'What-if' analysis moves to the desktop

A combination of speedy processors, larger hard disks, and less expensive
memory has enabled a dramatic leap in desktop-analysis capabilities. "Models
running in our software have doubled in size over the past two years," says Bob
Haubrock, director of simulation and test products at SDRC.

This performance boost has given engineers unprecedented access to real-time analysis.

"We are doing problems on desktop computers that just a few years ago we would have had to do on a mainframe," says David Dearth at Applied Analysis and Technology, a Huntington Beach, CA, engineering consulting firm. "Our analysis capabilities have gone up by orders of magnitude."

For example, engineers can now process models with several hundred thousand degrees of freedom on a mid-range workstation running MSC/NASTRAN, according to Ken Blakely at MacNeal-Schwendler Corp. "Five years ago, these were large models for mainframes."

Now, MacNeal-Schwendler has introduced MSC/NASTRAN for Windows, bringing the same functions of its supercomputer-class software to Pentium PCs. "We have reduced the barriers to doing analysis," he says.

"In 1987, it was considered by everybody to be almost magic that we could do 6,000 to 10,000 degrees of freedom on a 386 PC," Dearth recalls. "That problem would run for a couple of days, but we could do it."

Recently, Dearth performed static analysis on a pressure-bulkhead for an aerospace contractor using Algor FEA software on a Pentium PC. "It was almost 50,000 degrees of freedom, and it ran in less than an hour," Dearth says. "That's absolutely amazing." It's also an indication that Algor's PC-based FEA products are as powerful as its UNIX-based products, says Algor's Peter May.

Empowering an individual. At Burlington Northern (BN) Railroad, mechanical engineer Scott Landrum single-handedly developed a new freight car to carry more steel at less cost-all on a personal computer. After developing the design with AutoCAD, he performed the necessary structural analysis with Algor Linear Stress software.

"The really good thing about this was just one person was able to do the design and structural analysis," he says. "In the past, it took a team."

Landrum ran a number of analyses based on various load scenarios, constantly tinkering with the design to find an optimum weight. The result: A 47,200-lb car, compared to 65,400 lbs for the earlier model; and the new, lighter car can carry an extra 12 to 15 tons of steel. The entire project, from concept to the first car put into service, took nine months. BN won an initial order for 175 cars worth more than $8 million, and another 50 are being built. "It's pretty successful," Landrum says.

Wheel design. Innovation in Composites says its award-winning one-piece hollow bicycle-wheel design depended on current computing technology. "There's no way we could do this project without desktop computing and analysis," according to Doug Olsen, vice president of engineering.

The company developed an injection-molded plastic wheel, reinforced with carbon fibers, Olsen explains. The big question: Would it be strong enough? Engineers used Rasna software to run through numerous scenarios. "I can do ten times the work, and ten times the what-ifs, as I

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