So for instance, if you were designing a new car door handle:
- The old school method would be to get a physical prototype made of the actual material using temporary aluminum mold tooling costing 10's of thousands of dollars and waiting weeks to get it and then mount it into a special fixture with data aq and servos/pneumatics to simulate Bruno opening his car door. If it failed, start over, spend 10's of thousands of dollars again and wait weeks.
- The Virtual Prototyping method would be to load your 3D CAD model into one of the many FEA packages available and test it the same day the model was completed. If it fails, redesign it and test it again before tomorrow afternoon.
So now that we know what it is, lets talk about "Is it new?". The answer is "Most definitely not!". Digital Prototyping has been around for at least the past 20 years. What is new is the widespread availability of it to virtually everybody doing 3D design work in every industry. Most 3D CAD products now include FEA software embedded in them, and what isn't included can easily be found and afforded from the multitude of analysis vendors on the market. Dare I say the phrase "So easy a cave man can do it"... The stuff is so easy to use too. Anyone can start up an FEA app and run an analysis with a very basic understanding of Model, Constrain, Load, Mesh. You obviously need to know a fair bit more than that to have a meaningful understanding of what your trying to accomplish, but the point is, the softare is darned easy to use.
Now I won't go into the argument of whether Virtual Prototyping can replace physical testing in all cases or the argument of whether Joe Blow Designer should be doing analysis or if it should be reserved for a analyst specifically schooled in the work. I will say that it is definitely a benefit, and if your designing without it, then your probably throwing a lot of time and money away.
So again, it may not be a new concept, but it's widespread adoption and use is.