Over the years, war planning has graduated from sketches on paper to computer simulation. Now an incredible number of scenarios are played out on the computer screen long before a single solider is sent off to war, saving time, money, and lives. Computer modeling has worked so well for defense planning, that buildings, factories, roadways, and millions of products, from toys to vacuum cleaners, are now designed by computer simulation.

Senior level executives in manufacturing and construction may already be familiar with simulation software. However, these applications are becoming increasingly important, and, chances are, many CIOs will eventually need to integrate these programs into their network. Here’s what you need to know to prepare for the simulation explosion.

New spin on an old discipline
What’s modeling and simulation all about? “It’s a nice way to experiment without screwing around with real people in real machines, buildings, or battlefields,” said Bill Swart, dean of Old Dominion University’s (ODU) engineering school. “Most people don’t know that every Burger King has been built using modeling and simulation software. All of their labor scheduling and planning is based on modeling and simulation.”

Swart said that primitive modeling and simulation dates back to the days of Alexander the Great, who used the technique by planning battle maneuvers using toy soldiers on scale models of battlefields. But, it was the advent of the computer that took modeling and simulation techniques to new heights. “The entire process of creating a virtual environment is based upon abstractions,” said Swart, who is responsible for creating ODU’s modeling and simulation program. “You can’t simulate unless you can model. And modeling is about building abstractions. Once you have an abstraction, you can actually program it in your computer.”
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A high-class affair
Colleges have different names for courses teaching modeling and simulation. Engineering schools may offer introductory courses in “Operations Research,” while business schools dub similar courses “Operations Management.” Even technical high schools are dabbling with rudimentary courses in the subject.

The important news is that the demand for simulation experts in government, industry, and academia is so great it far exceeds current supply, according to Swart. Despite burgeoning demand, the field is not for amateurs. ODU’s simulation students have undergraduate degrees in electrical and computer engineering, computer science, psychology, or education.

Only the highly skilled need apply
While advanced technical skills are required to work on simulation projects, the field is not as programming-intensive as it used to be. With a variety of simulation software packages on the market, it’s a lot easier to do modeling now. To be successful, Swart said you must understand the underlying computer processes, particularly from a functional point of view. More important than programming talent are organization and analytical skills. On the corporate front, you must be able to interpret what an organization does and then turn around and rephrase that in terms of a simulation program.

In mechanical engineering circles, the term used is “digital modeling and rapid prototyping,” according to Doyle Knight, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ. “You can simulate just about anything,” he said.

Knight insists a prerequisite into the simulation world is a degree in mechanical engineering. Bill Boswell, senior director of product development at Ames, IA-based Engineering Animation, Inc. (EAI), agrees. EAI is a $100 million-a-year software company that specializes in 3-D animated product visualization. It’s one of several companies throughout the United States that makes digital visualization software.

The engineering job market has had its ups and downs, and some fields are stronger than others. But Boswell and other experts say the widespread use of digital prototyping software—which actually encompasses a number of technologies including CAD (computer-aided design), distributed databases, and animation and prototyping software—has created opportunities for mechanical engineers in virtually all industries. “Users, for example, can zoom in on the tiniest parts so problems can be corrected before they reach the manufacturing floor,” said Boswell.

“Virtually every segment of mechanical and aerospace engineering is affected by digital prototyping,” added Knight. “Our grads can go to work for Mattel, Boeing, Pratt Whitney, or Pixar Animation Studios in California. Everyone now uses digital prototyping in one form or other.”

The new way
In the old days, the design process was a long, tedious, and expensive process. Draftsmen (or draftspeople) sat at drafting tables working with vellum, triangles, and T-squares, creating models in clay, wood, or metal so they could be evaluated, improved, and changed. That technique is now in the Smithsonian.

Not only can digital prototyping create a three-dimensional simulated model, but it also allows several engineers to work on a project at once. “You can churn out thousands of prototypes, maybe even do one a night, rather than doing a few physical ones,” Boswell said. “It’s not going to eliminate physical prototypes, but it’s going to drastically reduce the number.”

At Rutgers, once a digital prototype is completed, its specifications are fed into a device that actually creates the prototype. “It’s called rapid prototyping,” Knight said. “It’s not the final material, but dimensionally it is the product.”

Bioengineers are using this technique to create artificial limbs as well. “We can design an artificial knee on a computer, analyze it, and then do stress analysis tests to see how it would perform if inserted in a human body,” said Knight.

Excellent job market for mechanical engineers
All this neat technology has opened up the job market for mechanical engineers, according to Knight. “Our grads are getting multiple job offers before they even graduate,” he said. “The market for mechanical engineers is similar to the market for computer engineers and computer scientists. There are more jobs than there are people to fill them.”

New software also has streamlined manufacturing. “The old way of doing things involved a collaborative process through which engineers pass work along to the next function in line (design engineer to manufacturing engineer, etc.). Now many companies allow engineers to do ‘concurrent engineering,’ which means they work in parallel. It’s changing the way manufacturing companies do their job. [The time it takes to create a] new car design, for example, can be halved from 48 months to 24 months,” he said.

That’s just a taste of what’s out there. For an overview of best practices in modeling and simulation, look at the Informs Web site. You’ll find out about the finalists of the Franz Edelman Competition for the best applications of modeling and simulation since about 1982. You’ll also find a list of 91 leading companies in the field. Also, look at the Institute for Industrial Engineers’ site . For new developments in digital prototyping, check out these Web sites:

Bob Weinstein’s weekly syndicated column, Tech Watch, is the first career column covering the exploding technology marketplace. It appears in major daily newspapers throughout the U.S.

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