The Evolution of Modeling and Simulation: The Force Behind Great Engineering

The Evolution of Modeling and Simulation: The Force Behind Great Engineering

Learn about the transformation of engineering practices, moving beyond traditional design methods and embracing the world of computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided engineering (CAE). Uncover the power of finite element methods (FEM) and how COMSOL Multiphysics is reshaping engineering across diverse industries.

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Throughout history, humans have designed all sorts of structures by hand. Many of the designs we know and experience today were designed using traditional pen and paper.

Think of the first mechanical aircraft, Orville and Wilbur Wright’s Wright Flyer (circa 1903), or an automobile like the Ford Model T, which was manufactured from 1908 until 1927. Both modes of transport were created using traditional design methods.

However, lack of precision and costly design errors were some of the many challenges faced by designers and engineers during the 20th century up until the dawn of Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) in the 1960s.

The landscape of engineering today

So, what does the landscape of engineering look like today with the development of computer-aided methods?

As our colleagues at COMSOL put it:

“The real world is multiphysics in nature.”

Guided by this certainty, the engineering landscape has undergone a remarkable transformation. Today, engineers can simulate real-world physical phenomena using simulation software.

This article delves into the transformation of design and engineering, tracing the evolution from 2D digital design to multiphysics simulations.

Moreover, we explore how CAD and CAE not only addressed the challenges of the past, such as lack of precision and costly errors, but also enabled the modeling of complex, real-world physical phenomena in the present.

What is CAD?

CAD is a digital technology that enables the creation, modification, and visualization of detailed 2D and 3D models of objects or systems on a computer.

In 1957, Dr. Patrick J. Hanratty developed PRONTO, the first computer-aided design tool, which laid the foundation for modern CAD systems.

What is the difference between CAD and CAE?

CAE on the other hand is a digital technology and set of tools used to simulate, analyze, and optimize the behavior and performance of engineering systems, products, and components.

CAE software allows engineers and designers to subject virtual models to various physical conditions and environments, such as:

  • Stress analysis
  • Heat transfer
  • Fluid dynamics
  • Electromagnetic fields, and
  • Structural Mechanics.

How is CAD utilized in CAE?

CAD software is typically used at the beginning of the product design process. Designers and engineers create 2D and 3D models of the product’s geometry and structure using CAD. The resultant CAD models serve as a visual representation of the product. 

By using CAE, engineers can assess how designs will perform under real-world conditions, identify potential issues, and make informed decisions toward design improvements.

CAE plays a crucial role in industries like aerospace, automotive, civil engineering, and manufacturing, helping to enhance product quality, reduce development costs, and shorten time to market.

But how does CAE solve complex problems?

By using numerical methods such as the Finite Element Method (FEM)

What is FEM?

FEM is a numerical technique used within modeling and simulation. It works by dissecting an object into numerous distinct elements, each of which is defined by mathematical equations. These equations are solved independently and then combined to produce a precise virtual projection of how the object would respond in practical scenarios.

What is Modeling and Simulation?

In essence, modeling and simulation are the virtual visualization of systems using simulation software. Beyond that, these systems are processed using mathematical equations to represent their real-world behavior.

The practice of modeling and simulation grew mainly in the aerospace and defense industry. With massive and complicated structures, time and money became an issue. In efforts to minimize these drawbacks, engineers and scientists increasingly turned to computer-aided tools, such as finite element analysis (FEA), which implements solutions for practical problems in computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and streamlines design processes, virtual performance assessment, and design optimization before physical prototyping.

This shift not only accelerated innovation, but also became a fundamental approach in other industries, from automotive to civil engineering, where cost-efficiency, high quality products, and time are key.

How do engineers utilize FEM in modeling and simulation?

The most powerful aspect of FEM is that it is used to conduct coupled physics simulations, where different physical phenomena, such as heat and fluid flow, interact simultaneously. This enables engineers to assess complex interactions in real-world systems.

FEM results are then post-processed to help engineers understand and interpret simulation outcomes. Visualization tools allow for the graphical representation of stress contours, temperature distributions, sound pressure levels, and more.

Other methods

Yes. Engineers use several other methods instead of, or in conjunction with, FEM. Some commonly used methods include:

  • Finite Volume Method
  • Boundary Element Method
  • Discrete Element Method
  • Finite Difference Method
  • Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics
  • Method of Moments
  • Boundary Integral Equation
  • Smooth Particle Applied Mechanics
  • Monte Carlo Simulation

What makes FEM unique?

While other numerical methods can analyze similar phenomena to some extent, they are often specialized for specific types of problems, whereas FEM is versatile and can handle a wide range of simulations, making it a popular choice among engineers for many CAE applications.

What software is able to perform modeling and simulation using FEM?

COMSOL Multiphysics is one software that has the computational power to solve the multiphysics challenges that many industries face.

What is COMSOL Multiphysics?

COMSOL Multiphysics is a multi-purpose modeling and simulation software that is used by engineers, researchers, and scientists worldwide for designing products with complex physics.

Users may opt to use the software before physical testing, to achieve accurate virtual designs, allowing them to work fewer hours, cut costs on physical prototypes, and shorten time to market.

Request a free trial to experiment with COMSOL Multiphysics.

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Some of the industries that use COMSOL Multiphysics include:

  • AC/DC
  • Aerospace and defense
  • Automotive
  • Biotech and Pharmaceutical
  • Communications
  • Energy, Oil and Gas
  • Food industry
  • Industrial automation & Machinery
  • Semiconductor


The development of CAD, CAE, FEM, and modeling and simulation software such as COMSOL Multiphysics, have broadened the possibilities for engineering solutions worldwide. Today, with the help of modeling and simulation, engineers can work at a much faster rate, improve product quality, and reduce production costs.

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Learn more

Register for our introductory COMSOL Multiphysics on-demand webinar.

If you want to learn more about FEM, check out COMSOL Multiphysics Capabilities for Aerospace and Defense blog about how the aerospace and defense industry utilizes FEM in COMSOL Multiphysics.

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