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Ralph Grabowski's Report on the Business of Computer-Aided Design


Issue #828  >  August 26, 2014

How Dassault Systemes Achieved Success

by Francis Bernard


This article is based on a presentation made by Francis Bernard in Montreal, Canada about the history and sales techniques of Dassault Systemes. Mr Bernard gave me permission to adapt the presentation for use in upFront.eZine.


Early History of Dassault

While 2D drawings hand-drafted on paper allowed thousands of designers to collaborate with the same language (through drafting standards), they could not define surfaces and volumes, nor display realistic views of products. These limitations required the construction of full-size mockups of aircraft and automobiles, and scale models of buildings. Two-D drawings resulted in misunderstandings from errors, and so had negative impacts on quality, cost, and cycle time.


Fifty years ago, the first generation of computers with their graphic terminals (for input) and numerical control machines (for output) allowed 3D to replace 2D, with their exact shapes, realistic visualization, and the integration of design with manufacturing.


It was the aircraft industry that led the migration from 2D to 3D, and so French aircraft maker Dassault Aviation invested massively in working out the definitions of curves and surfaces in 3D (such as for wings), theoretical aerodynamics (to optimize the external bodies of aircraft), stress analysis to optimize structures (so that they would be as light as possible), and computerized machining of parts.


In the early 1970s, Dassault Aviation produced the first aircraft whose external shapes were 100% digitally designed: the narrow-body jetline Mercure and the light attack jet Alphajet. These were designed using punch cards and the first generation of graphic terminals for input, mainframe computers for computations.


In 1977, CATIA was born. It was the first interactive 3D application, but running on mainframes. Nevertheless, it reduced the design and manufacturing time by a factor of four. CATIA and 25 employees were spun off in 1981 to a 100%-owned subsidiary, Dassault Systemes, whose mission was to develop the CAD program for all industries. An alliance was formed with IBM to sell the CAD program worldwide. The program was expanded during the 1980s to handle virtual prototyping and manufacturing, maintenance, engineering, collaboration, and so on.


Since then, Dassault Systemes became independent of its aviation parent, has grown to 10,000 employees, with many more software products, such as Enovia, Solidworks, and Delmia.


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Dassault's Different Sales Approach

In the early 1980s, CAD was popping up everywhere; even AutoCAD arrived in 1983. The new company realized it needed a different approach to selling CATIA. Most CAD vendors were marketing their software as an evolution that replaced the drafting board. [Even today, when people look puzzled at what I write about, I explain, "CAD software replaces the drafting board."]


Dassault instead decided to sell CATIA as a business transformation: "A new way to design and manufacture in 3D" was their pitch. They showed how business can transform with 3D, resulting in much faster development time than simply evolving drafting tools. With this radically different marketing pitch, Dassault Systemes benefited in these ways:

But Dassault was a startup, and so it faced the challenge of being able to demonstrate dramatic innovations. It decided to emphasize the short-term benefits of reduced cycle time and increased quality, while cost saving were relegated as a mid-term benefit. They needed established partnerships with a variety of industry segments, because customers would be implementing new work processes -- and not just a software package. And the toughest challenge of all: creating confidence by meeting their commitments to the new customers.

The Dassault Way
The new company learned several lessons in those early years, which it continues to apply today. [Perhaps this is the reason we CAD media are puzzled by Dassault's marketing tactics!]A product should not be defined just by getting feature requests from customers, or through analysis of the competition, because this approach results in...

Instead, Dassault decided to create innovation through research, and by understanding of each industry segment processes. Innovation must be a permanent objective to avoid one-shot successes.


The first big sale was to Boeing, and it came about this way. The first years of the young company's life was spent on marketing CATIA's functions through traditional demos and benchmarks; Dassault lost potential sales.


After two years of disappointments, the company changed its sales tactics. Starting in 1984, they instead demonstrated their knowledge of the 3D aircraft business processes, based on what they had learned while at Dassault Aviation. The brash, small company proposed a partnership with Boeing to reengineer its processes using 3D technology. Dassault won the contract in 1986. But the passenger aircraft industry is cautious, and so it was not until 1990-92 that the first airplane was designed 100% digitally, the Boeing 777, and the 2000s when the first aircraft was designed end-to-end using digital simulation and 150 suppliers (Boeing 787). [As a teenager, I wondered what will happen to the numbering system after Boeing 797" 9X9, 9A9?]


