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Advancing the state of CAE in transportation industry

by SIMCenter's Amber Pasternak
(originally appeared in NAFEMS Benchmark Magazine)

As undergraduate engineering education strongly emphasizes fundamentals, students are going into the workforce where they’ll be using simulation software often without the required skills to work independently. The Simulation Innovation and Modeling Center (SIMCenter) at The Ohio State University has developed a multi-tiered approach to this challenge in major part through a close partnership with Honda R&D Americas. An undergraduate internship program provides students an opportunity to learn hands-on with faculty members who are working with companies like Honda on immediate research needs while mentoring the next generation of engineers.

SIMCenter poster session, fall 2017Launched in 2013 with a $5 million gift from Honda, SIMCenter’s objective is to train students through applied simulation. Not housed in a specific department or discipline, SIMCenter pulls expertise from several departments within the College of Engineering and works in concert with other University entities. This interdisciplinary approach benefits students, staff, affiliated faculty members and labs, and research sponsors.

Honda didn’t just cut a check and sit back. Allen Sheldon, principal engineer at Honda and a SIMCenter Honda Official, maintains an office at SIMCenter where he spends part of his workweek and thus is available to interface with students, staff, and faculty. To facilitate work on Honda projects, SIMCenter’s main office features secure connections to the Honda network that can be used by Honda employees on campus, as well as students and research staff working on Honda projects. Similarly, the SIMCenter conference room also has a direct connection to Honda, so researchers on campus—including students—can participate in meetings about their projects without having to travel off campus.

To address the immediate need for computer-aided engineering (CAE) experts, SIMCenter started with a core staff of researchers with expertise in acoustics, aerodynamics, CFD, controls, engines and combustion, finite element simulation, friction, heat transfer, materials joining and optimization. These staff members are available as researchers on projects, software training, proposal writing and consultation. Research staff members often oversee undergraduate and graduate students both formally and informally. Spend any amount of time in the SIMCenter and you’ll hear researchers guiding students on ways to approach problems, what to do when results aren’t what was expected or wanted, and communicating with project sponsors.

Emerging Researcher Initiatives

Working to meet immediate needs are researchers like Senior Research Associate Sheng Dong and Research Specialist Emily Nutwell who are respectively leading the center’s engineering services and professional development initiatives. They both started at the center in 2015 and through their work have found ways to pursue their specific interests in line with the center’s growth. Dong earned his B.S. in Civil Engineering and M.S. in Bridge Engineering. During his master’s program he was first introduced to ANSYS. He then came to Ohio State for his PhD. He gained exposure to additional CAE software and began a project with Honda involving friction characterization and modeling which has become his focus. Traditionally, friction is treated as more of an afterthought. Textbook values are often employed in modeling, but Dong’s work has revealed discrepancies with these coefficients. Now a researcher with SIMCenter, he continues to work with friction research on Honda and Chrysler sponsored projects using his in-house pin-on-disc tribometer.

Taking a different path to SIMCenter, Nutwell went right to work at Honda R&D Americas as a vehicle test engineer after earning her undergraduate degree. At the end of 1999 she was able to move into a CAE engineer position. In 2015 she joined SIMCenter, which allowed her to have significant flexibility and an opportunity to pursue a graduate degree. She began working toward her master’s in mechanical engineering and soon discovered Ohio State’s newly formed Department of Engineering Education, whose course offerings have helped define the next branch of her career.

Before coming to Ohio State, Nutwell had already started teaching LS-DYNA training classes for other engineers at Honda. She continued to be the lead person for training after joining SIMCenter and was the obvious choice for leading the design of a professional development program. The initial phase of the program, a fully online non-credit certificate with tracks to meet multiple needs, is set for a January 2018 start. When asked who she sees as the intended audience for the program, Emily answered, “I see me. Someone who is in one job, but needs additional skills to move within their company.” Engineers not looking to change roles could also benefit. As Allen Sheldon explains, companies like Honda are also putting more of an emphasis on virtual testing before moving on to the physical stages, so there’s a need for more test engineers with a fluency in CAE modeling and simulation. Emily emphasizes this is a level beyond software training. Enrollees will already need to know how to use the software they’ll be using on the job. What they’ll be learning is how to apply techniques and analyze results.

Building the Future

Many early SIMCenter initiatives focused on meeting immediate needs for companies and their engineers, but the center also serves the needs of student engineers. Through the undergraduate internship program, SIMCenter helps develop skills and exposure to CAE software. Professors who have hosted interns have said they feel the program works to move students beyond the fundamentals and “raise up undergrads and prepare them to be grad students.” The center recruits students academically on track to get into graduate school. Students selected either work in a lab of an affiliated faculty member or work on a project within the center itself.

