Dassault designs path to success

Dassault's 1981 expansion into computer-aided design under the name Dassault Systemes has led to global dominance of the field. Architects, urban planners, car makers and even some of Dassault's biggest rivals in plane-making use its software.

Dassault Systemes virtual reality centre.
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If the launch of Boeing's 777 jet in the mid-1990s was a bad day for aviation draftsmen worldwide, the introduction of the company's Dreamliner this year was a nightmare.

The 777 was the first passenger jet to use computer-aided design, enabled by sophisticated software tools, to produce a full digital mock-up of the airlinerat an estimated cost of US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn).

But for the $5bn original design of the 787 Dreamliner project, Boeing used three-dimensional software not only to shape the aircraft's fuselage, but also every subsystem, and to forecast its progress from conception through to eventual retirement.

Apart from projecting wear and tear on the 787 over three decades, 3D was used to design the guts of the airliner so that a mechanic can climb in and reach every piece of equipment for repairs.

The software that led Boeing to dispense with thousands of designers and their drafting tables comes not from Silicon Valley or from the company's considerable internal resources.

The driving force in the world of computer-aided design is a small French plane maker whose executives bet their own money on the future of 3D design decades ago and have since been rewarded handsomely.

Dassault, a name synonymous with the Rafale fighter jet and the Falcon line of business jets, is also the world leader in the 3D design industry.

Dassault Systemes provides 3D modelling software not only to its parent company, Dassault Aviation, but to aerospace rivals including Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Bombardier, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

Using Dassault's software "takes us a big step closer to the Boeing goal of design anywhere, build anywhere", says Boeing. "As a global company, Boeing must be able to flow work seamlessly between different locations and different business units without impacting our customers. To do that, we must all be working with the same best-in-class tools and processes."

Philippe Forestier, who was a founding member of Dassault Systemes in 1981 and now serves as the executive vice president of global affairs and communities, says the company likes "to be driven by the future". "We like to imagine what will be the future in 2020, and how we can match it."

But then, aerospace is just one of many fields in which the company competes and accounts for just 15 per cent of its $2bn of annual revenue.

Dassault Systemes dominates car design, helping industry giants such as BMW and Mercedes-Benz to shrink the time needed to design a car from four years in the 1990s to 15 months today.

The programs help car companies simulate not just a vehicle's aerodynamics, but also how it will respond to conditions such as ice and snow.

The French company has also helped to design nuclear submarines and even the world's largest warship, the Gerald Ford class of US super-carriers currently being built, which displace more than 100,000 tonnes.

Designing cities is another speciality. Dassault Systemes 3D software was used for urban planning in the Chinese city of Shenzen.

In a high-tech room built by the company, planners can put on goggles and soar above the virtual city.

The experience includes neat tricks such as landing on rooftops to get a unique bird's eye view of planned developments as well as simulating traffic jams, and tracking the city's carbon footprint and its power and water supplies.

These 3D centres, which Dassault calls "lifelike immersive virtual experience spaces" (Lives), have also been used to help oil companies train workers in safety procedures on offshore oil rigs, and special-forces units on how to rescue the mayor in an attack on a city hall.

To illustrate Dassault's reputation, the company's 3D operation has been praised by the award-winning architect Frank Gehry.

He relied on the software to design his most famous "curvilinear" buildings, such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, and the upcoming Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

"We had all those competitors over the years," recalls Mr Forestier. "The reason why we are now where we are is that we were the first, and we could impose the standard.

"We said 'if we don't do it now we will have someone else imposing the standard'."

The company became one of the first to enter the market after a bargain struck at the highest-level of the Dassault empire.

In 1981, Charles Edelstenne, the general secretary of Dassault Aviation at the time, proposed a subsidiary focusing on computer-aided design, but the chief executive, Serge Dassault, needed assurances it would work.

He asked Mr Edelstenne to put up some of his own money to seed the company. Mr Edelstenne, who later became the chief executive of Dassault, agreed to the deal, and now he is a millionaire many times over.

"That was probably the best investment he ever made," says Mr Forestier.

In the early years, the success of Dassault Systemes led Boeing to shut down development of its own TIGER software program and opt for Dassault's CATIA software.

Other aerospace giants followed, and each year Dassault reinvested a third of its growing revenue in research and development.

It now has 4,500 designers at 31 laboratories worldwide, but mainly in France, the US and India, and has twice the market share of its closest competitors, Siemens of Germany and Autodeskof the US.

With the GCC investing heavily in infrastructure, Dassault Systemes' management sees great opportunities on the horizon.

Already, the company has signed an agreement to provide its modelling tools to Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research in Abu Dhabi, while King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia has built the world's largest virtual-reality 3D room using Dassault software.

Mr Forestier's travel plans reveal further ambitions: Abu Dhabi and its local energy and construction firms are on his docket next week.

"We would like to work with Masdar City," he says, adding that the UAE's growing emphasis on protecting critical national infrastructure, such as power stations and oil refineries, could pave the way for new opportunities for its 3D virtual-reality training programmes.