UC and P&G Create Cutting-Edge Computer Simulation Center

The UC Simulation Center is providing meaningful outcomes by solving real design problems in a virtual world.

A collaborative effort between Procter & Gamble and the University of Cincinnati has developed a center of expertise in computer simulation. The center provides P&G with cost-effective, high-value virtual modeling and simulation capacity and capability while developing a talent pipeline for future recruitment.

In the traditional engineering and production model, a product is designed, a prototype model is created and tested, and then lessons learned are fed back into the design for modifications. This physical trial and error process is extremely limiting in terms of cost, time, and the sheer number of prototype models that can be physically created and tested.

“The more virtual engineering we can do, the more we can save in terms of costs, time, engineering resources, etc. We can do far more parametric studies applying virtual models — such as different sizes and shapes — because there is no retooling of fabrication machines,” Professor Teik C. Lim, head of UC’s Mechanical Engineering Department, points out. “For example, this practice has been gaining popularity amongst major automotive companies like Ford, Mercedes and Toyota because they cannot afford to build several variations of the same car.”

Simulation Center, candid shots of students, Teik Lim and Don Bretl

Teik C. Lim (left) is head of UC's Mechanical Engineering Department and Don Bretl (right) is P&G's operations manager of the UC Simulation Center.

P&G’s UC Simulation Center Manager Don Bretl says that “to explore physically and confirm physically” is not getting results that are good enough or fast enough any longer.

As P&G pursued the increasing use of computer modeling as a way to do design work, they recognized that there was a growing need for developing more modeling and simulation capacity sooner. Besides looking at typical business models for expanding capability, within their “connect and develop” concept, they also looked at innovative ways that other companies or institutions were trying.

And they found a fairly unique business model used by Caterpillar Inc.

In 1999, Caterpillar Inc. established its Champaign Simulation Center (CSC) at University of Illinois Research Park. During a visit to Caterpillar with representatives from UC College of Engineering, P&G learned a new model of partnership with universities that could provide another agile and cost-effective source for modeling and simulation while helping to grow future talent.

With this business model in mind, P&G worked with UC to develop a similar partnership. An existing Master Alliance Agreement between UC and P&G was the legal basis for the collaboration.

The success factors for the CSC in Illinois were the following:

  1. building on an existing relationship with the university, 
  2. being close to the students, 
  3. being close to the business centers, and 
  4. starting small and growing with the demand.

Simulation Center, candid shots of students, Teik Lim

Namheon Lee (left) and Maruthi Amardeep Srivatsavaya (right)

P&G felt that UC met all of these success principles including existing partnerships in the modeling and simulation discipline, an area in which UC faculty and students possess significant expertise. In addition, P&G was attracted by UC’s designation as a PACE (Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education) school.

The center opened Sept. 22, 2008, at the UC Turner Building (corner of Vine Street and Daniels) with Lim and mechanical engineering Associate Professor Yijun Liu (who serves as the co-PI/Technical-Director) as the UC faculty representatives. Bretl is the full-time P&G operations manager for the center. In just a couple of months, they are already seeing very positive results for both P&G and UC.

The center is currently staffed with nine students from UC's College of Engineering: six graduate and three undergraduate (male and female) who are working closely with P&G engineers and feeding their results constantly back into the P&G design and production processes.

“Our motto is to explore digitally and confirm physically,” says Bretl. Through what the students are doing, with their P&G “mentors” working — in some cases literally at their sides — they can perform design studies much faster. “We have P&G engineers sit with the students. These are seasoned engineers who coach them, train them and work with them on applying the state-of-the-art simulation tools.”

Simulation Center, candid shots of students

Shrikant Pattnaik, a PhD student in mechanical engineering, says working in the center has been 'awesome.'

“This is all done in real time,” says Lim. The student feeds information back to the project team, who makes physical confirmations. Any issues that then come up can be addressed immediately since the UC students are virtually embedded in the P&G research and development team.

“Then they say, ‘OK, we can make one — now can we make millions?’” adds Bretl.

“You can actually simulate how the product is used or made before you commit resources to making the final product. It enables us to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily attempt to do,” Bretl says, “Or at least take a chance to explore an area that appears too risky that we might not have tried at all without our virtual tools.”

The virtual process is a lot faster than experimentation. The end result might be the same experimentally or virtually, but the result is reached much sooner through the virtual approach — and at much less expense.

“We can try out more options and can get to execution faster,” says Bretl. He mentions the number of famous people like Thomas Edison who said how much more they learned from failures. “You can afford to fail a lot in the virtual world,” he says with a broad smile.

Simulation Center, candid shots of students

Bo Bi, an undergraduate mechanical engineering student, is gaining real-word experience in a P&G virtual environment only meters away from the UC campus.

Initial plans are to limit work at the center to a few mature modeling capabilities to facilitate a fast start and for much-needed capacity in areas where P&G has significant expertise and therefore would be able to coach students to provide significant value quickly to P&G.  Examples are manufacturing reliability engineering, plant layout, Web modeling, packaging analyses, fluid flow in porous media and fit modeling.

As the center matures, new modeling capabilities can be added and services can be expanded based on demand.

“It is being administered in the Mechanical Engineering Department, but it is not limited to the College of Engineering,” says Lim. “There are university-wide opportunities in medicine, chemistry, business, statistics and mathematics, even though this type of simulation traditionally is based in engineering.”

“We have gotten several requests to look at opportunities for our people in Reliability Engineering to work with students from the Quantitative Analysis & Operations Management Department in your College of Business,” adds Bretl. “There are many synergies we can imagine.” Another future opportunity might be to bring in P&G’s design personnel (and including students from DAAP) to enable expansion of P&G’s integrated virtual design practices for products and packages.

The UC Simulation Center has seed funding for two years from three different organizations within P&G. Lim points out that the arrangement that guarantees relatively long-term block grants overcomes several shortcomings of the traditional research grant.

“Typically the researchers spend two to three years on their own and then they write up a progress report. There is not much interaction between the sponsor and the team until near the end of the project,” he says. “No wonder industry partners frequently lose interest! Technology transfer is very low in the traditional model. It does not lend itself well to final production.”

In this new model that promotes close interactions between P&G and UC, Lim says, there are three distinct benefits:

  1. Interaction is constant between P&G and UC.
  2. The facility location near UC makes it easier for students to commute — it is a UC-leased facility and interacts with the campus, yet…
  3. It is embedded in the P&G computer-based research and development environment.

“In the physical world, they’re at UC, but in the virtual world, they’re at P&G,” says Bretl.

Simulation Center, candid shots of students, Teik Lim

Lim and Bretl agree that these students are the next generation of engineers with simulation skills that are very attractive to P&G.

“It’s the best of both worlds,” says Lim. He adds that this assignment is a very prestigious one among the Mechanical Engineering ranks. “You tap into the creativity of the students — ‘8 to 5’ is gone. The students can come and go as they please. Whatever hours of the day work best for them — they are not constrained by when the P&G office is open.”

“The students we employ here have to be research minded and have to want to pursue a higher degree ultimately,” Lim says.

Bretl points out that the “symbiotic” pairing between the P&G coaches and the UC students benefits the coach as well. “We have to break our old ways of experimental testing,” he says, adding that it’s going to require some retraining of their current employees. “The students take this for granted since they basically grew up in the digital world. Students graduating with these simulation skills are very attractive to P&G.”

“You’re looking at the next generation of engineers with simulation skills that are valued in many industries,” Lim adds.

UC Simulation Center 

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