Autodesk recently announced the availability of Simulation 360, its cloud-based CAE solution for designers, engineers and architects. This is the latest offering to take advantage of what CEO Carl Bass has called infinite computing, where unlimited CPU capacity is out there somewhere, allocated to you when you need it to run your job and then freed up to run someone else’s. Since nothing is running on your machine, you can keep going with design or other tasks. Once your results come back, you examine them and make any needed mods to the design. Over time, simulation becomes a routine, inexpensive part of the design process, and you’ll do it again and again and again.

Companies with a lot of IT infrastructure likely have an HPC center for simulation — but most small companies don’t have spare hardware lying around for occasional simulations. Most of them must run a CPU-intensive computation overnight so that the PC stays available for use during working hours, which tends to make simulation a stage gate outside the design process and more a special case than the norm. Too, most CAE software licenses are priced per CPU — so a slower result on one CPU is cheaper for many users than a faster result on a number of CPUs — putting fast results out of reach for many.

Autodesk wants to address both speed and cost with its Simulation 360 offering. Right now, for $3,200 per year, a user can run 120 jobs of any size or complexity using Autodesk Simulation Mechanical 360 (aka Algor) and Autodesk Simulation CFD360  (aka CFdesign). That comes out to $27 per job and you can buy more at about $10 per job. Want more? $7,200 buys unlimited access for one year to mechanical and CFD simulations while $10,000 buys a year of unlimited access that also includes Moldflow.

The good news: the early adopters I spoke with are happy. Very happy. Autodesk has been talking about and testing this concept for a while. It needed to get the user interface right, so that someone can send up a simulation while in the middle of a design task. The behind-the-scenes stuff, how the simulation is sent up, solved and the results retrieved, also had to be bomber since any failure in the underlying cloud technology would be a disaster.

Early reports are that Simulation 360 enables a continuous workflow that’s natural, fast and secure. If you were at AU 2010, you likely remember Escape Dynamics, a startup that wants to make space accessible to companies and individuals, not just governments. The sim above is of a vehicle accelerating through the atmosphere and the graphic below is diagram of the external propulsion launch system the company is building.

Co-founder/CEO/CTO Dmitriy Tseliakhovich and Lead Research Engineer Matthew Hanover recently spent some time with me, telling me how they use simulation and why Simulation 360 works so well for them.

Escape Dynamics’ designs can’t easily be tested in real life, so Dmitriy and Matt need to simulate as much as possible to avoid prohibitively expensive prototypes and to test out many design concepts before investing too much in any one idea. Before Sim360, Matt would set up a simulation, let it run until done, look at the results, set up the next, let it run …. and so on. He said that this sequential method limited him to doing 3-4 simulations per day. With Sim360, he sets up simulations in parallel, exploring many more options than was possible before. Matt called it a “continuous, efficient flow that lets me try things I wouldn’t have before”.

One thing I liked very much: Dmitriy said that Autodesk’s products let a small, venture-funded company like Escape Dynamics compete against much larger, established players in the aerospace industry. He said that products like Inventor and Sim360 open doors that had previously been closed to shops like his.

I asked them about reliability and security, since both come up in just about every cloud-y conversation I find myself in. Matt said there were some intermittent losses  early on in the beta program that Autodesk quickly ironed out — they have had no problems in more than a month. In fact, Matt sees running simulations in the cloud as providing more uptime than his local desktop, since the simulation in the cloud keeps running even if his desktop crashes. Dmitriy made another point, too: he said the cloud “liberates us — if we are disconnected at the office for some reason, we can keep working from home.”

And as for security? Dmitriy has no concerns. He trusts Autodesk’s IT team “as much as [his] own” and points out that data in the cloud is fundamentally harder to steal because it’s broken into packets in transit; on a computer in his office, it’s all in one place. Dmitriy and Matt are clearly expert users.

Once question I put to them is whether they see Autodesk investing in cloud computing at the expense of improving the solvers, meshing technology or post-processing at the heart of the CAE, regardless of where the solution takes place. They were very quick to answer “no”, telling me how well their simulations results match those in scientific literature.

Dmitriy got the last word, saying that “Autodesk takes the time to do things right. Supersonic flow through a nozzle? CFdesign works — it’s results match what the physicists and scientists say it should be. With the cloud, what is under the hood works right, too. It builds a tremendous level of confidence.”

I still have questions about Sim360, and how it will drive more users to do more simulation. Is it helpful to count a simulation that will not solve because of user error against the 120? Will companies with existing hardware capacity look at this cloud offering as a way to add capacity or is it too soon for them? How can  Autodesk realistically promise “infinite computing” all the time to all comers? And how does the business case work for Autodesk if it doesn’t price by CPU usage, since I think that’s how Amazon’s charging them? … But, I gotta say, hats off to Autodesk for trying something new and, at least according to Escape Dynamics, doing it well.

Autodesk has made Simulation 360 free until Halloween. Have you tried it? What do you think? Will it change how you use simulation in your design process? Let us know in the comments.

Also, if you haven’t, check out Autodesk’s Sim Squad and Simulation TV, you should. Autodesk has posted a lot of great content that can help you get started with simulation, even if you’re not an Autodesk customer.

Many thanks to Dmitriy and Matt for their time and to Escape Dynamics for the cool images. — Ed.]