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Cloud forecast: cloud-based products open up CFD possibilities

Professional Engineering

Ansys Discovery Live gives instant insight into fluid properties such as vorticity
Ansys Discovery Live gives instant insight into fluid properties such as vorticity

Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) software is used in a whole variety of applications from analysing the flow around heat exchangers to the pedestrian wind environment around buildings.

The CFD market is dominated by a few big players, the likes of Ansys and Siemens, which provide comprehensive tool sets. Recent years have seen big players in the CAD world wade into this market offering CAD-embedded CFD software packages, such as SolidWorks and Autodesk.

These vendors mostly offer packages to users on an annual licensing scheme. But with CFD models being so compute heavy it’s more than just the software that has to be invested in. Recent developments have seen these software companies working with hardware partners to offer both as part of a licensing scheme in what’s called high-performance computing (HPC).

Open-source solution

While large companies may have the budget to be tied into such licensing schemes, many small firms do not. A solution is cloud-based CFD. Indeed, Robin Knowles, founder of consultancy CFD Engine, undertakes simulation work for clients using just a laptop that operates the open-source CFD software, OpenFoam, which by its nature is free, with all his CFD workflow pushed to Amazon’s cloud computing platform, Amazon Web Services. “I don’t do anything locally, everything is in the cloud,” he said.

Within the CFD market there’s a fairly strong open-source capability with the most widely used open-source CFD software package being OpenFoam. This product has been verified and validated by many users. However, the key drawbacks, according to Knowles, are a steep learning curve and, unlike commercial CFD codes, OpenFoam’s user support is patchy, so making it tricky for new users to get to grips with. And, while it is possible to do a full end-to-end workflow using just open-source tools, it isn’t an accessible route for all users. 

It’s in this gap in the market that new CFD cloud companies have popped up. The likes of SimScale, which was founded in 2012 in Munich with the intention of offering cloud-based simulation. Although still based on OpenFoam, the appeal is the ability to access the tool through a web browser and then being able to perform highly complex CFD simulations on SimScale’s cloud-based HPC platform. 

Offered as a ‘software as a service’ model, this appeals to users who want to access CFD capability with the available support but don’t want to be tied into on-premises licensing and maintenance. According to SimScale, it has racked up more than 150,000 users worldwide. 

This accessibility in terms of cost and ease of use is a key selling point of such cloud-based CFD tools. “There is a big push within CFD of trying to make it less of an expert tool. It was not that long ago when only a CFD engineer would do the CFD. Now, with the likes of SimScale and other cloud-based CFD tools such as Airshaper and Ingrid Cloud, more users of all levels, even those with very little CFD knowledge, can access complex CFD simulation information for their designs,” said Knowles.

Game changer?

Getting accessible CFD tools in the hands of designers, and not just engineers, is not only the aim of these new cloud-based providers – the big players are in on it too. Ansys made headlines a couple of years back when it launched Discovery Live, a CAD-embedded CFD tool that promises instantaneous 3D simulation. This means that, in their CAD modelling environment, users can view how changes to their designs will affect simulations – in real time. In other words, no meshing or post-processing. 

While some CFD experts remain sceptical about it, especially in terms of the type of calculations available, Knowles believes that it’s exactly what the target market needs and has the potential to be a real game changer. However, it’s still early days so the proof will be in the case studies that start to emerge.

With all these options available, there doesn’t seem to be a better time to be in the CFD landscape – whether as an established user or someone coming to it afresh with very little CFD experience.


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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. 

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