Updated: Apr 29, 2021
An interview with Robert Hurlston
There is a lot of knowledge and different concepts to be learned in the field of simulation. Each of them must be taken one by one and experienced in order to understand all the details and to be able to apply them properly in our simulations. Becoming a simulation engineer should be seen as a marathon instead of a sprint.
Today, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dominique Madier as the first in our series of interviews titled 'Excerpts with the Experts', in which we learn what it takes to get to the very top of the simulation field.
Dominique Madier is a senior aerospace consultant with more than 20 years’ experience and advanced knowledge in Finite Element Analysis of static and dynamic problems for linear and nonlinear structural mechanics behaviors.
He has been involved in various projects for aerospace companies in Europe and in North America (e.g., Airbus, Dassault Aviation, Hispano-Suiza [now Safran], Bell Helicopter Textron Canada, Bombardier Aerospace, Pratt & Whitney Canada, and their subcontractors) for the sizing of metallic and composite structures such as fuselages, wings, nacelles, engine pylons, helicopter airframes, and systems.
He earned a master’s degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering from Paul Sabatier University, Toulouse, France. He is now working as a freelance engineer in Montreal, Canada and is the director of FEA Academy, a company offering consulting in FEA for structural mechanics problems as well as FEA courses to students and engineers. He is the author of the book “Practical Finite Element Analysis for Mechanical Engineers”, a book about the practical aspect of finite element analysis for structural engineers.
Hi everybody, and welcome to Fidelis' very first installment of Excerpts with the Experts, where we learn a little bit more about the path that led our simulation and CAE experts to where they are today, and what makes them tick!
Dominique - thanks so much for joining us today. First, I’d like to ask you about your journey to get here (career and otherwise). Can you tell us a little about your career path to date?
I was born in France, in a small town close to La Rochelle in the west of the country, near the Atlantic Coast. I grew up in a modest family. My father was a teacher and my mother a housewife. I was an average student, but I became hooked on science and technology at an early age. I spent my time reading all the books I could find about aerospace, astrophysics, and motorsports. I am sure I read everything on these subjects in the library of the small town where my family lived (I cannot say it was a huge library, but it had a respectable number of relevant books).
In school, I was not captivated by my classes, and I struggled to make the connection between the teachers’ lessons and my passion for aerospace and astrophysics. Nevertheless, when it came time to go to university, I logically chose the sciences. I devoted my first two years of university to the study of advanced mathematics and fundamental physics (classical physics, solid mechanics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics, quantum physics, relativity).
I have fond memories of those first two years at university, but my passion for aerospace still resonated deeply within me; therefore, after graduating in mathematics and physics, I listened to my heart and went to pursue a master's degree in Mechanical and Aerospace engineering in Toulouse, one of the leading cities in this field in Europe.
Like most students in mechanical engineering, I learned the basis of the finite element method; however, I was intrigued by FEA from the very beginning. I immediately understood that it was a very powerful tool that was about to undergo rapid sensational growth. I had such a passion for FEA that I decided to specialize in the field, and, thanks to several internships in the aerospace industry, I was able to do so.
Immediately after graduating, I was involved as a structural engineer in highly stimulating aerospace assignments with European companies. Then, after 10 years in the industry, I decided to emigrate to North America. I settled in Montreal, Canada, where I am still living and where I am working as a freelance FEA structural engineer.
As we’ve just heard, we all started from somewhere. Who were your role models or mentors, and what did you learn from them about simulation, engineering and life in general?
It is difficult for me to answer this question because when I started out in the aerospace industry, the use of FEA was not very developed, so it was difficult to find mentors to rely on and learn from. As a result, I had to learn on my own, by experiencing the FEA concepts one by one, step by step. The process was rather tedious and challenging at first, but it also allowed me to understand the discipline in depth.
However, at the beginning of my career, I’ve had the chance to work with very experienced freelance engineers, especially from England, who taught me the fundamentals of aerospace engineering. I am infinitely grateful to these people who allowed me to learn all the complexity of the engineering profession. I cannot say that they were mentors, but their generous advice allowed me to learn a lot of things that cannot be learned at university. Finally, after spending several years with them, I, myself, became an independent engineer. I think I would not have taken this route if I had not worked with them. So, we can say in a way that they were models for me and that they influenced my choices.
