The Virtual Ant

Written by: Simon | Posted on: | Category:

A couple of things I've been reading over the past week have made me think about a new way to consider the use of virtual tool sets - the bits of software and capability that allow us to model and simulate how things could, would or should work.

First up was a standard promotional white paper from Siemens and Digital Engineering - "Making the case for more simulation, more often". It lays out the drivers for adopting a more thorough use of simulation in product design: cost saving; faster design turnaround; the need to innovate, and how these are becoming increasingly important in a riskier, more diverse and disruptive environment. The first two drivers have clean and tidy explanations. Simulation doesn't require building prototypes to test, enabling you to go straight from a CAD design to a virtual test and back again multiple times more cheaply. There's also no delay in going from CAD to virtual test (once you have your simulation work flow nicely smoothed out of course), so you can be much faster. Sometimes the simulation itself can take longer than the physical test would have, but the lack of delay from CAD to simulation offsets this, and if you are using the cloud for your hardware horsepower then you can run as many tests as you like at the same time. Innovation is a less easy fellow to pin down as it's often quite specific to the people involved; at a high level it's making, doing or thinking in different ways. One of the outputs of simulation that helps to do things differently is the abundance of data that you get - flow variables like velocity, pressure and temperature everywhere in the fluid, stress and displacements everywhere in the solid, electric field strength everywhere. Being able to visualize all of these characteristics together can be a powerful stimulus for a deeper understanding and novel approaches to design.

Second in line was a blog from a colleague who leads Ignite Exponential, taking a look at how organizations could response to the now continuous challenge of disruption. There was reference to a recent report from Credit Suisse with a great comparison between companies and ant colonies, where the discovery and exploitation of a local food source by the ants is analogous to the core business of the company. The colony also has ants that wander aimlessly to explore the environment, with the possibility of discovering new resources, analogous to company innovation. The key point is that when the environment is changing more quickly, the ant colony sends out more explorers, suggesting that to best respond to the dynamic and disruptive environment companies should invest more effort in exploring new directions, markets and technologies. On journeys of discovery, there's value in letting the initial path be as unconstrained as possible - wandering as aimlessly as you can, to maximize your discovery potential. This can't go on forever or course, otherwise you'll end up lost. You need to find some trails to follow or head home if you found nothing. Wandering aimlessly as efficiently (at lowest cost) and effectively (covering as much terrain as possible) presents a significant advantage.

Simulation can help substantially here. Testing existing products in new markets requires the understanding and specification of new virtual tests. The data output helps understand where and why things might have not worked, pointing to the design modifications required which can be implemented in CAD and tested virtually in quick return. Design optimization studies can be rerun with new performance targets, aiming to minimize product size for example, to open doors to new applications. There may be expected consequences, such as electronics components now getting too hot as everything has got smaller, but the application potential and resulting technical challenges can come into focus quickly. If you are thinking about discovering new territory in today's business climate, virtual ants could be a great way to get going.

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