What is Virtual Prototyping? A Q&A with ESI Group

A virtual prototype of a flying vehicle

One of the ways CAELESTIS is aiming to revolutionize aircraft engineering and manufacturing is through virtual prototyping. On paper (or rather, on screen) it’s a no brainer to utilize the power of the computer to model digital test versions of new designs, but the benefits to costs and lead times一along with the potential for innovation一go far deeper than you might think. Only truly disruptive technologies are going to make zero carbon aviation a reality, and only by quickly evolving these trailblazing ideas will we be able to reach European climate goals within the next few decades. The ability to create and test virtual prototypes could decisively reduce the time and cost needed to get us there.

Luckily for us, in ESI Group, the EU-funded research consortium behind CAELESTIS is privileged to count one of the world’s leading virtual prototyping firms amongst its members. Founded in 1973, headquartered in France, and employing some 1,200 people, ESI has decades of experience providing solutions built around predictive physics modeling and virtual prototyping. In addition to aviation, ESI has long worked in automotive, defense, energy, and heavy machinery industries, helping to sustainably engineer new technologies, while aiming for zero physical tests.

We spoke to Dr. Mustafa Megahed, one of the ESI experts participating in CAELESTIS, to find out more about virtual prototyping, and what its implications for the future of aeronautical engineering could be.

An image generated by ESI’s manufacturing simulation software PAM-COMPOSITES, which helps aerospace parts manufacturers

Image: As an example, ESI’s manufacturing simulation software PAM-COMPOSITES helps aerospace parts manufacturers get their composites manufacturing processes and parameters right. Using Virtual Tests and Virtual Prototypes helps them reduce or eliminate physical tests.


How is ESI contributing to speed up innovation in aerospace?
Mustafa Megahed, ESI: The aviation industry has set itself some ambitious targets in terms of aircraft performance, safety, and sustainability. Yet, in order to maintain profitability and growth, aerospace OEMs [Original Equipment Manufacturers] have started to venture into digitalization.

At ESI, we provide aerospace companies with virtual prototyping simulation software, with which engineers digitally experience and validate the design, manufacturing, assembly, and operating behavior of their final products in different real-life environments – early and throughout the whole product lifecycle.

What distinguishes Virtual Prototyping from traditional engineering and testing methodologies?
MM: A virtual prototype is based on simulation models from multiple physical domains and can be supplemented by advanced Virtual Reality. ESI’s customers rely on Virtual Prototypes upfront in the development cycle to digitally demonstrate that their products and processes are safe, clean, and productive as well as to pre-certify their new technologies correctly the first time.

Beyond this, aerospace companies also need to establish efficient workflows to ensure the interoperability between industrial players’ assets and to assess the impact of their engineering decisions on operational performance (i.e., reducing downtime and operational risk) and cost throughout the product’s useful life. This is where combining physics- and data-based modelling (what we call a “Hybrid Twin”) really makes the difference.

Chart: ESI proposes a Hybrid Twin approach combining physics-based and data-based models, leveraging the data harnessed thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), while establishing a digital continuity.

Image: ESI proposes a Hybrid Twin approach combining physics-based and data-based models, leveraging the data harnessed thanks to the Internet of Things (IoT), while establishing a digital continuity.

What are the current limitations to effective virtual prototyping?
MM: Virtual prototypes need broad expertise, rooted in the physics of materials, the availability of accurate material models and simulation results. This is the foundation to growing users’ trust in digital results as the prime reference over traditional cost- and time-intense physical testing. Beyond this, engineers must be able to run simulations across all the involved engineering domains in both a smooth and fast fashion, while also making sure each one is synchronized and consistent with every functional detail of the end product. This journey has just begun – for OEMs as well as for vendors like us.

Which Work Packages will ESI be working on, and where will this method be relevant?
MM: Since virtual prototypes are required in all stages and work packages of CAELESTIS, ESI is involved in all work packages contributing, supporting, and driving definition of simulation needs, protype chaining and coupling, performance of analysis and integration in lab scale demonstration. Results will be exploited in ESI developments. Results will be disseminated in conferences and scientific publications.

Do you expect the learnings from CAELESTIS to contribute significantly to the future of virtual prototyping?
MM: Continuous learning has always been key to us here at ESI. Since ESI’s foundation back in 1973, we’ve leveraged a specific and unique expertise in material science. So yes, the learnings and findings from such projects will be very beneficial to us, as well as to all stakeholders involved. We will all further improve the chaining of manufacturing engineering and product performance simulation tools, hence increasing the capabilities of Virtual Prototypes and their application. We will also better understand how to best supplement the different simulation domains, e.g., with artificial intelligence to build effective Hybrid Twin technologies.

What about sectors outside of aviation? What are some other applications of virtual prototyping?
MM: An increasing number of industrial sectors place sustainability at the top of their agenda: just think of the automotive or heavy machinery industry, where electrified machines are key to meeting ambitious zero-emission goals. OEMs and Tier 1s count on Virtual Prototyping to get their sustainability practices right and equally improve R&D efficiency on their journey towards Zero Emissions. There is a lesson to be learned from executives in the automotive space who are concerned about achieving profitability with electric vehicles. With an uncertain ROI, reducing cost and time to market undoubtedly remains a priority. However, what they discover is that, to be profitable, they need to apply additional measures. One specific area of focus is R&D excellence, for which Virtual Prototyping is a key enabler to increase efficiency by 15 to 20 percent[1].
An example of virtual crash test used to prepare the new Clio for certification. Image courtesy of Renault.

Image: Virtual Prototypes are getting more and more widespread in various industries, under the impulse of the automotive industry. Here, an example of virtual crash test used to prepare the new Clio for certification. Image courtesy of Renault.



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