That’s great! Thanks for setting the scene. Let’s learn a little more about what you do currently. What does a day in the life of Dominique Madier look like?
I can say that a typical day is extremely busy. Each day is divided between my consulting activities, during which I carry out finite element analyzes to solve various problems in structural mechanics on aerospace projects, and my teaching activities of FEA with students and engineers from all over the world.
I usually start my day by answering the FEA questions I received by e-mail overnight from students and engineers. I like that because the topics are not necessarily related to modeling aerospace structures. This can be very generic questions but also questions concerning very precise modeling subjects. I can spend between one hour and an hour and a half writing my answers. Then I switch to perform FEA for my aerospace customers. This work involves a wide range of fields because it can be modeling linear or nonlinear phenomena for metallic or composite structures on static, buckling, modal or even dynamic analyzes. Although sometimes there are similarities between certain problems, the way of approaching and solving them is always different. Then I conclude the day by again answering the FEA questions I received during the day and working on the preparation of my webinars or my online FEA courses.
OK, so we know what you do… but why do you do it? What about your job drives you to get out of bed in the morning?
You probably know this quote which says, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”. I took the advice at face value and applied it. FEA is a discipline in which mathematics, physics, engineering, and computer science meet. I have always had a deep interest in these four disciplines, so when I discovered FEA, I could only be captivated.
Being able to do predictions with a mathematical model before a product has been built, influencing the design of this product to meet requirements and then verify afterward that it behaves like we predicted is something very satisfying.
What also motivates me a lot to do FEA, is the fact that it is an evolving discipline which is applied to many domains. When you work as an FEA analyst, you know that you will learn new things every day. Moreover, each analysis is different from the previous ones (although there are some similarities between some). Each analysis has its own characteristics, which the FE analyst must adapt and face in order to solve a specific problem. I like to say that doing FEA is like playing chess: you must anticipate problems, predict behavior, and adapt your strategy.
All this makes simulation an extremely motivating field. I can say that I do FEA by passion.
Awesome! Now, let’s get a bit more specific. What is your preferred simulation software?
As an FE analyst in the aerospace industry, I am a huge user of MSC products, especially NASTRAN. However, I am convinced that, in numerical simulation, software is not that important. Most of the commercial simulation software available in the market are good and permit us to simulate what we want.
Let me recall my first rule for learning FEA: “Learning FEA is more than learning how to use a software; it is a question of understanding the FEA process, acquiring the best modeling practices, and knowing the behavior of the mechanical system you wish to model”.
The importance of the FEA software itself is very often overestimated, compared with a good understanding of the modeling process. Most FEA beginners focus on graphical aspects over engineering data and modeling techniques, but it is hard to blame them, because the critical factors of a simulation are generally hidden behind the software’s interface.
An FEA software is just a black box for solving very complex systems of equations that cannot be solved quickly. FEA is simply a tool used to aid in our structural analyses. If we do not master the modeling techniques, we will likely submit an incorrect system of equations to the solver.
That being said, learning a new FEA software is always fun and at the end of the FEA learning process, we have to learn them because we cannot build our simulations without them. We are lucky to have access to these modern FEA packages which implement very advanced modeling solutions. I recently took a course about a new FEA platform and I have to confess that I’ve had a lot of fun playing with it.
And are you working on anything particularly exciting at the moment?
I am currently working on two exciting projects. The first one is the modeling of nacelle & engine components for Pratt & Whitney Canada. The models are used to conduct stress analysis for static and dynamic problems.
My second project is the development of FEA video courses to help students and engineers learning FEA. I am preparing a basic course and an advanced course, both in several sessions, for learning practical FEA to solve structural mechanics problems. I hope to make these courses available for the end of the year.
We’ve all worked on things that we’re particularly proud of or that we enjoyed more than our typical work. What is the coolest project you’ve ever worked on?
Since the beginning of my career in FEA, I’ve had the chance to be involved in many projects - some more motivating than the others. I worked on Airbus A340 & A380 programs, Dassault Aviation Falcon 7X, Bell Helicopter 429, Bombardier Aerospace Regional Jets, Business Jets and C-Series Commercial Aircrafts, Pratt & Whitney nacelle components and engine installations on flight test aircraft.