The automobile industry was different, however,because Dassault knew nothing about manufacturing them. Still, the company took a similar approach. It asked companies like BMW, Honda, Peugeot-Citroen, and Chrysler, "How can the automotive industry benefit from the aircraft design innovation?" Dassault suggested that CATIA could be used for body design, and this worked. By the 1990s, Dassault added manufacturing, but it found that in this area the automotive industry is more demanding than the aerospace industry. Dassault turned this into a benefit, by transferring its new automotive know-how to the aerospace industry.


This process has become standard at Dassault: each market segment has a leadership in certain areas; when its software is optimized for those areas, it is then useful for other market segments: ship building, industrial equipment, high tech, consumer goods, life sciences, architecture and construction, plant piping and processes, and so on.

Today, Dassault relies on three legs to address challenges: vision ("3D opens to the door to the world we imagine"), strategy (see The Dassault Way, above), and execution (see figure 1).


Figure 1: Dassault Systemes executes through six macro processes: plan, define, implement, sell, service customers, and team.

Francis Bernard is a co-founder and the first president of Dassault Systemes, and then sat on the board of directors until 2006. Today he sits on boards and is advisor to companies such as DAESIGN, CapHorn Invest, and ESI Group. Thank you to David Levin for making the introduction.


And One More Thing...

nanoCAD Plus 6 is the newest version of the DWG-compatible CAD software from Russia, now available in North America through Nanosoft America. It's designed for AutoCAD users still employing older versions, and priced to reflect today's budget reality: $180 per year per seat gives priority support and updates.


There is also nanoCAD, the free version. Read what's new in 6.0 at and then download from after registration.


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Letters to the Editor

Re: Seen At Siggraph Vancouver 2014

You stated: "One member of SPEC said their benchmark found areas in a certain sofware package that runs up to 10x slower than is possible." I try very hard not to be lured into conspiracy theories, but why would a software package run 10 times slower than is possible? I can understand 10% or even 25% slower as being caused by inefficient or non-optimized programming, but 10 times?


One of two things is true: Either the programmers are VERY ignorant and don't know to fix the problem, or the software package is intentionally being hobbled.

In the first case, when the vendor learns of the problem, the vendor apologizes, hurries to fix it, and releases the fix as a free upgrade for all licensees (at least). Or, in the second case, the vendor already knows about the hobbling, and has reason to maintain that flaw.


(Autodesk's Revit, for instance renders VERY slowly, and legend has it that this is intentional, so that Autodesk can continue to sell 3D Studio Max.)

Can we get more information from SPEC? Since my company is spending over $500K on software this fiscal year, we need to know which vendor may ALSO be costing the company enormous sums in wasted time. This is actually a very serious problem with large amounts of money attached, so I hope more information is forthcoming.
      - Peter Lawton


The editor replies: To make you feel better, the software was not CAD; it was in the animation-movies area. The problem could lie in something as obscure as a bad interfacing with the graphics board driver. This is a common problem in the Mac world, where Apple doesn't give software developers direct access to the board.


Mr Lawton responds: Thanks, I do feel better. It could be the case that other firms who read your first item about SPEC would like to know this information, if you can somehow phrase it in a neutral fashion.


You certainly tickled my curiosity with your "Censored" section: it sounds like such a great conversation to have had. Mostly this gives me an opportunity to thank you for your newsletter. Every week I wonder whether I can afford the time to read it, and every week I am glad I made the time.
- Susanna Holt

The editor replies: I am frustrated because the product may never see the light of day, due to how carefully they are moving along. Lack of momentum can kill a product. Well, it's their's, so we'll see.


Ms Holt respponds: I had the same thought. Maybe your feature will motivate them. People who are better informed than me may guess their identify and apply some pressure/encouragement.

Now it's Esri, not ESRI. The change happened in 2010, and frankly, it was not big news outside the GIS press!
      - Adena Schutzberg, principal
        ABS Consulting Group Inc.


The editor replies: Their City Engine brochure has the logo as "esri." As long as they don't spell it eSRI -- on second thought, that looks cool.


I wanted to note that there are aspects of human exposure to blue light that deserve more study (positive and negative). There is ongoing research at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of this. See Thank you for your awesome newsletter."
- Nick Gully

The editor replies: Thank you for the link, whose content was incomprehensible to me! Maybe the problem is person-specific, as I have no problems reading my cell phone before falling asleep.


Mr Gully responds: Absolutely. Here is a report on another study:


I do look forward to your ezine.
      - Dean Upshaw



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Entire contents copyright 2014 by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. All rights reserved worldwide. Letters sent to the editor are subject to publication. Article reprint fee: $840. All trademarks belong to their respective holders. "upFront.eZine," "The Business of CAD," and "WorldCAD Access" are trademarks of upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd. Letters to the editor may be edited for clarity and brevity. Translations and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by upFront.eZine Publishing, Ltd.


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