Tools That Say: 'Don't Tell Me the Answer, Tell Me the Problem'

Kim Phelan

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and it couldn’t be more true than in the world of software technology used by OEM design engineers for the design and simulation of metal casting components. That’s because one of the biggest advancements in parts design and simulation software is bisecting one of the biggest shifts in the parts engineering environment––unprecedented problem-solving capabilities have entered the software marketplace as OEMS are losing their deepest casting-design knowledge base to the golf course ... or fill-in-the blank activities of a huge retiring generation of design engineers. 

Two leading software innovators, MAGMA and AutoDesk, call their contributions to the thinking software revolution by different names, but the premises of autonomous engineering (MAGMASOFT) and generative design (AutoDesk’s Fusion 360) are fundamentally alike: The tools come alongside the OEM parts designer––as well as his/her foundry engineering support team––with more than a mere blank CAD screen upon which to create a metal casting part. Rather, these solutions have become more like virtual colleagues to which the designer may pose casting problems and design parameters, and receive guidance distilled from countless possibilities.

All for such a time as this, as academically savvy young engineers come behind the exodus of many manufacturers’ in-house casting design experts. These bright but inexperienced parts designers may lack practical casting design skills, but they won’t be caught in the knowledge limbo if given the opportunity to use solve-it-with-you software partners.

AFS Corporate Member MAGMA Foundry Technologies Inc. USA (Schaumburg, Illinois), a subsidiary of MAGMA Giessereitechnologie GmbH, is the proprietor of MAGMASOFT autonomous engineering software technology.  This product is the foundation upon which the company’s product portfolio is built. Combining design and simulation functions, the tool calculates and narrows down precise design pathways from thousands of casting variables based on the design engineer’s prerequisites. MAGMA USA President Steve Sikorski compares the breadth of project capabilities to an autonomous vehicle––just tell it where you want to go and it takes you from A to B, or even A to Z as the case may be. 

At the front end, perhaps the engineer’s chief goals include no porosity, least number of risers, a better yield and best possible cycle time, say four parts per five minutes instead of one in a permanent mold setting, for example. Autonomous engineering then sifts through potentially thousands of design and process scenarios and proposes the optimal solution, including the size and position for risers, pouring temperature range, and the ability to compare different casting processes such as sand casting, investment casting and permanent mold for an aluminum part. 

“The reality is, an engineer can’t run 1,000 designs and assess them, but the software can run that for you,” Sikorski said. “It takes the top designs that meet your criteria and your objective, ranks them and says, out of the thousand [options] this will have the best outcome. As an engineer, you still need to go assess it, but it’s done that work upfront.”

MAGMASOFT autonomous engineering goes further to producing sand cores and can perform heat treatment and stress testing, both critical considerations at the beginning of a design stage, according to Sikorski, to understand what may happen to the part in terms of distorting. Heat treatment and stress capability are more recent areas of focus.

“We can even link the [design] data to several types of finite element analysis (FEA) packages for further analysis; for load simulations, for example, so we can take the residual stresses from the entire casting process including heat treatment––and even change it on the machined part,” Sikorski said. “Then designers can consider these effects on their final part design and if it meets the necessary specifications.”

Generative Design

At Autodesk, Fusion 360 harnesses artificial intelligence with cloud computing to put the power of generative design into the parts design engineer’s toolkit, according to Brian Frank, senior product line manager, Generative Design & Simulation at Autodesk. The goal, he said, is to take all the ways in which a problem could be solved and let them compete, from additive, subtractive, perhaps three-axis milling, to casting, which may offer a better price and performance. Figuratively speaking, Fusion tells the designer, ‘define the problem,’ and the system creates multiple options for the engineer to analyze. 

“It’s enabling them to quickly explore and consider many more solutions than they would’ve had time to consider without the partnership of the computer,” Frank said. “What we hear from generative design users is that not only are they finding solutions that exceed their performance, weight reduction, materials specifications and affordable manufacturability requirements, but the solutions they’re adopting are very different from what they ever would’ve been able to consider without help from the computer.” 

As an OEM’s product scales, design and production needs change. 

“You can define one problem and have three designs that graduate you as your product starts to scale in the market, where you go from small production volumes to larger production volumes to huge production volumes,” Frank added. “You really need to have different manufacturing methods in place to make sure that you’re getting the right return on the product.”

From the generative design perspective, the more actionable information put into a designer’s hands the better. 

“What we’re really trying to do with generative is to inform the process,” Frank said. “The information is being generated, and the system is using it to help make some design decisions like where to put material, where to remove material, where to maintain dimensions. Generative design turns [traditional design] on its head––instead of telling the system what the solution is and then getting some additional insights to that solution, it’s really more like, ‘Tell me what the problem is, and let me help solve the problem.’ And I think that’s really a change that’s going to have a tremendous impact moving forward.”

Can We Talk?

Besides the depletion of some their most experienced team members, OEM engineering departments cope with the significant, ever-present challenge of communication and collaboration, both among their own remotely working colleagues as well as foundry engineering partners in the U.S. and around the globe. The latter gets especially dicey, as a Cummins Engine Co. parts engineer explains.

