Engineering Reality Magazine recently interviewed Dr. Peter (Siu Yun) Poon, MBE, founder of Romax Technology, which became part of Hexagon | MSC Software in June 2020. Still going strong as he approaches his ninth decade, Romax was based on his vision to engineer a better world through the power of computer simulation, and stems from his deep-rooted passion for engineering and desire to improve the future of rotating machinery. Born in China, he came from Hong Kong to Britain in 1962 where he got his PhD at Bristol University, worked in industry including at the leading bearing company RHP and conducted research at Cambridge University, finally setting up Romax (Rotating Machinery Experts) in 1989. He is still active in various business ventures around the world and has received awards from Royalty, Prime Ministers, and learned institutions around the globe. He became an MSC Software Fellow in July 2020.
Tell us about your early life and what influences made you such an engineering inventor and pioneer?
I was born in 1934 in China. My father was an entrepreneur, and my mother always encouraged me to think out of the box, to consider new things, and to ask questions. I loved to construct and invent things; when I was ten, I made an electric motor out of a can from an empty 555 Cigarette Tin! I developed an interest in bearings when I studied contact behavior relating to aerospace engines for my PhD, sponsored by Siddeley Engines (now part of Rolls Royce). After that I joined RHP as engineering manager, where I worked on bearing designs for new applications, supplementing my theoretical knowledge with practical experience. Later on, I worked with Professor Kenneth Johnson at Cambridge University, and wrote a seminal paper on contact stresses and surface roughness. During this time I got into mathematical modelling, systems engineering, artificial intelligence and statistical measurements – all of which became core components of Romax. Around this time, however, I suffered a really bad bicycle accident. I was left in hospital for several months and lost 80% of my sight. During my recovery, I had lots of time to think about all of the things I wanted to do. I couldn’t drive afterwards, and I realized that consulting was probably the best way for me to earn a living for my family. I thought deeply about engineering simulation problems and considered stress-strain equations from first principles at the integral level as applied to manufacturing design. Soon after, we made a bid for a NIST (National Institute of Science and Technology, Department of Commerce) project in the US and we won. That was pivotal to setting up Romax and to funding the next 2-3 years of software coding. Developing this technology to devise electro-mechanical simulation software in the late 80s was a truly pioneering approach. In the 1990s we even came up with object-oriented code before Microsoft did! We were so confident of our software when we released it that we told customers that if it did not work after a month’s trial, they could send it back for a refund. We had no takers; our software helped them save tens of millions of dollars.
Why does Romax talk so much about a “Full System Approach” particularly with transmission systems?
The complex interactions between all the components of a transmission system can have a cumulative effect which can’t be fully understood if the components are analysed in isolation. This starts at a basic level between the core components: shafts, gears and bearings. Simulating complex physics and components is all very well and good, but getting the core system right is crucial. If the interactions between these core components are not correctly predicted, none of the results will be trustworthy. With transmissions, it is all one connected system where all the components affect each other. The only way to get accurate system deflections and misalignments is to model the whole system, and then analyse it iteratively. And possibly the most complex part of this system in terms of simulation is the bearings. Accurate bearing simulation is critical – if the bearing stiffness is not captured correctly, the entire simulation model will be wrong. With the move into electrification, the benefits of simulating electric components together with mechanical are becoming ever more critical. I believe that a holistic simulation philosophy is the only way to truly understand system performance. That’s why we created a services-based global Design Team a few years ago to offer everything from multi-physics design simulation to verification & validation testing and safe deployment. At Romax, we were the first company to develop a full systems approach to gearbox analysis. In this way, we drastically changed the whole industry. We pioneered in research and innovation and heavily invested in the development of innovation and technology advancement. This transformed not only our business, but the entire landscape around us.
Tell us about your “Bit to It” philosophy?
In the early days I coined the phrase “the requirement is your demand” when I founded Romax. It was in recognition that product requirements are fundamental to any successful engineering design process. The product requirement should be your demand. That demand will require and produce information. Your process is to refine that information. By ‘Bit” I mean the product specification and by “It” I mean the end product. There are processes for single component design but it is always harder to do a whole system and to get it right first time. Engineering design processes are highly elaborate systems these days and even include system-of-systems. Hence a holistic system design process with integrated processes for system-of-systems is required. We should always be looking at simplicity and elegance in our design processes where we aim to order our tooling at 6 months versus 8 months or 12 months.
