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Optimization, the game changer

According to Merriam-Webster optimization is a “methodology for making a design entirely perfect, or as effective as possible.” This is how R&D personnel also usually understand optimization, but it has a wider application scope than just finding the optimal solution. In this article I present why optimization tools are essential for R&D and why their role is set to grow in the future.

Current day business operations are characterized by high pressures to meet customer demands, the eternal quest to implement cost savings and achieve increased competitiveness, as well as the drive to hit ever-shrinking time-to-market windows. To meet these demands, companies need to change their design paradigms and start using modern product development methods to remain competitive.

The ever-increasing complexity of design (see Figure 1) has made it imperative for research and development teams to adopt optimization methods, including both parametric and non-parametric optimization and to incorporate large numbers of variables, objectives, and iterations in their R&D processes. 

A company’s product development strategy is a core success factor in any business and the focal point that drives organizational growth. The effective implementation of the correct product development strategy can make a business successful in the fiercely competitive environment.

Traditional product development approach 

The traditional approach to product development starts with the development of an initial design, which is used to develop a prototype for an experimental test. The prototype is usually the best guess for the design problem. The process is iterated until the desired stage is reached. 

The effectiveness of the traditional approach is predicated on the experience of the R&D personnel, the development time allocated, and the development budget. The approach is usually based on trial and error and is unfortunately a highly time-consuming process and remarkably costly. The traditional approach to product development allocates relatively little time to the design phase. It focuses, rather, on prototype testing and leaves the required design changes to the product for later.

During economic downturns, companies often start cutting the appropriation of product development to achieve cost savings. This usually reduces product development activities and product quality, which in turn adversely affects the company’s competitive position and ability to take ad-vantage of an economic upturn. 

Optimization-driven product development approach 

Why should companies employ optimization? Studies have shown that product development ac-counts for 75 % of fixed costs (See Figure 2). There are, therefore, many possibilities to reduce costs and gain competitiveness through optimization, which reduces the down-time that is needed for research and development in many ways. 

With topology optimization, for example, it is possible to start the product development process with an already optimized design. It is a valuable asset for companies if they can balance this multi-objective optimization challenge and have the right product on the market at the right time. See info box 1 for an example or results achieved with topology optimization. 

In addition to reducing costs the optimization-driven approach also increases product quality, reduces lead times and is an excellent tool for solving complex design problems. Optimization with virtual prototypes accelerates the R&D process and enables decisions to be made in the early phases of the design cycle. See Figure 3 for a comparison of optimization-driven design and conventional design development processes.  

Optimization also improves manufacturing 

Optimization is not only a tool for R&D; it can also be used to evaluate and improve the manufacturing process. It is possible to couple optimization tools with durability analysis programs. 

For example, a Tier 1 level automotive component supplier performed a sensitivity analysis for a front cradle part to find sensitive and critical weld seams. As a result, the component supplier succeeded in reducing its manufacturing and warranty costs by increasing the durability of the component and reducing the weld quality for non-sensitive welds. 

This article has made the case for the optimization of R&D processes. I have indicated that optimization is crucial in gaining a competitive edge, being able to meet customers’ ever stringent demands, and reducing R&D lead-times, now and in the future. 

Optimization-driven R&D is superior in many respects to traditional R&D methods, which are highly dependent on funding and experienced research teams, take long to complete, and can be surprisingly costly. 

It is no longer a question of whether R&D processes should be optimized, but rather how and when.  


Virtuelle Produktentstehung für Fahrzeug und Antrieb im Kfz, Herausgeber: Seiffert, Ulrich, Rainer, Gotthard Ph. (Hrsg.)

NAFEMS Simulation Capability Survey 2013

Author: Petri Seppänen

Contact Petri Seppänen  

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The paramount design challenge is getting it right the first time.

Figure 1. Changes in development time and complexity of design since the 1980s.

Info box 1. Topology optimization example

Cost reduction. Research and development accounts for 75 % of fixed costs and 10 % of induced costs. It is, therefore, crucial to use optimization tools in the R&D process.

Figure 3. A comparison of optimization-driven design and conventional design development processes with regards development time and cost. The conventional design development process is strongly based on iterations (trial and error). It can produce many bad designs before the “optimal” design is found and is highly time-consuming.

Info box 2. The benefits of optimization