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MSC’s Digimat opens up use of advanced materials

MSC Software last month announced that it had acquired e-Xstream engineering, most known for its Digimat products for advanced materials simulation. This acquisition follows on the heels of a partnerships between MSC and HBM-nCode for fatigue testing, giving MSC what amounts to a soup-to-nuts fatigue and durability offering for the composites that make up increasing portions of the products we rely on.

Think about it this way: if all of the strands of fiber in a plastic frisbee point in exactly the same direction, it would be easy to crack along that 6-12 axis. The frisbee would be brittle and stiff, making it a lousy toy. If the manufacturer orients the fibers in different directions — to 2, 4 and 6 o’clock, for example — the frisbee is strong yet pliable, able to float, bounce off objects and pop back into shape after being deformed.

The frisbee you played with as a kid wasn’t a composite. It was just one type of plastic and it was probably pretty easy to simulate its performance (although I doubt they bothered). Today’s products are often made of heterogeneous materials, anything that includes more than one material in a lay-up. Composites today include carbon fiber, silica filled rubber, aluminum foam, nano clays, ceramics and more are being invented every day. We’re still discovering the physics that can explain all of the possible behaviors, meaning that materials engineers are often at the forefront of mechanical design processes in situations where composites are used.

Digimat lets engineers do both micro- and macro-scale analyses of these composites, predicting how they will perform and calculating their mechanical, thermal and electrical properties for use in all sorts of downstream FEA analyses.

Engineers typically start modeling by gathering material information and strand orientation data from Moldflow, 3D-Sigma, Moldex3D, Simpoe or another injection molding simulation solution, in the case of molded materials. Digimat-MAP calculates residual stresses and temperature from the injection molding mesh and defines an ideal structural FEA mesh. From here, many users go straight to FEA (MSC’s Nastran and Marc, ABAQUS, ANSYS, LS-DYNA, PAM-Crash, RADIOSS and other solvers have direct interfaces). They may also use Digimat’s MF, MX, FE modules to look at test data for the composite and its constituents and look at promising material candidates. I’ve seen  a number of presentations on Digimat where users spoke about how they were able to see the tight link between part geometry, material flow during manufacturing and the resulting fiber orientation — and the effect all of this has on the part’s ultimate mechanical behavior.

The use of composites will only increase because their high stiffness/weight ratio makes them ideal for all sorts of applications that need lighter weight products, whether for easier use or lower transportation cost. But composites aren’t necessarily the cheapest materials to work with, and our ability to design and simulate them is still evolving. Predictive tools like Digimat (along with other FEAs) can make them much more accessible by replacing build-and-break workflows with faster, cheaper simulations.

We tend to think of a product like Digimat only for advanced aerospace and automotive cases. Not true. One example I saw was for a relatively cheap clamp, manufactured by the millions. It was an assembly of two relatively simple injection molded plastic parts that was failing where the it gripped the base object. Using Moldflow, Digimat and FEA, the engineer was able to redesign the way the parts were manufactured to fix the failure. It wasn’t a spectacular, high-tech example, but multiply a relatively inexpensive part by millions, and it becomes a significant problem — and an effective fix could have a commensurate impact.

A couple of important points about MSC + e-Xstream: MSC’s John Janevic, VP Strategic Operations, tells me that MSC will continue to work on and support all of Digimat’s interfaces to competing FEA solutions, so no worries if your workflow doesn’t use Marc or Nastran. In fact, he said that customers at the recent Digimat user conference, right after MSC announced the acquisition, were generally positive about the combination and see it as a way to leverage MSC’s resources to continue to grow Digimat. Lastly, Digimat’s alliance with HBM-nCode won’t really be affected by MSC’s partnership with HBM — Mr. Janevic said that the three companies will figure out a way to keep both relationships working.

As MSC enters its 5oth year, it continues to reinvent itself, slowly branching outwards — no wild swings here — to serve its core constituencies in automotive and aerospace. The acquisition of e-Xstream, the partnership with HMB-nCode, and last year’s FFT/Actran buy, are all critical for those customers but allow MSC to expand into new markets, too.  Just notice how often today you use something that’s injection molded, and made of a composite — that’s an approximation of the markets MSC can now address.

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