Altair’s Vision: Solution Breadth Surprises

References Cited

Altair, Mechanical Computer Aided Engineering (MCAE), Model Based System Engineering (MBSE)

Altair is a software and services provider that aims to improve decision making in development. This post examines their offerings and the related benefits.

If you’ve heard of Altair before, you likely consider them an analysis company. In the last five years, however, their solution set has broadened dramatically. There’s still a ton of analysis tools in the toolbox. However, there is a lot more there than you’d think. In this post, we’ll take a closer look at their offerings across the engineering disciplines involved in developing discrete products.

Let’s jump into it.

Altair’s Mission

Been around the mechanical simulation and analysis space? Then you’re surely heard of Altair. They have a long legacy of developing new technologies, like topology optimization some twenty-five years ago and pre-processors and post-processors almost thirty years ago, and bringing them to market for general use. Since that time, however, their mission has become broader.

Overall, they intend to improve how engineers make design decisions. Their position is that engineers should be using a set of tools that allows them to make better design decisions ahead of getting into detailed design, which is when you would get into MCAD. In their eyes, there is a distinction between designing a product and documenting it for manufacturing. And, frankly, I don’t disagree with them.

What’s interesting about their vision, however, is how it has expanded. We’ll get into how their solutions apply to different engineering disciplines below, but the quick summary is that they no longer just play in the mechanical design space. Their tools are applicable to electrical and electronic systems, embedded software and IoT platforms. Yet in each case, they fall back to that idea of empowering better design (or development) decisions through democratized simulation tools.

So, with that understood, let’s start to look at their offerings.

Mechanical Design

Most of Altair’s software solutions sit in this bucket, so there is a lot to unpack.

Design and Analysis Tools

The idea behind these tools is to enable the design and engineering community to make better decisions based on simulation early and throughout the design phase. Note that their solidThinking brand is distributed through a channel of more than 200 partners around the world. HyperWorks relies on Altair’s patented units-based licensing model. Here are some of the offerings.

  • When it comes to 2D sketching and 3D modeling, Altair has some interesting offerings. Evolve provides freeform sketching, modeling, and rendering functionality. This is primarily related to aesthetic design where you need to worry about how light plays across the surface of a product. Note that you won’t find much prismatic Parametric Modeling capabilities here. However, given how 3D printing has the potential to change how engineers design, this might play well into the future needs of engineers.
  • With Generative Design becoming an increasingly popular topic, it is important to be aware of Altair’s Inspire. This software application is a combined MCAD and simulation tool that allows engineers to quickly model and assess the structural characteristics of a design. Furthermore, there are powerful Topology Optimization capabilities here that can automate and suggest new designs. Again, considering how 3D printing is allaying the traditional constraints on design, this is a highly applicable going forward for engineers. Keep in mind that this is not a full production MCAD offering. You won’t find drawing or MBD capabilities here. You won’t find any extended capabilities like generating toolpaths. This tool is focused, as Altair intended.
  • In addition to the design and structural analysis capabilities, Altair offers a few more options. Click2CastClick2Extrude, and Click2Form are simulation tools that allow designers and engineers to assess the manufacturability of casted, extruded, and stamped parts. This lets them avoid issues like voids, porosity, and material tears in manufacturing processes.

Expert Simulation Tools

Now, let’s get into expert simulation and analysis, which is very broad. HyperWorks is their overarching suite of simulation tools. There are many different components of the suite.