Where is the real value in computer-aided engineering to be had?
The figure to the right clearly illustrates the benefits of upfront predictive CAE simulation tools during the full product lifecycle. For any product, no matter what it is, there is always a total cost of design and manufacture and those costs can be pretty much tied down by the end of the prototyping phase when it becomes increasingly harder to change designs without huge cost implications. This is where CAE has such a high return-on-investment. If you design your product right in the first place you will have reduced your manufacturing costs dramatically.
Tell us about Romax’s foray into Wind Turbine driveline design 10-20 years ago?
Wind power is very important for the sustainability of our planet because it is clean and renewable, albeit dependent on weather patterns. We started working on wind turbine gearbox designs twenty years ago. It could take 5 years to get a particular wind turbine gearbox design right at the time and needless to say they are expensive to build and maintain. Getting the design time down and right first time is therefore critical. When we applied the Romax philosophy to these gearboxes we got the design cycle time down from 36 months to 9 months including prototyping.
Electrification is coming, where does Romax solutions fit in to the mix?
The future is clearly electrical in so many industries as it is a very clean energy source for a sustainable planet. It is the most efficient way of transmitting energy, it leads to the most efficient motors, and the best control strategies can be generated with electrical systems. We started work on eMobility 10 years ago with a collaboration in a research group at Sheffield University in the UK. We wanted to be the leader in electric transmission systems by bringing our right first time approach from conventional mechanical transmissions to the challenges of ePowertrains and we’ve now got a track record of helping over 50 successful electric vehicle projects for OEMs, startups and assorted innovators in this field around the world including many of the big name players in the last 5 years alone.
What are your thoughts on Design-for-Manufacture?
From our humble beginnings at Romax we always wanted to identify opportunities to automate design processes with the ultimate goal of making it right first time. If you produce a design for a component, you need to work with production engineers and their production processes. One component is relatively easy to do. However, you then have to take into account mass production completely and cheaply for that component which will include forging, rough machining and heat treatment etc. And if components are not good quality you have to scrap them, go back to the start and take a financial loss. And you can imagine that when you have multiple components inside a system the order of complexity goes up dramatically and the risk of failure rises. So, getting design aligned with manufacturing is absolutely critical in my view and it was one of the reasons why we chose to be part of Hexagon Manufacturing Intelligence going forward. I believe that the design process must absolutely align with the machining process from the get-go to ensure final quality, prevent redesigns and avoid recalls. And all testing should involve testing of the elements of the process to improve each component incrementally. The part that involves human intervention today is the bit that needs judgement and balancing of demands. But with autonomy coming to manufacturing in the 21st century, and the rise of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, the subjective human element will become less and less in future.
You have been an innovator all your life. Where does your inspiration come from?
Everything around me. Be curious, ask questions, and break things down to the underlying principles to understand your problem – once you understand the problem you can find a solution! And build simulation ecosystems (between products and partner companies) that create intricate webs for nurturing collaboration and the sharing of knowledge. This philosophy is what has allowed Romax to optimise everything globally; from people to processes and products… it is the very core of our ‘Right First Time’ philosophy. We are born with curiosity as children, but we are normally encouraged not to ask questions at school; we must ask questions! You will not get the right answer unless you ask the right question. Keep asking questions and always ask the fundamental questions!
What skills do you think are vital for inventors and innovators to have that young engineers of the future need to know?
They need to think in an inter-disciplinary way, especially as we go into the future. Engineering is no longer split into “Mechanical”, “Electrical” etc. They need to learn a bit of everything and bring that to their work. This is a new approach for the 21st century but polymaths of the 18th and 19th centuries crossed disciplines and we are going back to that paradigm. One must understand the base physical principles of any problem you are dealing with first, be it why the dentist drill hurts when it doesn’t actually cut anything (current theory: heat), or why a dripping tap can clean a greasy dish overnight, when one on full power could not (current theory: cavitation and distribution in drip size/force). Always think for a long time, test your theories, then find engineering solutions. It is an exciting time to be a young engineer because so many new simulation tools are available to help you invent the products and processes of the future.