Discover why finite element analysis is necessary in product development early on. EnCata’s marketing specialist Anna Melnikovich discusses the pitfalls a product owner might come across if skipping the stage.

How frequently does the issue of restarting mass manufacturing come up?

Media outlets have amassed a lot of stories about product recalls involving batches of goods manufactured by well-known corporations during the past ten years. For instance, Apple had to recall a batch of iPhone 6 Plus smartphones in August 2014 because of issues with the rear camera. Similarly, on June 23, 2022, Toyota Motor Corp. issued a recall for its first-ever electric vehicles owing to a problematic center wheel component.

The examples above concern only popular companies with well-established production processes, stringent quality standards, and effective prototyping technologies.  For everyone else, it not only hurts their reputations but also puts them at risk of suffering severe financial setbacks or possibly going bankrupt.

So how can a manufacturer protect their brand without incurring the extra expenses of concept development and its verification? Discover the solution below.

Deep Down Into the Issue

Naturally, the solution is based on the actual reason. There are a great number of potential causes, including poor quality control and manufacturing flaws, unreliable parts, economic simplifications, the use of unproven technology solutions, and design faults. One of the most prevalent problems in the creation of physical items is the lack of knowledge about the device's behavior during actual use. It can be accounted for by a calculation error or by failing to do computations before beginning serial production. As a result, the user is left with a device that either operates unevenly or has poor ergonomics. The actual performance of such a device does not justify the asking price for it. In October 2020, Apple had to recall a batch of AirPods because the noise reduction mechanism was malfunctioning. The consumer in turn experienced a loss of bass in the soundtrack, insufficient background sound augmentation, and significant “financial disappointment” due to the malfunction.  The costly item did not meet the expectations that were set for it. In such circumstances, it is typical of manufacturers to suffer equally, losing the trust of their customers.

Manufacturers face serious issues if the products’ characteristics fall short of the user's expectations. Have you ever heard about Kano model? They  lose devoted clients, have to set up the terms of the product guarantee, make investments in the creation of upgrades and improvements, and organize production from the very beginning. Therefore, it is best to avoid product redevelopment after it has been introduced.

Finite Element Analysis Solution

There are 2 main ways to go about the problem. The manufacturer can make several iterations of prototypes and give each one to a focus group for testing. In this way, they will be able to observe real usage scenarios and actual device failures. The approach provides a wealth of informative data in that regard.

Nevertheless, the approach has an apparent drawback, which is a high cost of prototypes. The next downside might appear less clear though. During testing, if a user deviated from the preset algorithm of using, it may not always be easy to pinpoint what is to blame for the failure. And if the problem place is not detected, the manufacturer may spend considerable financial resources on unnecessary modifications. To prevent such issues, you might tackle the problem from the other side, specifically by performing calculations as the device is being developed.

Pic. 1 The simulation of structural deformation by the FEA method (CAE system Ansys)

Calculations are hardly ever performed with paper and pencil in today's society. CAE systems are the primary equipment. CAE systems are software products that allow you to evaluate and test a solid model built in a CAD program under near real-world operating conditions.  These days, SolidWorks, Autodesk Inventor, and Creo Parametric are the most widely used CAD systems. Among the most widespread CAE systems are Ansys and SolidWorks Simulation.

We will show the importance of calculations in gadget design with the help of a well-known smartphone model.

Smartphone Testing with the Finite Element Method

Users of smartphones frequently struggle with a fragile device screen. Your device's glass might shatter into a plethora of tiny shards with only one careless movement.

What causes this to happen? In addition to the negligent use of the device, the design itself could potentially be the source of the issue. The manufacturer, who strives to strike a balance between the interests of the user, the state of the market, and his or her financial and technological capabilities, is unable to fully take into account all of the above aspects. This eventually has an impact on the success of the product. The producer is forced to choose between both, sacrificing either the device's comfort during use or its durability traits.

This brings us to the categories of ergonomics and reliability, where the first is the proper, user-friendly organization of all product components and the second is the ability of the gadget to withstand destructibility. Evidence has shown that manufacturers are more concerned with ergonomics. Even the user would prefer to have a pleasant wearable device in their hands.

Is there a way to strike a balance between reliability and ergonomics? Naturally, there is. Computer simulations make it possible to test a future product in conditions close to real, and to choose variants of ergonomics and material that satisfy the product manufacturer both in price and quality parameters.  Computer simulations are useful for developing devices since they are less expensive and time-consuming than creating prototypes and carrying out a large number of actual testing.

As we’ve agreed in the beginning, the experiment will involve a falling smartphone. 228 grams make up the smartphone's weight. 1.5 meters is the falling height. The smartphone will be in contact with the concrete floor. We will carry out a simulation in the CAE system.  Customers can choose where impacts will occur and how high the device will fall, or a highly qualified professional can do it for them. The side, top, and bottom edges are typically the most fragile areas.

Below are the outcomes of the CAE simulation:

Pic.2 Results of the fall simulation in the CAE system

The phone case is clearly severely deformed but still intact. In the meantime, the screen's integrity is immediately compromised.

Therefore, it is necessary to use a sturdy screen or additional protective components. It is the job of the producer to choose which way will be more acceptable for him or her.

Finite Element Modeling and Product Success

CAE systems allow to specify different materials or change the CAD model and double-check the measurement results. CAE software makes it possible for the producer to modify the materials and design of the phone body until the simulation results are satisfactory. Only then prototypes should be made to check the results. 

Calculations in CAE systems are a must for the success of the device because every model differs from the actual product. If the addition of impact-resistant glass, which is either thicker or heavier, impairs the product's ergonomics, it is worth providing protection in the form of a cover. This also helps the device maintain its integrity in the case of a fall.

Drop simulations can be used to determine the appropriate protective material in both scenarios.

Below are the results of dropping a smartphone in a case. The material of the case is TPE.

Pic.3 The back view

Is Finite Element Analysis Worth It?

Computer simulations do not solve all problems. Nothing can ever fully substitute for actual use. But imagine you're a phone producer in a world without calculations. You will have to make 10 to 20 phone prototypes, put various coverings on them, and shatter the devices in a multitude of ways to test their reliability in different environments, such as a slick table and a concrete floor, a back pocket of jeans and a wooden seat, etc. All of these alternatives should be tested out, and the findings should be analyzed. Moreover, there also might be a necessity to thicken the case by half a millimeter. These "half-millimeters" themselves might be the focus of investigation and experimentation,  since even a slight increase in the device's size can result in a noticeable rise in the cost of production in big batches. In a situation where every gram of raw material counts, calculations thus help lower prototyping and development expenses and optimize mass production prices.

Moreover, simulating a device falling reduces the likelihood of a negative experience for a buyer. Users develop trust in the product. Especially if it outperforms all expectations in terms of comfort and durability. Think about it: the phone has dropped many times, but the screen is still intact! You would undoubtedly be pleased with such a wise device selection. Accordingly, the money was not spent in vain. In turn, this improves the manufacturer's reputation, increasing the likelihood that customers would choose them while making decisions in the future.