But my favorite project of all is definitely the Bombardier C-Series (now Airbus A220). This project was overly exciting and inspiring because it was a completely new design for the company; what we call a clean-sheet design in the industry. Bombardier Aerospace had never designed an aircraft of this range before, and many challenges had to be taken up by engineers in order to meet extreme performance requirements. What is very satisfying is that all the targets have been greatly exceeded and, in its class, the C-Series/A220 is probably the most efficient aircraft ever designed. I have excellent memories of this project because we had to surpass ourselves, but also because there was an excellent atmosphere between all the engineers of the different teams involved in the project.
What does ‘cutting edge’ simulation look like today, in your opinion?
There are many axes of development in simulation which gives it a status of “cutting edge” technology:
First, there is multiphysics simulation, which permit us to solve problems where various physics fields are involved and interact, and where they can be considered together to achieve more accurate engineering predictions.
Secondly, there is the meshless technology. The recent developments carried out by the simulation software companies around this technology and, more particularly, the method known as Element Free Galerkin (EFG), seems really promising. Considering the great players who are developing things around this approach, I strongly believe that something great will emerge soon.
Finally, there is the digital twin concept which places simulation at the heart of a virtual representation that serves as the real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process.
The evolving nature of simulation means that these lines of development are making simulation more and more important for the development of new products while improving their performance as well as their ecological footprint. Nowadays it is impossible to think of developing a new product without the help of simulation.
To conclude on this subject, it is clear to me that Artificial Intelligence, Data Driven Models and Machine Learning are the last advanced technologies which will shape future simulation processes.
You’ve clearly made it to a point in your career where we’re calling you an ‘expert’. A lot of our readers aspire to get to this point in their own careers, too! What is one piece of advice you would give an aspiring engineer that might help them grow in their simulation career?
Personally, I prefer to define me as a “specialist” rather than an “expert”, because I devote my work to a particular aspect of a field while an expert has extraordinary knowledge in a given field and can solve problems that others have trouble understanding. So, I am very far from being able to be qualified as an expert.
To all aspiring engineers, I advise you to focus on the long-term, because it takes time to become a good simulation engineer. There is a lot of knowledge and different concepts to be learned in the field of simulation. Each of them must be taken one by one and experienced in order to understand all the details and to be able to apply them properly in our simulations. Becoming a simulation engineer should be seen as a marathon instead of a sprint.
During this long learning process, an aspiring simulation engineer should acquire new skills with enthusiasm, should focus on the details, should learn from mistakes (it is good to make mistakes, we usually learn a lot from them), should embrace change and stay flexible and, above all, should be optimistic, because engineering is often about problem-solving.
But one thing is certain, if you choose a simulation career, you will be able to be involved in a very wide variety of different projects and meet specialists from all over the world because simulation is everywhere and will never stop expanding its scope.
OK, well thanks for all of that. Here’s a fun one to finish with: Who, alive or dead, would you love to sit down and have a drink and a chat with? Why? And what would you ask them?
I particularly like this question. Dead or alive you said? OK, I'm going to pick two because I have an idea in mind, but I would need a time machine.
With the time machine, I would go find Leonardo DaVinci and bring him back with me to the 21st century. I have always been passionate about DaVinci's work, I have read a lot about his work. I particularly like the aesthetics of his inventions as well as their ingenuity for the time in which they were made. I like to think of him as the first engineer of mankind.
The reason I would bring him to the 21st century is because I would like to attend a discussion between DaVinci and another genius, Elon Musk, regarding future space travel technologies. Imagine for a moment what could come out of the interaction of these two brains. What would I ask them? Nothing. I would just listen and learn.
Well that was fantastic! Thanks so much again for taking the time with us today. We wish you continued success in your career – and I’m sure our paths will cross again very soon!
Dominique has a phenomenal text book out at the moment, titled “Practical Finite Element Analysis for Mechanical Engineer”. It has seen ultra-positive feedback since its release in late 2020, and is available in hardcopy and e-book format in the FEA Academy bookstore (https://www.fea-academy.com).
Dominique also hosts FEA Academy webinars (available in the “Webinars” section of the FEA academy website) and is planning to develop FEA Academy video courses that will cover “Practical Basic FEA” & “Practical Advanced FEA”.