Despite the reshoring movement sparked this year by the pandemic, Aleksandr Lesin, a Cummins global leader of FSP Analysis Lead Manufacturing based in Columbus, Indiana, still works with suppliers all over the world, sometimes talking to India at 5 a.m. and China at 10 p.m. later that evening. Design is always a compromise, he notes, a series of tradeoffs between cost, performance, weight, life of product––“You name it, it’s a compromise,” says the Soviet-born engineer who emigrated to the U.S. in 1996 and joined Cummins in 2000.

But the usual compromises and complexities of any part-design project are exacerbated by worldwide outsourcing, he believes.
Whether it’s navigating world time zones, language barriers, cultural differences and even file transfer speeds across oceans, all with the pressure of often-truncated production schedules, the headaches of a design engineer in 2020 can be dizzying. Lesin notes that outsourcing to the “cheapest” (aka “most cost effective”) metalcaster on earth frequently proves to be the contrary when he must dedicate time and resources to educate the winning bidder who, once awarded the production contract, insists there’s no way the casting specs can be followed within the original quoted price. 

One solution for the heavy industrial engine company has been effective in curbing considerable misunderstandings and rework––simple on the surface, but deeply impactful.

“What we started doing at Cummins several years ago is Early Supplier Engagement,” said Lesin. “It’s an amazing initiative; we bring [casting] suppliers on board at the early stage to discuss design with them and see if they can make it ... I’ve seen designs that were designed having one technology in mind, but when you talk to the people who make those components, they say, ‘You know what, this is not designed for our technology; you need to be doing this either in different material or in a different technology.’ We must talk to the supplier early and use all the resources available,” he added.

Among those resources today are software solutions that certainly facilitate improved communication and collaboration. 

Before and during dialog between OEM and foundry design teams, the ability to anticipate best design features, materials and processes at the early design conception point is a valuable preventive remedy to the demoralizing fate of design do-overs, which Frank at Autodesk likens to the maddening act of pulling a loose thread on a sweater––“You never know where you’re going to stop,” he said. “If you have to make a change, it’s really time consuming to trace that change everywhere to make sure it’s not having an unintended impact or consequence.” 

Like Frank, Sikorski has observed many scenarios in which part designers have set their design in stone then lobbed it over the wall to the foundry to execute, a sure recipe for rework and complications that are both technically thread-tugging and mentally hair-pulling for both teams. One way his company seeks to lower the proverbial collaboration walls is with MAGMAinteract, a bolt-on, interactive communication tool its users’ suppliers and customers can download for free to a tablet or laptop. 

“It’s a tool where, for instance, a foundry engineer can simulate a project, create some files, and the engineers in the design world can then rotate, cut and slice, they can look at filling movies, they can look at different data,” said Sikorski. “It’s more of a communication piece where instead of sitting here going through a presentation, you’ve got interaction.”

Needless to say, the pandemic, too, has exploded the demand for collaborative tools.

“All of a sudden, people are working from home offices, they’re not able to travel, and the need for very effective collaboration platforms has really become front and center to keep things moving,” said Frank. “We’ve seen a huge influx of people wanting to understand how they can leverage Fusion because it’s a native cloud-based application, which allows for that collaboration on the data no matter where you are in the world ... you have this capability to invite people to your project, share information and share feedback, and collaborate effectively, which is paramount, whether it’s from a competing CAD platform, whether it’s 2D information, the cloud platform is there to make sure we translate and make available all forms of data that help inform the process.”

What to Watch For

Live tradeshows morphed into online events this year, a blow to one of the most effective ways to immerse in the latest casting design technologies; yet many companies have also hosted virtual user groups, which MAGMA-user Lesin, for one, has found very useful. 

“It is maybe not as fun as going and meeting people and talking over problems, but we still get a chance to discuss presentations,” he said. 

Bottom line, though it may take creativity or even raw determination to stay glued to a screen for virtual learning, design-engineers are well-advised to keep abreast of new tools in the marketplace––tools that support the constantly changing environment of designing OEM components. Incidentally, software sources universally agree it’s perfectly reasonable and beneficial for the OEM parts designer to acquire, learn and use both design and simulation software, budget permitting. The view is, the more detailed casting insight at the beginning stages of design and throughout the process, the better. 

To further inspire exploration and inform engineers’ scope of choices, boxed highlights of four additional software products––including both design and simulation functions––are provided. These segments of manufacturer-supplied information, as well as the interviews conducted, collectively point to five key considerations when shopping for ways to take the OEM parts design process to the next level.

1.) Probe into the provider’s tech support. Are there active, engaged user groups? Talk to users and listen for how the software maker has responded to their problems. Also, does the company offer ongoing training for your staff? What resources are provided to help users maximize all the features and functions?

2.) Has the software been recognized or awarded by unbiased industry organizations or publications? While not a sole criteria, independent judges and editors may lend valuable commentary. 

3.) Look at their new-release trends. How frequently are products updated, and are the changes truly valuable and responsive to design-engineer requirements? Or, do they make changes only for the sake of change, rearranging tools, for instance, with little benefit. Ask for examples.  

4.) Inquire who’s on the team. Some say casting software is only as good as the expertise of the people who support it––and you. Are there experienced foundry veterans on board ready to advise you if needed?

5.) Examine real-life examples of what’s been accomplished with the software, both within your industry and elsewhere. How has it resolved a major obstacle? And what are the unique features that have helped designers create masterpiece castings?    CS

Click here to view the article in the digital edition.