What do we most often hear, when talking to people about why they don’t do simulation, or don’t do more simulation? It’s usually one of more of three things:

  1. It’s too hard and experts are too expensive (or not needed constantly, so it’s difficult to justify having them on the payroll).
  2. It doesn’t fit naturally into the product development workflow, with simulation tasks having to branch off periodically because they take too long to be carried out in the main stream — but that means results come back on an earlier iteration and someone has to figure out how to apply them to the current design iteration.
  3. CAD models don’t translate well or easily to simulation; some fiddling is always needed. Even when CAD models are decent, they may share more information with supply chain partners than is desired, so a dumbed-down version has to be created specifically for simulation. Then that version has to be managed … Nightmare.

Yet we all agree simulation can save time and money, and create a more desirable and fit-for-purpose product. So what’s the holdup? Why the disconnect between what user companies want and developer companies deliver?

Part of the answer lies in the fact that the codes in use are, in general, decades old and developed in the time of punch cards and tape. The workflows around those products could only adapt to current user interface and compute trends to a limited extent; a major rethink is needed to move the industry forward.

Enter direct modeling for simulation. Now analysts, who aren’t CAD jockeys, could manipulate geometry, try out alternatives, perhaps even take part in the early stages of the design process. Take that a step further and improve the CAD/mesh/solve/examine workflow and you get to MSC’s new Apex product.

MSC Software, one of the granddaddies of simulation, essentially took itself out of the limelight a couple of years ago to rethink its product lines and refocus the company. CEO Dominic Gallello brought his Autodesk vibe of talking to customers about their projects, problems and bottlenecks to the task, meeting with analysts and managers around the world to discover what MSC could do better, differently, to fundamentally change the simulation workflow. Apex, the result of this exploration, has actually been on the market for a while, as customers took the product on shakeouts, suggested further improvements and new directions — and now it’s finally ready for broader public view.

Yesterday MSC announced that Apex Modeler is available now, and that Apex Structures should be out by the end of 2014. I’ve seen presentations and canned demos, so this is a very company-directed perspective, but here’s what I know:

  • Apex is visually different from other CAE solutions. This screenshot show simulation results (the structure’s natural frequencies):

Apex Structures 3

Notice how much screen space is devoted to the model. Icons and menu panes appear when needed, and the visuals are bold and unmistakable. This user interface is a critical part of MSC’s approach to making simulation easier. Apex’s UI includes video tutorials, workflow instructions and at-mouse guidance that MSC says makes Apex faster to learn and easier to use — the company says customers are seeing work completed in half a day that used to take 3-4 days, and that the typical user’s time to productivity is faster than with other methods.

  • Apex is more than a spiffy new UI. MSC’s research found that nearly 80% of the simulation task’s time was spent on going from CAD to mesh, a largely non-value-added activity. Apex’s meshing engine, the company says, can be 50 times faster, employing Parasolid-based direct modeling technology for geometry cleanup and idealization.
  • Pre-solve-post may be a thing of the past. Apex enables users to stay within the environment to maintain associativity between geometric and analytical data; geometry changes also edit the mesh — there is no separation between the two. MSC Nastran is integrated into Apex, so the user can validate models and run simulations from the same user interface. Rather than cleaning up a model, setting up the solver and then post-processing the results, it’s all in a single environment. I’m not sure about this, but it appears that you can’t create a model that can’t be solved — you no longer need to prep the model, run the job to see if there are errors, fix those, do it again; all of that iteration seems to be unnecessary with Apex.
  • MSC is building Apex around a concept I’ve seen before, though carried out far more elegantly here: solve only the parts of the model that have changed. They’ve devised what they call Computational Parts, which allow users to analyze an assembly and then run only incremental analyses to allow fast, agile what-if studies. In future releases, Computational Parts can also be idealized, meaning that sensitive intellectual property can be protected, with only the relevant part-to-part connecting data exposed.
  • Apex isn’t intended to replace any current MSC offering, but to run along side them. MSC sees Apex as the platform for applications yet to come, with the long-term goal of providing a multi-user, multi-discipline, and multi-fidelity workspace. Right now, computational parts and assemblies support linear representations; over time, this will grow to include thermal, non-linear, motion and other physics.
  • These first releases of Apex are targeted at MSC’s core automotive and aerospace markets, where Apex is complimentary to current workflows. Over time, MSC sees Apex expanding to new customer types, markets and sizes, where it will be a stand-alone solution.

It’s been interesting watching MSC try to keep the wraps on Apex while hiring people, trademarking names and submitting patents (16 filed so far). I’m excited that it’s finally here and we can start taking a closer look. Tune in to MSC’s Apex launch webcasts on Thursday, October 2, 2014 and Thursday, October 9 –register at www.mscapex.com— and tell me what you think.

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