Simulation supports sustainability

Solving complex challenges with simulation to improve the future

Dan Headrick
3 January 2019

4 min read

Companies pursue sustainability to lift profits, improve productivity and preserve resources – but also to accelerate responses to increasingly intricate challenges. Many companies are utilizing computer simulation to test novel concepts in virtual environments, working faster and ensuring optimized results before launching products into the real world.

Off the port of Brest, along the northwestern coastline of France, researchers recently conducted the first sea trials of a tidal turbine using an undulating membrane that “swims” in the moving current. Astidal waters move the membrane, and specialized electronics convert the motion into useable energy.

EEL Energy, the French company that is developing this renewable energy technology, says that tidal energy is more efficient than solar or wind energy, produces no pollution or waste, no visual impact, no noise, no harm to wildlife and does not impede navigation. Computer simulation helps engineers see the whole picture in all of its complexities.

“Thanks to digital simulation, we avoid errors, limit testing costs and carry out optimization,” said Astrid Deporte, a scientist with EEL Energy. “Everything is interdependent between design and simulation, which makes it possible to quickly optimize a global design, and not just part by part.”

EEL Energy’s use of simulation lets researchers test their swimming membrane virtually to ensure performance, practicality and cost-effectiveness before they are actually manufactured. This allows EEL Energy to test potentially thousands of virtual prototype variations on a computer in the time it takes to build and test one physical prototype to meet multiple sustainability targets.

“Simulation enables us to perform a large number of ‘virtual’ tests at a lower cost and in less time,” Deporte said. “It allows us to improve the reliability of our tidal turbine and to analyze risks while minimizing costs, especially for testing.”  

Simulation speeds planning, cuts costs and aids decision-making with greater accuracy, allowing researchers to test, verify and quickly optimize a design for manufacturability to reduce materials; for safety in manufacturing to protects workers; for long-term maintenance to extend the product’s useful life; and for environmental impact, including factors such as minimizing the total amount of material consumed, finding alternatives to hazardous materials and designing to simplify recycling.


Sustainability, as the UN World Commission on Environment and Development describes it, seems simple: meet present needs without compromising future needs. However, achieving sustainability is far from simple. In fact, the complexities of sustainability represent what John C. Camillus, professor of Strategic Management at the University of Pittsburgh, calls “wicked” challenges. These arise when change is constant, challenges are unprecedented and the work of finding solutions is never done. 

EEL Energy designed an undulating membrane that “swims” in ocean currents. As the membrane moves, specialized electronics convert the motion into useable energy. (Image © EEL Energy)

Yet sustainability has become a common mantra for organizations great and small, because the concept has become synonymous with good governance, profitability and productivity. To do sustainability right, however, companies and governments struggle to evaluate, manage and predict dynamic processes and shifting variables over time. 

Moreover, practicing sustainability increases complexity, because it increases the number of factors that must be considered.  

“Whereas previously, systems were managed and designed according to one primary factor – typically some monetary metric – today, the so-called triple bottom line of people, profit and planet is being increasingly adopted by enterprises as a more complex, nonlinear set of metrics that developers of products and services need to be able to balance,“ Barcelona-based Complexity Labs, an e-learning website dedicated to systems thinking and complexity theory, explains on its website.

Simulation allows engineers to reproduce the behavior of a system using a computer to simulate the outcomes based on a mathematical model, thus optimizing product designs. 

Computer simulation, also known as computer-aided engineering (CAE), has been around since the 1950s, when it was used in flight simulators. 

What’s new today is the sheer amount of data and the immense sophistication of simulations, which helps to explain why India-based global B2B market research and analysis firm MarketsandMarkets projects that the global simulation software market will more than double in just five years, from US$6.26 billion (5.5 billion euros) in 2017 to US$13.45 billion (11.8 billion euros) by 2022.

Simulation is powerfully productive. With the right software, simulation can be done 24/7/365, anywhere in the world where computers operate. Traditional design methods are slower and often require hard-to-get access to sophisticated and expensive testing equipment.  


“Nobody designs anything today without simulation,” said Shaaban Abdallah, professor of Aerospace Engineering and Engineering Mechanics at the University of Cincinnati (UC). Abdallah is the faculty advisor to the UC student team participating in the SpaceX competition to design the Hyperloop, a 900-mile (1448-kilometer) system of tubes linking Los Angeles and San Francisco in which passenger and vehicle capsules might someday rush at speeds up to 700 miles (1127 kilometers) per hour. “It’s a different level of complexity.”

The Hyperloop incorporates magnetic accelerators and compressed air bearings to remove frictional forces that normally plague the use of wheels. These methods don’t rotate, which changes the dynamics of the problem. Simulations can help solve this.

The design also anticipates operational maintenance and hard-to-measure variables such as earthquakes, power outages and passenger fluctuations. The design must be safe, reliable, affordable and self-powered. In short, it’s complicated.

One of the elegant ironies the Hyperloop UC team has learned, however, is that complexity actually improves simulation. As an open-source design project, engineers and data analysts everywhere can contribute to the Hyperloop design. The team can learn from previous complex simulations, problems and designs to improve future simulations and tackle even more difficult problems. This sparks new ideas – ideas that often have nothing to do with the Hyperloop.

“Now, with simulation, we have the ability to do more iterative design changes and show results. This makes complex designs available to more people who don’t have extensive resources,” said Jorge Betancourt, who leads structural analysis simulation for the Hyperloop UC team. “Simulation allows all these different groups to prove their ideas are good.” ◆

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