Cars and Concepts

'Multiphysics': Engineering's new frontier

Okay, so now it is rocket science.

I spent two days recently with the engineers and software developers who write and use the simulation programs that virtually all automakers use in product development.

The creation process that was once fairly simple -- design blueprints to prototypes to testing to validation to production -- now is often extremely complex, involving engineers from several disciplines who must think in areas outside of their training.

Today’s engineers -- and especially future automotive engineers -- better be good at what is known deep inside the engineering world as “multiphysics.”

“There are different people who look at the structure, who look at fluids, who look at electromagnets. That is single physics,” says Sandeep Sovani, manager of automotive strategy at ANSYS Inc., one of the industry’s largest suppliers of engineering simulation programs.

“That’s been the culture of automotive engineering. And that has been OK until now,” Sovani says. “Now, what we are seeing with complex systems is the intersection of two physics, where oftentimes it’s a grey area, where engineers from one discipline are not good at working in another area. And that’s where things can go bad. It can lead to a poorly designed product.”

An airbag inflator is a good example of a component that uses two engineering disciplines.

An old-style, metal and rubber engine mount from a 1985 European Ford Capri. Today's mounts increasingly feature fluid to better manage engine vibration. Photo credit: BRADFORD WERNLE

Ford’s hydromounts

Ford Motor Co. engineers have been working on an advanced fluid-filled motor mount for a couple of years. Called hydromounts, they could add revolutionary refinement to vehicles with three-cylinder engines, stop-start systems and the new Shelby GT 350  Mustang, with its flat plane crankshaft 5.2-liter V-8. These engines produce unusual vibrations that require extra measures to quell. Ford has not yet said which vehicles will use the new mounts, which are expected to debut in about a year.

An old-style motor mount usually consists of rubber bonded to metal, and there is little or nothing complex about it. Fluid-filled mounts have been available for many years, but, engine mounting technology is evolving along with powertrains.

Creating this new component required engineers from different areas of Ford’s product development team to work together. Mechanical engineers needed to know how the pressure, temperature and movement of the fluid inside the mount would affect other parts. And so Ford’s fluids engineers worked with the mechanical engineers using a simulation program that let them peer inside the mount and measure the stresses.

To meet increasingly stringent safety and emissions regulations, work the kinks out of automated driving and improve connectivity, engineers are under intense pressure to design, develop, test, validate and deliver components faster and cheaper than ever. And they have to get it right the first time.

“Every product is a promise, a promise that it will perform properly and not fail,” says Jim Cashman, CEO of ANSYS.

Volvo, for instance, is on a mission to reduce the product development cycle per vehicle, from concept to production, to just 20 months by 2020, down from 30 months today.

Companies that design simulation software for engineers are also under major pressure because of the fast pace of change. Sovani says ANSYS is focused on expanding the capability of engineers, in part, by changing the way they think.

“The way we are structuring simulation is that an engineer should not consider himself a fluids expert or a mechanical expert. They should think: I am a hydromounts expert.

“We are making tools that will allow them to, instead of being a fluids expert or a mechanical expert, to be a hydromount expert and know everything about it and have all the tools in one place to solve the problem. That’s the spirit of multiphysics software,” he said.

Sounds a lot like rocket science to me.

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