Transforming automotive simulation with AI: The rise of virtual prototyping

The automotive industry is on the edge of a major change due to the rise of digital prototyping. This transformation is cutting costs and speeding up the development process, making us rethink the need for early-stage physical prototypes. As simulations get better, we are encouraged to rethink how we design. This isn’t just a change; it’s an opportunity to reimagine innovation by using the growing accuracy of simulation technology to potentially make some physical prototypes unnecessary.

Understanding how to implement and gain value from virtual prototyping tools is key. These tools allow us to develop and test our designs in a virtual environment, offering the chance to experiment with new ideas without the cost and time associated with building something physical. Learning to harness these tools effectively can lead to more innovative designs and quicker advancements, ensuring we fully benefit from the capabilities of this technology

The challenge of programming variances

So how do we use simulation and virtual environments to optimise designs and confirm theories and data with simulations and virtual tests?

Advanced digital modelling and simulation tools are the key to creating reliable and accurate digital design twins. Historically, one of the key challenges in the early phases of manufacturing was accounting for an almost infinite number of real-life variables. These variables could range from material structure, changing flexural strength of materials, or how a wide range of conditions would affect composition, etc. While not impossible, predicting how designs might behave in a wide variety of conditions was difficult and time consuming due to lack of computing power and limited intelligence within the software.  While physical tests are still necessary to prove that the results of virtual tests are accurate and products are behaving as expected, simulation software has improved the speed and range of conditions that can be explored and tested in virtual environments.

With AI and ML capabilities, the possibilities for the range of virtual tests that can be performed are astounding. Different simulations can be executed in parallel, significantly reducing the time it takes to get results. Another innovation includes the capability to enter material properties into design simulations with modelling software, like Digimat. Effects on the materials can then be imported into simulation software like Marc, or MSC Nastran to automatically run unlimited digital simulations and achieve an optimal design virtually. That optimised design can then be produced as a physical prototype, bringing you as close to zero prototypes as possible without sacrificing the ability to perform tests, iterate, and optimise.

Cost and resource allocation challenges

In the realm of automotive engineering, the shift towards virtual testing and simulation brings many benefits, from cost reduction to resource optimisation. However, virtual prototyping and simulation still come with their own set of challenges to overcome. Some key hurdles include:

A skilled workforce for simulation and modelling: Developing virtual prototypes demands a skilled workforce proficient in using simulation and modelling software specific to automotive engineering. Training engineers to effectively utilise these tools can be time-consuming and costly. While user-friendly software can reduce these learning curves, expertise in the underlying physics being tested is still required.

Material characterisation and testing: Validating virtual prototypes requires accurate material models and extensive material testing to ensure that simulation results correlate with real-world performance. Acquiring and maintaining these material databases and conducting physical tests can be resource intensive. Look for simulation software solutions with libraries of material models to reduce the need to build your own internally.

Integration with Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems: Integrating virtual prototyping into existing PLM systems and manufacturing processes can be challenging. Automotive manufacturers need to invest in software integration and customisation to ensure seamless data exchange between different stages of product development.

Prototype manufacturing for validation: Despite efforts to reduce physical prototypes, some level of physical testing and validation is still necessary to ensure that products behavior in the physical world correlates to the results of virtual testing.

Overall, virtual prototyping helps minimise production waste, maximize resources, and optimise the broader production process. Addressing these challenges requires a strategic approach, involving investment in technology, workforce training, infrastructure, and collaboration across the automotive supply chain to realise the benefits of reducing physical prototypes in automotive manufacturing. Many of these challenges go hand-in-hand with process optimisation and creating collaborative work environments where teams are enabled to work cross-functionally. Creating a digital feedback loop will help organisations see the most benefit from this digital transformation process.

Creating a digital feedback loop

Adopting digital simulations allows engineers to collaborate simultaneously with other departments and fosters a digital feedback loop, enabling comparison of design variations’ performance.

In our recent eBook, Closing the Loop with Zero Prototyping in the Automotive Industry, we discuss how “Physics-based digital computations are available across all engineering disciplines at different levels of fidelity… allowing engineering and supply chain teams to capture and fuse physical and digital data.”

The effectiveness of this approach hinges on integrating simulation throughout each stage of the manufacturing process. When applied properly, a digital feedback loop fosters a collaborative environment where engineers from various disciplines can jointly work on digital prototypes and test scenarios.

To shift product development in the automotive industry toward zero prototyping, it’s crucial to integrate all departments into a unified digital feedback loop. This integration involves setting up digital tools and processes from the concept stage to testing and final production. By doing so, we increase the efficiency of each product development cycle, enabling teams to work simultaneously and more effectively, speeding the feedback process, and reducing the number of overall iterations for a product.

 The long-term benefits of zero prototyping

Adopting a zero prototyping approach in the automotive industry, facilitated by cutting-edge software and strategic partnerships, not only helps manufacturers and suppliers navigate through challenges but also paves the way for significant advancements. Benefits include the acceleration of development cycles, reduction of production costs, fostering of cross-disciplinary collaboration, and enhancements to the iterative design process. Beyond these benefits, it opens avenues to harness extensive data for R&D, leading to faster, more accurate decision-making. It enables comprehensive simulations, from individual components to full vehicles, and exploits the predictive and generative capabilities of AI and ML for data-driven insights.

Crucially, implementing virtual prototyping tools offers invaluable insights into optimising design processes, pushing innovation boundaries in the competitive automotive sector. By mastering these tools, manufacturers and suppliers can significantly contribute to their organisations by streamlining operations and boosting innovation.

To learn more about how the journey towards zero prototyping can impact your operations, check out our eBook.


  • Ignazio Dentici

    Ignazio Dentici is Vice President, Global eMobility and Automotive at Hexagon’s Manufacturing Intelligence division. Prior to joining Hexagon, Ignazio had 16+ years of experience in the automotive industry covering technical and business management roles across global OEM, tier 1 and technology solution suppliers.

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