Head to head: Simulation vs Prototyping

11 April, 2017


From exploding hoverboards to smoking smartphones, it’s amazing how many products make it to market with potentially devastating thermal design flaws.

Thermal design flaws not only put end users at risk, they also have serious consequences for the manufacturers. Product recalls are expensive – running to over $5 billion in a recent high profile case. As such, the need for manufacturers to catch issues early on in the design process is vital – not just in in terms of saving the costs of a recall, but also in terms of maintaining a brand’s reputation and shortening time to market for new products.

However, 6SigmaET’s own research has shown that many engineers still leave thermal testing until the final stages of the design process. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the same research also reveals that 99.5% of engineers have had products derailed by late stage complications. One in 20 said they have had every project they’ve ever worked on delayed as a result of such complications.

So what are the options for engineers looking to catch thermal and operational issues early on in the design process? Typically, there are two options: create detailed simulations using a software suite, or produce a physical prototype. The only question is, which provides the best results?


When it comes to developing a prototype, simulated designs can take significantly less time to produce than their physical counterparts. In a software interface, environmental conditions can be altered instantly, while alternative components can be added and removed with the click of a button. While this offers a clear advantage over physical prototypes, simulation software does require a significant amount of processing time to “solve” models accurately. In some older software suites, a single simulation could take literally weeks to solve. More recently however, solve times have dramatically reduced, with high-performance cloud computing allowing engineers to outsource the processing of their simulations to the cloud – regardless of the hardware they have in-house. This is helping to drastically cut down the average solve-time of a design, from 8-12 hours, down to less than an hour.


Despite simulation tools having been around for decades, many design engineers still do not trust that a computer-generated simulation will offer the same level of accuracy as running a test with a physical prototype. When the first thermal simulation suites were introduced this was almost certainly true – the calculations were often crude, slicing a model up into a wide, inaccurate grid before attempting to apply a vague estimate for heat dissipation. Today thermal simulation is a far more granular process. By utilising increasingly powerful processors, modern simulation uses unstructured gridding to ensure that highly complex areas of a design can be mapped through a highly granular grid. The result is a far greater accuracy compared to traditional simulation suites.


The use of simulation can drastically reduce the cost involved in testing a product for market. Rather than designing, building and manufacturing multiple physical prototypes, simulation software allows engineers to conduct a wide variety of complex tests with a single virtual design. At the same time, by dragging and dropping new components, simulated testing allows engineers to understand how different design variations compare without having to order multiple additional parts.

While it’s clear that both software simulation and the development of physical prototypes have their benefits, the reality is that in the vast majority of cases a combination of both approaches will deliver the best results. By running thermal software simulations at the early stages of a product design, engineers can help to reduce the number of costly prototypes requires and drastically reduce the odds of a design flaw making it to market. At the same time, physical prototyping still has a significant role to play towards the later design stages. Only through a combination of both can design engineers ensure that their products are cost-effective, reliable, and most importantly, safe to use.