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Autodesk's Sim 360 is Analysis for Everyone

Inexpensive and as-needed FEA does not require expensive workstation

By Jason Brett, May 7, 2014

Autodesk's Sim 360 software represents a new approach to simulation, modeling, and finite element analysis (FEA). Sim 360 uses the power of cloud computing to bring server farms, secure file sharing and storage, and world-class simulation capabilities to the small engineering office and independent designers - and does it at a can't-say- no price point.

I've spent three weeks exploring the abilities of Sim 360 and have been very impressed by what it can do. But to talk about Sim 360 in isolation would be to gloss over a much bigger picture. Sim 360 is one component of an entire line-up of software branded "360" by Autodesk. It represents a rethinking of how engineers and designers could use computing power, perhaps as significant as the shift from mainframe to desktop computers: Autodesk's 360 product line moves from desktop computers to a ubiquitous computing environment that incorporates smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers, and relies on high-speed internet access.

In this way, engineers have quick access to designs and software tools from almost anywhere, at any time, and on many types of computing device. As well, Autodesk's 360 products support on-line data storage so that users can be in communication with colleagues, collaborator, and clients, as well as a range of other cloud-based computing services.

My Realworld Test: Hot End 3D Printer Nozzle

To give Sim 360 a real test I had a suitable challenge in mind. Recently, I developed an interest in low-cost 3D printing. For a 3D printer to work reliably, a key component is the "hot end," the place where the plastic filament is melted and then extruded to create the physical product, layer by layer (see figure 1). A crucial aspect of hot end design is controlling the size of the melt zone. When the melt zone is too small, the temperature of the plastic filament may become sufficiently high to be squeezed through the very small opening of the hot end's nozzle; when too large, the molten plastic may drip from the nozzle as blobs, causing print quality issues.

Figure 1: A typical "J-head" 3D printer hot end in action. Filament is fed in the top, melted plastic is extruded out the bottom. Controlling the size of the "melt zone" affects the quality of the print job

Now, there are many successful print head designs available, but most of them were developed through the process of trial and error. I wanted to take a look at how heat flows around the hot end, and then to see where optimization could be achieved. This would be a fun way to check out the abilities of Sim 360.

Analyzing Nozzle Design in Sim 360

In light of my goal to make this a real-world test, I approached Sim 360 the way I approach most new software: I paid no attention to the manual and skipped the instructional videos, but jumped in to the figurative "deep end." I've been told that this isn't the mature, intelligent approach to learning new software, but I wanted to see how far I could get without getting stuck.

The result was a pair of observations: firstly, I compliment Autodesk's interface designers. Although the interface, at first, looked quite different from a ‘traditional' Autodesk Inventor style screen, everything I needed was laid out in a way that I could find it with just a couple clicks of the mouse. The icons made sense, the drop down menus had options where I expected to find them, and the dialog boxes were easy to understand. I occasionally got stuck trying to use the "F4+left mouse button" to rotate the model as I do in Inventor, but once I remembered to use Shift+middle mouse button, it took me all of about ten minutes to import a model, mesh it, set the boundary conditions and press the Solve button (see figure 2).

Figure 2: Sim 360 imported my model and made meshing and assigning boundary conditions a relatively simple matter

Secondly, I should probably apologize to Autodesk's technical writing and instructional video designers for initially skipping over their well-written help files and useful video clip tutorials. Eventually I did find myself needing to call upon the help files; when I did, I found the information I needed quickly and got on with the project. Later I went back to watch some of the videos on Autodesk's site and I found they provided a good overview of Sim 360 and its capabilities. They even left me with ideas for future projects. The introductory videos and tutorials are excellent introductions to anyone new to finite element analysis.

Experienced Autodesk users might find that the SIM 360 interface appears slightly different from what they are used to, but it is not revolutionary. Myself, I found the SIM 360 interface reasonably intuitive and I was able to achieve meaningful results without going through the "You did WHAT to the interface!?!" experience I get such as when a certain operating system was "upgraded."

