Measure twice, cut once is the adage carpenters live by to save on time and materials. Design optimization software enables designers and engineers to measure hundreds of times with multiple designs to visualize the result of these designs without the time, cost, and frankly, hassle of creating the product in real life. 

Engineering companies that use traditional prototyping methods—namely, testing their designs by finding and fixing flaws through creating and testing prototypes in real life—can lose thousands of dollars and months of effort developing, assembling, and testing multiple prototypes to optimize and/or validate their designs. Companies using this outdated prototyping model have to wait on the creation of physical prototypes before they can check for failures. This process is time consuming, costly, and unnecessary.

Finite Element Analysis (FEA) uses mathematical models to apply real-world conditions to your designs. Thousands of engineering companies are saving time and money by using FEA software as a tool throughout the entire design process. 

In the right hands, FEA software is worth the weight of the prototypes it replaces in gold! R&D dollars are wasted when FEA is not involved in the design process. Let’s look at the five ways that FEA software, when utilized by a trained simulation analyst, can increase your company’s bottom line and make your life so much easier. 

1. Design

Begin using FEA software at the beginning of the design process and continue using it throughout. 

According to, “Up to 80 percent of the cost of a product’s development [is] determined by the decisions made early in the design process.” 

In other words, the decisions made in the first stages of the design process of a product can put the project on either a costly or an economical path. Correct low-cost choices that lead to high-quality design are possible when accurate data is available to a trusted engineering decision maker at the beginning of the design process. FEA software used by trained professionals has proved to provide accurate data to make these vital, low-cost decisions. 

Designing using the “I have no idea, so I will use the guess and see” method, then prototyping those guesses, hoping they will work, is the old way to optimize designs. This method was, and still is, time consuming and expensive. Why guess at the limitations or failure points of design, when there is a better way?   

Utilizing FEA in your design process will allow your company to decrease product development costs, speed up your time to market, and decrease the inevitable headaches that come from a traditional prototyping approach. In the design cycle, fast iteration and testing is the name of the game, and there is no quicker or cheaper way of doing it than FEA. 

2. Testing

Anyone who does medical device testing knows how time consuming and tedious it can be. I remember testing for the ultimate tensile force of a new catheter device on an Instron machine. I tested hundreds of samples, each of which took three to five minutes to set up and test, and then hand-wrote the data into a scientific notebook. 

I also had to double- and triple-check my results, to make sure I hadn’t written or performed it incorrectly. This testing took up several hours a day and several days to complete. 

Product prototype testing is labor intensive, costly, prone to human error, and difficult to set up. Outsourcing the testing is an option but generally very expensive, and in-house testing requires a huge up-front cost to purchase the correct capital equipment, plus the engineers or technicians to operate them. 

FEA is not a silver bullet, cure-all solution to the testing headache, but it does greatly reduce the amount of stress involved. Many of the tests used in prototyping to find and correct errors can be performed in FEA. Using a trained FEA software professional to test your device in a virtual environment, so you can correct the mistakes present in the design, will greatly reduce the time, money, and possibility of human error involved in the testing process. 

Real-life testing is still crucial and should not be ignored, but testing only one device, instead of ten or more, to confirm the success predicted by FEA is exponentially more effective. 

3. Prototypes

It would be a mistake to allow FEA to replace all prototypes.FEA should be used to reduce the number of prototypes needed, not replace them entirely.

According to this Aberdeen study, “The prototype stage is merely used to validate that the product is error free, not to actually find errors.” 

Instead of using prototypes to find and fix errors, then rinse and repeat, FEA allows the design to be fully optimized, then prototyped, to validate what FEA has already confirmed—that you have created a great product! 

In that same Aberdeen study, 65% of respondents stated that the “top challenges of physical prototypes are the time and cost required to build them.” And 50% of respondents also said that“multiple iterations of prototypes are needed.” Iterating virtually using FEA software, instead of building and testing ten to twenty prototypes, can greatly reduce those challenges.

FEA software works because it allows the user to test designs virtually, using mathematics to solve real-world problems that are too complex for the engineer to figure out using hand calculations. This process allows companies that utilize FEA software to redesign and test virtually, then redesign again in hours or days, instead of weeks or months. 

4. Design Changes

Engineering Change Orders (ECOs) come from test data or customer complaints that necessitate a change to the design. 

According to a blog called DocuWare, “Many organizations report that the ECO process consumes one-third to one-half of engineering capacity, slowing efforts to drive manufacturing process improvement.” 

So 33 to 50 percent of companies’ engineers are spending their time and resources on fixing old designs, rather than creating new and improved designs. Most engineering companies do not even know how much they spend in ECOs, according to a new study by Cincom Systems: They report that 73% of organizations don’t even know the actual cost of engineering change orders. 

A survey of Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation members found:

  • On average, minor ECOs (e.g., slight drawing corrections or a minor bill of materials fix) take 4 days to process, and companies receive 34 of them each month.
  • Medium ECOs (e.g., a new SKU or component design) take 17 days to process, and companies receive 24 of them each month.
  • Processing time for Major ECOs (e.g., new product line, product line redesign) can vary widely; the lower-end of estimates was 109 days, with an average process time of 142 days. 

FEA allows you to analyze every aspect of design, not just the parts on which you can put strain gauges. It also allows you to analyze your design on the fly, as you design to reduce the chance of ECO’s being necessary in the first place. 


5. Real-Life Failures

No matter how much testing is done before manufacturing and selling a product, there is still a possibility that it will start failing in the customer’s hands, and if that happens, a recall might be in order. When customer complaints roll in due to product failure, testing is vital, to see if the problem is reproducible. 

FEA, in this case, is a great way to test to failure, then quickly redesign to resolve the failure. Most FEA software can even quickly change features of the design, based on  changeable variables and goals, and then analyze each change in quick succession to find the most optimal design in the shortest amount of time possible. 

When FEA is part of your design process from the very beginning, designs will be made better, faster, and cheaper. They will be less prone to failure and thus less prone to needing a recall or an ECO. But if the design still fails and requires a redesign, FEA can then make the redesign less of a hassle and get the new and improved product back on the shelves faster than ever.