Fluid-structure interaction analysis of a heart valve. Courtesy of COMSOL, Inc.

As the world becomes ever more reliant on technology, there’s an increasing need for simulations on the path towards innovation. In a race to bring products to market faster and more efficiently, engineers designing everything from safer cars to life-saving medical devices and space exploration vehicles are relying on simulations to anticipate obstacles and explore new concepts swiftly and accurately.

Evidence of simulation’s superpowers spans across industries. When creating GPS-enabled devices, for example, engineers use simulation to track a constellation of 24 satellites that orbit every 12 hours and broadcast navigation data on different frequencies, while also factoring in date and time, user location (latitude, longitude and elevation) and trajectory. To predict hurricanes, meteorologists use data such as temperature, humidity and wind to create computer simulations of the atmosphere, and then input data about atmospheric processes through meteorology, physics and fluid dynamics to evolve the state of the atmosphere forward in time. Simulation is also used to, say, configure vibration and noise analysis in a five-speed synchromesh gearbox inside a manual transmission vehicle, or calculate the trajectories of platelets and red blood cells in a blood sample as they travel through a filtration device.

Yet despite the necessity and ubiquity of simulation, the process can be very complicated, time-intensive and costly. There’s also a skills gap, as it’s executed by an elite group of mathematicians and engineers versed in terms like geometric primitives, partial differential equations and negligible phenomena. But what would happen if everyone held the tools to create simulations that could, in turn, help shape a more predictive, efficient and smarter future?

COMSOL, a provider of multiphysics software—which provides an interactive environment for modeling and simulating scientific and engineering problems—is on a mission to make that vision a reality. Renee Morad (R.M.) recently spoke to COMSOL’s president and CEO Svante Littmarck (S.L.) about how the democratization of simulation software could help speed the pace of innovation around the globe.

Svante Littmarck, co-founder and CEO of the COMSOL Group. Courtesy of COMSOL, Inc.

R.M.: How are you working to place the power of simulations into the hands of non-scientists?

S.L.: The laws of science from Newton, Maxwell and others have helped to produce mathematical analysis and simulation processes in simplified ideal cases for centuries, and now we also have the right numerical methods and access to powerful computers to model and solve real-world problems. But the shortage of physicists and applied mathematicians to create simulations and effectively input data creates a bottleneck for innovation. As a company, we set out to democratize simulation software for anyone to use, from the scientists working in the lab trying to cure disease to the consumer who wants to know how to best insulate his home and how much money that will save him over time. We do this by providing a tool called the Application Builder, available in COMSOL Multiphysics, for our current R&D expert users to create a “packaged” simulation application with a specialized user interface to their models, as well as a software to publish and administrate such applications, which is called the COMSOL Server.

R.M.: What does a simulation software package look like?

S.L.: A “packaged” simulation application consists of a user interface that simplifies the use of a model by including only the input and output fields and reports needed by the end user. Such an application built with COMSOL software hides all bits and pieces that are necessary for the simulation to provide accurate results but aren’t of interest to the user. Typically, the app developer also provides “safe I/O,” restricting user input data to ranges for which the application will produce meaningful simulation results. The expert scientist typically includes pre-defined report templates and application documentation as well. Such apps could be shared with a large group of users within an organization or customers worldwide. They can be used for proof of concept models to sophisticated models featuring CAD geometries and several coupled physics. Simulation experts already create mathematical models needed by their institution/company and by building apps they let their colleagues/customers benefit from their expertise 24/7. COMSOL ships several hundred application examples with the software to help customers learn how to build user interfaces for their apps. These can also be used as a starting point for new applications.

R.M.: Which industries currently benefit most from multiphysics simulations and which ones could benefit in the future?

S.L.: Simulations provide a big benefit for industries where safety is a concern: disaster relief, space exploration, emergency response. It’s scary if something blows up in reality, but harmless if it’s happening on a computer screen. Simulations allow you to learn how to sidestep threats in real life. The construction industry, which remains largely untapped by simulation, would see faster and more efficient building methods and designs if more simulations were deployed. For example, simulations could accurately model the dynamic transient conditions of construction projects to better plan for unpredictable delays and reduce the need for costly buffer times.

R.M.: How could modeling and simulations benefit small businesses? How about the average consumer?

S.L.: Small businesses without in-house experts in simulation could stand to benefit greatly by using applications built with COMSOL. For example,  they can improve their prototype designs by entering data points into customized templates to create simulation output data. Even the average consumer can benefit by using simulation to influence their purchasing decisions, such as what type of material they should buy to reduce the ambient noise level in their house from a nearby highway or how to better insulate their home and when they’ll see a return on investment.


R.M.: What might a world with more simulations look like?

S.L.: Not only would there be budding invention, but projects would be much more streamlined and strategic. We’d see less trial and error, but a more calculated approach to innovation. We’d also see a burst of productivity in bringing products to market. And as more people use simulation, they’ll get very specific in what they’re testing and will tweak their parameters until they can realize the optimal design, sometimes testing thousands of models simultaneously.

Today, our users are creating simulations of car cabin sound systems to optimize the speaker design and speaker positions in order to design the ideal loudspeaker setup for automobiles. Some use multiphysics simulation to design heart-assist devices to improve the lives of patients with heart failure. These are just two examples. We have published many customer case stories on our website comsol.com. With more simulations, we’d see more inventions and approaches that, in one way or another, enrich the quality of our lives.