Vanderbilt engineers featured in Wired article on product failure

Today’s manufacturing companies face a significant challenge as they work to balance the demands of the marketplace for better performing products against the need to bring new products to market faster, cheaper and with greater reliability than ever before.

This month’s issue of Wired magazine features an article addressing this challenge and discusses how computational simulation tools can help companies deal with this challenge.

Anticipating breakage on everything from jet engines and health care devices to energy technology is the entrepreneurial niche that gave birth to VEXTEC. Founded by Vanderbilt University School of Engineering alumni Bob Tryon, Ph.D.’96, chief technology officer, and Animesh Dey, MS’94, Ph.D.’96, chief product development officer, along with Loren Nasser, VEXTEC is a front-runner in using a computational framework for simulating and predicting the breakdown of manufactured products—and the potential impact on a company’s finances.

In the article, Tryon says he was charged with predicting the life expectancy of aircraft engines for General Motors. He was constantly frustrated with the methods available for assessing materials. After deciding what kind of metal it wanted to use in an engine, GM would have a smooth, round bar of that metal made for testing. The engineers would then repeatedly pull the ends of the bar until it broke. This, in theory, provided a failure point for that material.

The problem, again, was getting enough of these data points. “You need to test 3,000 parts to get a reliable 1-in-1,000 number,” Tryon told Wired. In other words, to statistically predict that one bar in a thousand that is going to be a first fail—snapping at the beginning of the failure curve—you would need to test 3,000. But this was utterly impractical. “We were elated if we got 25 bars to test,” said Tryon.

L-R; Bob Tryon, Ph.D.’96 and Animesh Dey, MS’94, Ph.D.’96 of VEXTEC

The solution was to test what bars they could, then build in a margin of error by dividing the load under which the bar broke by three or four. This made their estimates extremely rough—especially given that no components are actually shaped like smooth, round bars.

The solution to the problem seemed obvious: Find a way to model the strength of a component—with all its material variability—in the computer, the way you can model stress. GM wanted such a tool so badly that it sent Tryon off to do research in this area as an engineering Ph.D. student. While there, Tryon met Animesh Dey, who was pursuing a doctorate in civil engineering, and the two began working on developing a material simulator.

By the time Tryon presented his thesis, GM had sold the division he worked for and, in essence, laid him off. So he and Dey started their own company, VEXTEC, to see if they could use their new simulation techniques to help manufacturers better predict failure. They call their software tool Virtual Life Management.

Over the last 12 years, VEXTEC has attracted a number of large clients—including American Airlines, the U.S. Army, and medical-device maker Boston Scientific—and its predictions have proved eerily accurate.

Read the full online article here.