A model of good design

Manufacturers are cutting the cost of design through investment in virtual tools, explains E&T.

Depending on how much store you set by official figures, it looks as though the worldwide recession is coming to an end. US manufacturing output has started rising again, Japan's economy is also back in growth - as are those of France and Germany - while China's vast manufacturing sector is continuing to recover, and recent industrial output figures from some sectors in the UK has been better than expected.

Admittedly it's still early days, but an intriguing insight into how industry has coped with managing its costs during these dark days and - perhaps more important - is preparing for the upturn and emerging new markets has come from an unexpected quarter. That quarter is control system design, and the source is design software developer The MathWorks.

Its MATLAB and Simulink packages are synonymous with model-based control system design (see 'MathWorks and MDB' opposite). And at least from what The MathWorks is seeing, more and more companies have been looking to earlier verification of their system designs, to cut costs, and to design integration for future competitive edge.

There are two further strands here - established model-based design users such as the automotive industry, and hitherto custom design users in the renewable energy sector.

"In the automotive industry, we've seen little change in the amount of enquiries from companies [as a result of the downturn]," says Steve Miller, technical marketing manager for physical modelling at The MathWorks. "But we've also seen heavy investment in certain areas, with a focus on renewable energies and cutting emissions. So although the automotive side is down, other areas are up."

Virtual design

Miller points out that the automotive industry is a mature user of model-based design, with the ability now to design practically anything in a virtual environment. But with the growing shift from large vehicles to small ones comes the need to ensure designs match that shift.

It's also well known that car makers regularly use each other's components, so companies are increasingly relying on each other. This entails sharing information.

"Car makers need to share information to help make sure each other's components do what they're supposed to do, to incorporate the best of every component so that they work well with each other," Miller says. So, increasingly, car companies are having to integrate their requirements into the design and development process.

In the renewables sector, Miller has seen an upsurge of interest. "Solar and wind power are the two big ones at the moment, after which comes wave power - we've seen a spike of interest here lately, where there are a number of strategies out there but with no clear winner yet," he says.

"The challenge here is that companies have come up with their own custom tools and processes. But it's getting to the stage where renewables are getting more attention, so more companies are popping up and trying to develop their own systems. And that includes companies who weren't in this sector before trying to jump on board."

This means established names in the sector - with their own, possibly inefficient, design process - are having to compete with those who have well developed processes. "So those with a custom process are talking to us about optimising their control system with the rest of their design," Miller says.

There's also a lot more interest in the topic of power in general, he says, from companies producing other types of devices and who want to make them more power-efficient.

"For example, companies that design computers, or banks of computers, want to be able to manage the power the machines draw, so they're performing analyses that haven't been done in the past. And that's because power's become more expensive and is such a hot topic now."

So the main focus for The MathWorks at the moment is to identify these areas of integration for complex systems and to do so earlier in the design and development process.

But 'early' means different things to different companies, Miller says. "First there are the established users like the automotive industry I mentioned earlier, and their need to integrate requirements into design and development. Then there are companies for whom early verification means different things, even though they're all integrating at the hardware stage.

"For some, 'early' means developing model-based design processes, so they're moving from detecting errors at the hardware stage to detecting them in simulation before moving to integration. Others, such as signal processing and communications companies, are also detecting integration errors at the hardware stage but now software tools are available that allow them to carry out simulations."

Until now, Miller says, many companies have been able to get away with a development process that's been "less than integrated". Not any more.

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