Virtual product development - the engine for successful enterprises

MSC Software Australia
By Dr Christopher St John, Senior VP, MSC Software Corporation
Tuesday, 13 January, 2004

Manufacturers today need more than just the next 'big idea'. They need to make that big idea a reality. They need to do it in a business environment that demands faster time-to-market, higher quality, lower costs and greater innovation. These are the realities of today's manufacturing market - global engineering teams working on 24 hour design cycles, suppliers scattered across continents, stringent regulatory requirements, warranty issues, and more. The challenges - and the attendant financial risks - have never been greater. When it can take up to $1 billion to launch a single new product, as it does in the aerospace industry today, inefficiency or failure in the product development process is simply inadmissible.

It is said that decisions made during the design stage determine 70 per cent of a product's cost over its life. Making the right decisions in an environment in which a product that is six months late to market might generate some 33 per cent less revenue over its life is causing enterprises to look in different directions for help.

Enterprise resource planning (ERP), supply chain management (SCM), customer relationship management (CRM), all spring to mind in this context. Each addresses specific areas of the activities of an enterprise, but it is product life cycle management (PLM) that is attracting much attention as manufactures seek to bring the disparate parts of their development process together. However, PLM does not address many of the most basic questions about a new product. These include "Will it work?", "Can it be manufactured?" and "Will our customers enjoy the experience?" Formerly focused on building and testing physical prototypes to answer these questions, manufacturers are increasingly turning to computer simulation and virtual product development (VPD). No longer is computer simulation seen as a tool for problem resolution, it is now the very engine of the modern development process.

Virtual product development is the strategy for co-ordinating technology, processes and people to enhance a company's established product development process. VPD provides a product development environment that leverages systems and software, integrating the engineering computing environment with a broad suite of analysis software, collaboration and decision-support tools, process capture and automation tools, and robust design methods.

As an enterprise improvement strategy, VPD is a graduated process that efficiently and effectively matures a product over time, virtually. It builds on a company's existing product development process, core technical knowledge and capabilities, enabling the co-ordinated application of these technologies across the enterprise, into the supply chain, to the distribution channel, and ultimately to the customer.

It starts at the earliest stages of concept development, it enables design, it optimises production and manufacture, and supports in-service maintenance. The benefits are tangible, with manufacturing companies reporting reduced development costs, fewer (or completely eliminated) physical prototypes, and drastically abbreviated development schedules.

For some manufacturing companies VPD is today's reality. For others it is a vision. No longer is it sufficient to look at disciplines like strength, durability, safety, thermal management, sound quality, fuel economy, and more in isolation. Instead, design teams expect to be able to work on a common virtual development platform, to explore the design space using tools appropriate to their domain of expertise, to share and communicate information, and to collaborate easily to manage the sometimes conflicting requirements.

While discipline integration is one of the key elements of a VDP environment, it is also not sufficient. The great majority of a design team is not analysis or simulation specialists. For the non-specialist simulation needs to be embedded in the environment in which they naturally work. This means providing full integration of CAD and industry standard simulation tools. It also means delivering focused, task-specific solutions, which speak the language of the designer and contain embedded process knowledge. Last, but not least, it means providing tools that enable quantitative evaluation of the robustness of a product design instead of relying on the experience and intuition of engineers. Tools relying on the application and simulation are proving very effective, enabling designers to quickly evaluate the effect of variability in the manufactured product and as well as the uncertainty in its operational environment or how it is used by the ultimate beneficiary of VPD - the consumer.

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