broaden the market for topology optimization, solidThinking (an Altair company) has now embedded the technology in a stand-alone, purpose-built tool, solidThinking Inspire. Inspire removes the need for an expert understanding of FEA and CAD to apply topology optimization. Further, it fits the need to apply topology optimization at the concept stage, ahead of detailed CAD design and the usual simulation process for product validation.

In creating Inspire, solidThinking displays innovation and a deep understanding of the design and product development process. Topology optimization is best applied during the product ideation stage, while there is still freedom to decide on system packaging and overall product layout; where concepts must be quickly explored, and there is not time to engage a team including CAE and CAD specialists to do an optimization study. The expert engineers engaged in defining product architecture are usually not skilled in applying CAE or CAD tools. Inspire is a tool for these design-responsible expert engineers.

Topology optimization is a remarkable technology. It is used to generate efficient structures that carry or transmit prescribed loads. The user defines the volume that the structure may occupy, and its loads and attachment points. The solution process involves a finite element model in which the density of the material is essentially a variable. Material is removed from regions that are less essential for carrying the loads. Optimization techniques are used to develop structural geometry that meets requirements such as minimum weight or maximum stiffness.

Commercial software for topology optimization has been available for two decades, but was constrained by many practical difficulties. It was only usable by FEA experts, the resulting structures were difficult to realize in standard MCAD packages, and were often not manufacturable by traditional methods for injection molding, stamping, or die casting. Thus, while success was achieved in creating designs for essentially 2D structures like spars, trusses and mounting brackets, the true potential of topology optimization was not being realized. As already noted, a topology optimization project typically required a team including an engineer with product knowledge, an FEA specialist and a CAD specialist.

The topology optimization process is as follows: In Figure 1, the design space for a bracket is defined. Loads are applied, and constraints or objectives for stiffness or weight are set.

CIMdata has remarked on the need to democratize simulation: Make simulation available to and usable by a much wider audience. Inspire is a tool that supports this democratization. solidThinking, with Inspire, addresses many of the obstacles to the effective application of topology optimization. These include application complexity, the need for a development team rather than a single engineer, limits imposed by software licensing, and adaptability needed so the tool can be used early in the development process.