In fact, the interface is set up to mirror the natural workflow of a finite element simulation. Everything fell into place in the order I expected. One step that stood out to me was the Simplify step, in which Sim 360 guided me through the process of finding aspects to the model that require special attention during meshing. For instance, Sim 360 found thin parts that are better modeled as shells. It identified small features could impair the effectiveness of the simulation.

Running the Simulation on the Cloud

I found all this to be useful feature. But it was what happened after I pressed the Solve icon that made Sim 360 unique in my experience. Rather than watching my computer's CPU bog down as it tried single-handedly to solve the complex set of equations, a small notification appeared in the bottom left hand corner of my screen and with that the problem was handed off to an Autodesk server farm.

In less than two minutes the results downloaded to my computer, and I was viewing the temperature profile of a "J Head" 3D printer hot end (see figure 3). The benefits of this approach were immediately apparent: Not only could my five-year-old home computer solve complex simulations as quickly as my much newer computer at work, but I could attack larger and more complex simulations than would be realistic on a single-core machine.

Figure 3: Sim 360 can display the results in a variety of formats. Here we see that the temperature of the extruded plastic, as it comes out the tip of the nozzle, will be 204 degrees Celsius, which is a very good fit with my observations of the real print head

I don't run enough complex simulations to justify the cost of building my own server farm, but I have run into the situations where I take extended coffee breaks waiting for my computer to churn through complex simulations. With Sim 360, Autodesk takes care of running software on the server farm, and I can access the computing power whenever I need it by buying credits in advance. An even more productive aspect is that during the brief period the simulation is being run on the cloud, my computer is free for other work, such as modifying the design, setting up the next simulation, or analyzing the results of a previous run. This way, Sim 360 is not a mere upgrade to simulation software, but also a no-charge upgrade to my computer hardware!

The results of the simulation were, as I expected, impressive. I had designed the model in Inventor to duplicate the J-head hot end that I use in my 3D printer, and set the boundary conditions in Sim 360 to match standard printing conditions. The tip temperature in the model came out within two degrees (Celsius) of the tip temperature I measured during printing. Having confirmed the accuracy of my base model, I was now free to experiment with a variety of arrangements to focus the heat at the tip. Over the course of several evenings I added forced air convection, cooling fins, and changed the overall dimensions of the structure. I even tried different materials.

It was at this stage of the process that Autodesk's Fusion 360 design software came into play (see figure 4). Fusion 360 allowed me to access and edit CAD models from over 50 different CAD packages. I will spend more time exploring Fusion 360 before I can speak to all of its attributes, but it appears to bring into the CAD world some of the intuitive and organic design tools that I expect to see in 3D animation software. This can be a benefit to anyone who has to do just a little final sculpting to a model, or wants to make some quick changes without going back to the original parametric part model.

Pricing

An annual license for Sim 360 starts at $900, but it can licensed by the month at $115. If I need to perform complex simulations at only one stage of a job, then I only pay for using simulation power for a shorter time. The $115 monthly fee includes just four simulations; each additional one costs 10 of Autodesk's cloud credits, priced currently at $1 per credit, therefore $10 per run beyond the first four runs.

Sim 360 is available for a limited time as a free trial

Figure 4: Fusion 360 works with Sim 360 to offer a range of tools for quickly and creatively editing the model. Here I have added a cooling fin to see how that will affect the size of the melt zone

Conclusion

I am impressed by Sim 360. The interface is easy to use, and its ability to solve problems "on the cloud" opens up a whole new world of computing power for me. Added to this, it has the ability to work with multiple CAD formats on Mac and Windows computers, making it useful for all CAD users, not just ones who traditionally use Autodesk software.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Sim 360 is its pricing structure. You pay for what you need and when you need it - as little as $10 an analysis!

With a free trial, Autodesk is betting that once users try Sim 360, they will find a way to fit it into their design process. After working with Sim 360, I can see why they should and I encourage you to check it out so you can see how the cloud can be applied to solving problems in your line of work.

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Additional Information

http://www.autodesk.com/products/sim-360

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About the Author

  Jason Brett teaches electronics and materials science in the Technology Teacher Education Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. He 13 years of experience in technology education. More...

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