The Technology Preview for Autodesk Inventor Optimization has been released on Autodesk Labs for some time now. I wanted to spend a few minutes discussing how this nifty little application fits into Digital Prototyping and the two things it does for the stress analysis and FEA arena:
- Provides a streamlined method of interaction within Autodesk Inventor for creating Parametric Configurations, and
- Performs the Parametric Optimization calculations on the cloud.
Inventor already possesses a fantastic Parametric Optimization capability. This is a technology preview for Cloud Computing and interaction that we might expect to see in the future. Since the final application of this preview has not yet been revealed, I’ll skip things that seem to be missing, and head right to what it does (and doesn’t do).
Some enhancements that were added for the Autodesk Labs releases are:
- Asynchronous workflow
- Job Monitor
- Improved parameter access
- Improved FEA contact detection
- Option to refine solution accuracy
- Email notification of optimization completion.
Parametric Optimization is used to create potential variations in a Digital Prototype when seeking specific improvements in design performance such as material usage, part thicknesses, and weight reduction, etc. These variations can be substituted by Stress Analysis and run as a group. The resulting data can be reviewed and the application can pinpoint which variation resulted in the best choice based on a designated target, such as material stress safety factors.
The Optimization Technology Preview is an interface that works inside Inventor, but does so apart from the Stress Analysis Environment. It’s separate interface isolates the tools and workflow required to establish the Stress Analysis Optimizations and distribute the project to the Cloud servers that actually complete the analysis before sending it back to Inventor.
A new Optimization Panel is assigned to the Ribbon that will initiate an applet, giving some control over Materials, Constraints, Parameters, and basic settings. Most functions appear as you might expect. The preview only contains Fixed and Pin constraints. Once applied, these are represented by glyphs superimposed at the location of each applied constraint, and are directly editable without returning to any other controls. Forces are applied and depicted in a similar manner. The Settings panel provide optimization targets and refinement inputs.
Parameters are entirely cool. After picking the Parameters function, you are prompted to pick the feature to be affected. All Parameters that can be reached are represented by tags that appear similar to probe labels, leadered into the respective locations on the part. Picking one of these will flag a checkbox indicating that it is to be added to the variation, and opens a field that permits direct access to the array of values to be applied. All Parameter tags selected for evaluation will be left visible after the Parameters function is completed. The reminder will disappear as before.
Parameters were especially nice, taking on a more direct access feeling, and delivered substantially better situational awareness of the evaluation.
The Cloud – aka Someone Else’s Problem
The application then deals with sending the project out to external servers to be calculated and then returned. As each of the required optimization features are applied, a check box appears on the application buttons, indicating that a valid feature has been applied. Once all the required variations are suitably established, the Optimize button activates. Picking this will start the process of packing the project variations and subsequent transmission to the receiving server.
The process status is displayed for each of the variations as they are being processed. At this point other work can be resumed while the process is completed asynchronously on the external server. A Job Monitor in the system tray keeps track of the processing and Login status, which can be viewed at will. The technician is then notified by email when the process is completed.
FEA Contact Detection
This is one thing that still intrigues me is the complete lack of contact interraction. Stress analysis across assembly constraints appears seamless. The contact solutions are actually calcutated on the cloud as part of the analysis process.
The application optimizes based on Safety Factor derived from the material yield strength. Once the Optimization process is completed, it is downloaded when entering the Optimization application, and the Results button is then activated. After picking this, the application toolbar will change and display the results functionality. These include functions that:
- control the View settings that direct the graphic representation to depict the stresses and displacement as desired, as well as labels and a few other factors
- visual sorting of the variations
- an HTML report that characterizes the Optimized components including weight reduction percentage and overall mass characteristics.
The sort option is the coolest part of the results. This permits you to inspect the confirmed positive variations. If a desired variation differs from the current state of the design, it can be posted back to the design by picking the Commit button.
After committing to a configuration, the application will prompt you with a few specifics about the variation, and ask you to accept the updates to the model. All negative results are simply not returned with the results and are unavailable for investigation.
Digital Simulations Teamwork
Two people worked real hard to make sure I could completely evaluate the application. Bankim Charegaonkar, a Project Manager and Matt Pooley, a Software Development Manager for the Autodesk Manufacturing Group’s Digital Simulations team worked very hard to get me through the goal posts as I performed odd configurations on a model that was not designed for such customizations, and sent one array after another to their server. One area of frustration came where the application and I no longer saw eye-to-eye. The team quickly figured out the problem, got me past it, and noted that more failure response may be needed in future updates.
While this is still a technology preview, and I do expect to see some changes prior to implementation, it does show how streamlined a complex thing like stress analysis can be made. Since all remaining processing is handled externally, this provides a substantial time savings. Once installed, the entire workflow for a simple configuration took between 3 – 5 minutes.
I hesitate to further comment on the streamlining until a final form is offered. I’m not concerned by the limited constraints and the like, as I know that a limited test is easier to evaluate. No, I’m concerned with the limited analysis results that I received. Only the positive results were returned.
- Conflicting configurations were ignored, never sent to the server. I need to know why, where and how. If Inventor can evaluate the conflict, then it can tell me what it found. I chewed up a great deal of time trying to see what was wrong with the optimization.
- Failed configurations simply did not get reported or returned. As you know, seeing failed simulations and analysis is often more important than seeing the successful condition. Not being able to see how the model reacted during failed configurations will force me to run the configurations in a process where I can. Costly oversight is inevitable by not spotting user error that becomes evident in the combination of failed and successful analysis, often perceived by expectation and experience. This topic begins to edge into the ‘Too Simplified is dangerous in inexperienced hands’ debate that has been circling on and off this year, and I won’t go any deeper.
- Also, some form of intuitive ‘return to work’ or ‘minimize status’ button should be available on the Job Status Panel. You can return to other work, but you have to quit Optimization, and the ‘correct’ method to do so is not clear.
Autodesk desires to remove numerous routine steps involved in the Stress Analysis environment and create a simple streamlined approach to parametric optimizations. I think the possibilities from this preview are good, especially the external processing. I expect that this application will inevitably be merged into the Inventor Simulations Environments in the near future. How much more should they include? I won’t be sure until I see a bit more from this application, and how it sits with the rest of the Simulation environment family. However I can say that all in all this application was surprisingly fast and easy to use. If the contact detection and analysis on the cloud continues to perform this well, this will likely be the leading edge of a wave of reconfigured and cloud based tools within the Autodesk Digital Prototyping arena.