  • HyperMesh is their pre-processor. It accepts geometry from a wide range of MCAD applications, including CATIA, Creo, SOLIDWORKS, NX, Fibersim, and others. It also accepts neutral formats like IGES, STEP, JT, Parasolid, and more. It supports surface and solid (hexa and tetra) for practically all physics that are needed. It provides a mesh morphing capabilities that allows a user to drag geometry while the mesh updates in real time. There is also automated and interactive meshing here as well. Note that this tool can export out files for almost all solvers, including those not offered by Altair.
  • HyperView is their post-processor. Here, you have all the traditional capabilities like fringe plots with animations or deformations for results. A wide variety of solvers are supported here, including all of Altair’s offerings but also ANSYS, Abaqus, Dyna, MARC, Nastran, SIMPACK, and others. Its been architected to work with very large datasets, as more analyses are taking more physics into account. This solution includes Hypergraph, a graphing toolset that can work on top of simulation results. Functionality that can automate the generation of analysis reports is also provided.
  • They offer a variety of solvers for different types of physics. Optistruct is their structural analysis solver. RADIOSS is their nonlinear structural solver, meant to be used for certain engineering physics environments. AcuSolve is a Navier-Stokes based fluid dynamics solver. nanoFluidX is a smooth particle hydrodynamics (SPH) solver used for fluid flow around complex geometries. MotionSolve is meant for multi-body dynamics that allows models to be built using a diagram-like interface with underlying equations. ESAComp is a solver for composites. HyperCrash is used for crash test simulations, most frequently applied in the automotive industry. There are more solvers that Altair offers, but they are more applicable to electrical and electronics design. We’ll talk about them there.
  • Let’s touch on Topology Optimization again, because OptiStruct is the most tenured software application in the category. Altair started developing this technology almost twenty-five years ago with the University of Michigan. Over the years, they have refined it to a very mature and very advanced offering. The underlying technology is used in Inspire, but its more advanced version is available in OptiStruct.
  • Practically every engineering role leverages spreadsheets to some extent, including simulation analysts. The problem is that when it comes to running highly complex mathematical formulations, it is easy to run into the limits of spreadsheets. Going beyond that is the purpose of Compose. It is a math engine with direct CAE and test data readers that use a matrix-based computational language. You can write your own complicated mathematical operations and then, once registered with Hyperworks, use them as part of your analyses. There is a lot of freedom and power involved with this tool. There are lots of implications for this tool in the context of IoT and system modeling and simulation.
  • HyperStudy includes a number of capabilities that allow engineers to improve their design. This includes the traditional parametric-based optimization. But it also includes design exploration, stochastic and sensitivity studies. Users can gain a lot of insight into their designs with this functionality.
  • SimLab is a templatized automation solution that is becoming increasingly popular today. With this functionality, experts can embed best practices in a template that an infrequent user, and even expert users, can leverage to accelerate their analysis.
  • PBS Works is a High-Performance Computing and cloud management software suite. With it, you can dole out jobs to different private, public, and hybrid computing resources to solve simulations faster.

Materials Level Analysis

One of Altair’s offering to specifically note is Multiscale Designer. This tool allows you to model materials at a micro level. You can then set up macro level simulations and connect it to the micro level simulation to run a coupled analysis. This allows for more accurate simulations, especially when it comes to planned failures in products.

Takeaways

Altair offers some good mechanical design and analysis tools with Inspire particularly standing out. Engineers can use this tool to make better design decisions and then document them in a more traditional MCAD application. When it comes to expert simulation, the Hyperworks suite may well be the broadest and deepest available. Career analysts can get a lot of value from this suite. What’s the bottom line? If you’re an engineering-heavy company, you should seriously consider both of these toolsets.

Electrical and Electronic Analysis

Let’s get some things out of the way up front. Altair doesn’t offer any design tools for distributed electrical systems, electronics packaging or board design. However, they do offer simulation tools for these kinds of designs. And in today’s emerging era of the Internet of Things (IoT), that’s actually a big deal. So let’s review how they apply.

Distributed Electrical Systems Analysis

Let’s say you have a new product all ready for the IoT era. You’ve fitted with a bunch of sensors. You’ve dropped in a few busses. You have some embedded control systems. You have a few antennas to get the product connected. You power it up and… whoops… data isn’t being transferred or a sensor has interference. That’s the problem with all these electronics: they emit strong electromagnetic fields around them. They can interfere with one another. Troubleshooting what is wrong can be painful and time-consuming because physical tests don’t tell you the root cause of the problem, it only tells you there’s a problem. This is where Altair’s products come into play. Note that these tools work with the HyperWorks set of solutions, most notably HyperMesh, HyperView, and HyperStudy, as well as other third-party solutions. Here are the tools in this realm.

  • FEKO is a solver for high-frequency electromagnetics. That means you can use it for antenna design, antenna placement, determining hazards from radiation and even the interaction of biology with electromagnetic fields.
  • Winprop is a solver for electromagnetic wave propagation. This is good for sensors like Light Detection and Range (LIDAR) if you are instrumenting your products with smart systems like auto-parking for cars. Again, it uses the HyperWorks set of tools for pre-processing, post-processing and more.

Note that the design definition for these tools can be brought in from a wide range of CAD packages and other CAE solvers.

Electronics Analysis

A lot of companies are simply purchasing electronics off the shelf to incorporate into their products, but some need to develop their own stuff. In these cases, you need to make sure that the electromagnetic physics of the component work. Flux is a solver for static and low-frequency electromagnetics. This is needed for the design of motors, actuators, and sensors, but also electric machines and high power equipment. Again, it leverages the HyperWorks set of tools for pre-processing, post-processing and more. These tools also integrate with many 3rd party tools like CAD packages and CAE solvers.

Integrated Circuit Design and Simulation

Some manufacturers are purchasing off-the-shelf processors to incorporate into their products, or simply getting standard integrated embedded systems. But some manufacturers need custom processors to keep up with the processing needs of control systems and data collection. Those ACIS, FPGAs and other ICs require some simulation to ensure that they work as intended. This is where Altair’s MODELiiS comes into play. This toolset supports both IC design and simulation.

Takeaways

The amount of electronics in today’s products is only increasing. Using simulation and analysis here, beyond the traditional checks required of electrical engineering, is an oft-overlooked need. Altair provides some incredibly powerful and useful tools in this regard. If you’re jamming more electronics in your products, you might want to take a look here.