Reflecting on his first year as an intern, Mark Varner shared, “I learned a lot from the year and it influenced my decision to apply to graduate school.” While not every student decides to go on to graduate school, the reality is even the students graduating and going on to industry have gained skills they wouldn’t have had otherwise. With any exposure to CAE software, they’re more aware of the capabilities and less likely to feel intimidated when they encounter the software on the job. Even if they’re not working directly with simulations and modeling, the familiarity they’ve gained provides a literacy so they’re better able to communicate with those who do. Students report that working closely with grad students and faculty in the labs provides skills and comprehension they can apply directly to their classes. Holly Rhodes, a second-year intern, shared, “I think the work I have done, and the things my professor and graduate student have taught me, have increased my engineering thought process and technical skills.”

Clayton Thomas, a current master’s student, responded to the first call for undergraduate internship applicants. Although concerned about the time commitment, he didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity. An argument often made to undergraduates who are on the fence about graduate school involves earning potential with a master’s degree versus a bachelor’s and the ability to start their career on a higher rung. Clayton had already decided he would get his master’s degree right away to avoid disrupting his career later. However, his experiences as a SIMCenter intern and direct relationship with Honda R&D helped Clayton form a more concrete reason for graduate school. “After diving into the work through SIMCenter,” he said, “I realized how much more there was to learn that I would have never been able to get to without furthering my education.”

While the breadth of subjects covered in the undergraduate curriculum is helpful from a modeling perspective, Clayton’s field of automotive powertrain modeling, simulation and control doesn’t afford much of an opportunity for depth at the undergraduate level at Ohio State. To really get into powertrain dynamics and control, graduate school was a necessity. Clayton’s research focuses on powertrain control verification and validation through hardware-in-the-loop testing (HIL), which allows for testing control strategies on a virtual vehicle in a controlled environment before the real vehicle is built. In addition to the change in development cycles (earlier, quicker, and less expensive), there is an added safety benefit since the simulations allow for near- or over-limit testing without the usual dangers of driving at high speeds or in hazardous conditions. His positive experiences working with Honda R&D as an undergraduate and graduate student keep the company at the top of his short list for post-graduate plans.

New this academic year is a partnership with Caterpillar. For the first time outside of Illinois, Caterpillar summer interns from Ohio State will have the opportunity to continue their relationship with the company into the academic year. SIMCenter provides dedicated work stations to selected Ohio State students, who will continue their Caterpillar work through a network connection similar to Honda’s. Two students started at the beginning of the academic year in August, and another two will join them in January.

The Faculty Piece

Thinking back to when he first heard about Ohio State and Honda partnering to create SIMCenter, faculty member Dr. Scott Noll said, “I recognized the value such a concentrated center would have on student education and professional development as well as industry research at an academic institution and wanted to be involved.”

His first introduction to simulation occurred while he was working for a tire manufacturer. The code was written in-house, the interface was clunky and buggy, and it ran on a terminal with the VAX operating system, but he was hooked. “At my fingertips was all of the company’s simulation knowledge in a single place. I could virtually test all types of scenarios for design changes, material properties, etc., and have relatively immediate results.”

His curiosity led him to graduate school and the memory of those early experiences is what inspires him as he works with students. Scott’s research areas include nonlinear structural mechanics, vibrations, inverse identification, experimental modal analysis and dynamic substructuring, applied finite element modeling and design. He regularly works with students at the undergraduate and graduate levels and believes one of the biggest benefits for students is the opportunity for multiple mentors. In the SIMCenter environment “a graduate student is mentored by a world class academic researcher, industry user experts that have the breadth of simulation experience, and full-time PhD research staff with tremendous depth of knowledge in simulation technology.” Students also work on challenging industry problems and network with industry experts.

Director Shawn Midlam-Mohler has been a part of the center since its beginning, first serving as associate director until his promotion in June 2017. Also an associate professor, Midlam-Mohler said, “being involved in the leadership of SIMCenter has been a great addition to my more traditional teaching and research duties. It has the same feel as launching a new business and I am excited to have the opportunity to continue moving SIMCenter forward over the next several years.”

Midlam-Mohler takes as much a personal interest in guiding permanent research staff through career decisions as he does advising students on classes, long term academic plans, and networking academic and industry connections. His overarching vision that includes strengthening research relationships and moving forward with new initiatives is consistently communicated to all involved.

SIMCenter was started to address an immediate area of concern identified by Honda R&D—a gap in knowledge concerning CAE. Through the growth of research services and professional development initiatives, as well as continuing to improve the internship program and partnerships with faculty labs, SIMCenter’s collaborations help place students, faculty, and our industry partners on the best course for innovation.