Can Architects And Engineers Work Without Models?

Researchers in England have designed new algorithms to simulate impact, friction, and other real-world forces. Bye-bye, prototypes?

Three-D modeling revolutionized the engineering world, allowing designers to view digital mockups of their vehicles (wheeled, waterborne, or aerodynamic) from any angle instead of a handful of perspective drawings--but engineers still need to create scaled-down prototypes to test for wind, friction, and other real-world conditions--a pricey process. But what if you didn’t need models at all? Researchers at the University of Bristol are boldly claiming that their new algorithmic technique will do away with physical prototypes entirely.

This is critical not just for the expense--wind tunnels and other specialized environmental replicators are few and far between--but for the access this will give to smaller businesses and citizen engineers. Forget human-carrying vehicles: Chopping down prototype and testing costs will make engineering any kind of product more affordable, from new quadcopters to impact-resistant Internet-connected gadgets.

CAD/CAM 3D modeling has been around for around 20 years, but it’s been limited to linear modeling: If I’ve got a ruler hanging over the edge of a desk, I can measure the stress when I bend it in different directions. What I can’t measure are “impact” and other nonlinear tests, like how a model of landing gear deals with the impact of hitting the runway (and whether its structure will handle thousands of “cycles” of impacts in the landing gear’s lifetime).

I have it on good authority (that is, my father, an aerodynamicist with 30 years of experience for McDonnell Douglas and Boeing) that prototypes will always be a necessary step in the process. Which is obviously necessary when working on clandestine high-profile government projects like this, but funders at any level require the assurance of tried ‘n true methods before they greenlight production.

What these new algorithms will do is allow anyone to digitally test the hell out of their design before creating a (hopefully) single prototype to confirm the digital model’s predictions. Again, this is big, even if you don’t need to create a massive vehicle: Impact and nonlinear tests on startup-friendly devices will slash costs down to simple man-hours on computers. Power to the deskhounds and garage tinkerers!

[Image: Flickr user Teddy Kwok]

Article Tags: 3-D modelingCAD/CAM