Embedded Systems Development

One might assume that Altair really doesn’t have much of anything to do with embedded software development, but that assumption would be wrong. They actually have good components to an overall solution here.

Embed is the tool for developing embedded software for control and other systems. This tool was developed to be an easy-to-use graphical environment. Engineers can simply drag and drop components representing functions from a library into something akin to a logic diagram. Once the model is set up, you can run simulations that line up against the Model-in-the-Loop validation process. Once your software model is complete, the application can auto-generate your software code, which you can then run against a prototype processor as part of the Processor-in-the-Loop process or against the target electronic hardware as part of the Hardware-in-the-Loop process. This tool can be used on its own to automate your development process of embedded systems.

Ultimately, this set of tools is meant for the controls engineer. The idea here is to democratize the development of embedded software to non-coders. The capability set of this solution is a good fit in that regard.

Multi-Disciplinary Systems Development

Now, lets shift gears. Activate is Altair’s tool for creating multi-disciplinary simulations of a physical system. The idea is to verify functions before you build costly prototypes. These models are built through a block-diagram graphical interface. The blocks in the diagram are components that are connected to one another via inputs and outputs. Once all connected, this model can be run as a simulation of the entire system.

The Activate model is built by reusing components from a library or by creating a new one. These components come in a wide variety of functions, including:

  • Signal-Based Components: These components represent logical aspects of a system, such as an embedded system providing closed-loop control. This type of component can represent any software or electronic hardware.
  • Equation-Based Components: These components represent the behavior of physical items through formulas and equations, such as actuators, motors and even something complex like a transmission. These components are modeled with mathematical languages or reduced order analytical models
  • Co-Simulation Components: These components also represent the behavior of physical items. However, these components accomplish this by connecting to 3D analysis models that are co-simulated with this system model.
  • 3rd Party Components: These components represent a third way to represent the behavior of physical items, although this is done by connecting to models from other applications like Matlab, Modelica, other CAE solutions as well as other sources.

At the end of the day, Activate allows engineers to build and run model simulations of a system early in the development process to identify potential problems. That, in turn, enables them to sidestep system prototype failures that often derail development projects. That’s a good thing. A very good thing.

This solution is an intriguing one. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of reusing existing models to cobble together a holistic picture of a system’s performance. Furthermore, it fits the model of democratizing system simulation for non-experts.

IoT Platform

Everyone knows that connecting smart products to an IoT platform is a quickly emerging trend. Earlier in 2017, Altair acquired a company called Carriots that offers one such platform.

The Carriots platform has some standard IoT capabilities. You can connect your product and stream data from it, storing it on the cloud platform. You can use it to build apps that will let you interact with that data and potentially send commands to those connected products. So there is good functionality there.

Interestingly, Altair has been active in the data analytics space over the past 6 or 7 years. Their commercial cloud data analytics solution, rebranded as Carriots Analytics, will be tightly integrated with the Carriots IoT platform in the near future.

Overall, this is a solid offering. I expect it to mature and expand in the near future.

Recap and Conclusions

  • When it comes to enabling better decisions by the common mechanical engineer, Altair offers good options in solidThinking Evolve and Inspire. Note, however, that your designs will need to be documented in another application.
  • Altair provides possibly the broadest and deepest set of expert analysis tools in the form of Hyperworks. Their solvers cover a wide range of physics. Their pre-processor and post-processor are mature and very capable. I expect most analysis departments are already using some of these tools in some way, shape or form.
  • Altair doesn’t provide design tools for electronics and electrical systems, but they do offer very applicable analysis tools that allow engineers to make better decisions and reduce rounds of prototyping. In the IoT era, this is a growing area of need.
  • Writing software is another area where Altair provides some surprises. solidThinking Embed aims to democratize the development of code for controls engineers without making them software engineers.
  • Systems modeling and simulation is also an area where Altair offers a solution in the form of solidThinking Activate. It provides a similar purpose as solidThinking Activate: to democratize systems analysis to more engineers.
  • Carriots, Altair’s newly acquired IoT platform, offers good capabilities. I expect this to expand in the near future as they roll their analytics tools into the platform.

What’s the takeaway? Altair provides a broader set of tools than many realize. Those tools, spread across many engineering disciplines, aim to empower engineers to make better decisions. Frankly, I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the solutions that are available here. Any engineering organization that finds themselves in the middle of the complexity of IoT-enabled mechatronic products should take a closer look at the offerings here.

Those are my thoughts folks. Let me know what experience you’ve had with these tools in the comments below. Looking forward to the discussion.

Chad Jackson is an Industry Analyst at Lifecycle Insights and publisher of the engineering-matters blog. With more than 15 years of industry experience, Chad covers career, managerial and technology topics in engineering. For more details, visit his profile.