Altair appifies CFD

CFDCalc Heat SinkWe take a break from the streak of earnings and acquisitions to focus on CAE — specifically, CFD. Earlier this year, John Chawner of Pointwise highlighted a survey which found that “58% of engineers aren’t prepared for running CFD. Keeping in mind the difference between understanding fluid dynamics and running a CFD code, and acknowledging that CFD codes are getting easier to run every day, the data indicates that engineers still find CFD daunting.”

If engineers find it formidable, what about designers? CFD vendors have taken the intimidation factor into account in their development plans and are releasing apps that vastly simplify the setup and execution of very specific types of simulations — and, in Altair’s case, creating a toolkit so that methods experts can create apps for their less adept colleagues.

CFDCalc is the company’s first foray into appification, with heat sink and mixing apps available today and more on the horizon. These are web apps; go to, enter your account information and start specifying the parameters of your heat sink problem and off it goes to Altair’s cloud for processing (with AcuSolve) and report generation and then back to you.

Problem setup is very straightforward, bounded and documented. The two apps available today have been thoroughly vetted, both for the physics of the results and to ensure that the problem setup covers all reasonable scenarios. If you problems is outside the app’s range, you’ll need to simulate some other way.

In the case of the heat sink, the user provides just a few inputs: the number of pins, circuit board material and layers, height, thickness, material, flow conditions, the heat generated by the chip. The app then creates CAD geometry, so the user doesn’t need to, before meshing and solving in the cloud. Easy.

The industry is still trying to figure out how to price simulation apps. Dr. Farzin Shakib, Altair VP of CFD, says that a run of the heat sink app could cost $400 — far less than what a user would pay for a full suite of pre-, Acusolve and post-processing software and also less than a consultant would charge to run the analyses. But it is still more than what many people think when they see “app” and isn’t really conducive to a lot of what-if runs, or to experimentation by new users trying to learn how CFD works. [CFDCalc users are shown the price for their run before it starts, so can back out if it feels too expensive.] Still, the app provides undeniable value and flexibility to those who don’t need their own AcuSolve installation.

In addition to creating specific vertical apps, Altair wants to get customers and partners to use CFDCalc to build their own calculators. I’ve spoken with auto company methods engineers who would love to automate routine analyses to free up critical resources for higher-value tasks while also ensuring that analyses done by others meet company standards. Imagine creating a calculator that lets a stylist explore rear-view mirror designs, or rain-gutter alternatives, or air conditioning vent locations — the potential is endless. Or let a wind power company create an app to examine the implications of placing a turbine in a particular location — the app becomes a sales tool. Altair’s Shing Pan, senior director of product marketing, points out that the hard part in creating these apps is validating the physics, inputs and results to ensure that the process is repeatable and reliable. (It’s all Python-based. There’s a pipe flow app on the CFDCalc website that you can play with, if you’re interested in trying to create a calculator of your own.)

Altair will keep creating more CFDCalc apps as it works with clients to see how they use those already released, refine the web interface and the computing back-end, and solidify the pricing. It’s an interesting way to get more people to try CFD while mitigating the intimidation factor. Will it make experts feel redundant? Dr. Shakib thinks not, saying that CFDCalc is intended to shift the workload from experts to the less-expert, so that power users can focus on applying AcuSolve to the complex, gnarly problems that will never go away.

Altair also recently came out with the HyperWorks Virtual Wind Tunnel, a specialist setup for AcuSolve that is targeted at automotive, train, cycle and other typical physical wind tunnel users, but has also caught on with architects, urban planners and othera seeking to understand how buildings interact with their environments. More on that in a coming post — but it nicely ties into the theme of getting CFD into more hands by making it simpler.

Image courtesy of Altair CFDCalc.

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