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Altair Engineering and the Evolution of Everyday Things

Today’s most advanced engineering software is taking us back to nature

Published: Apr 9, 2013 06:46:51 AM IST
Updated: Apr 4, 2013 01:05:02 PM IST
Altair Engineering and the Evolution of Everyday Things
Image: Dave Krieger / Getty Images for Forbes
Altair CEO James Scapa with one of the 13 structural ‘ribs’ that fit inside the wings of an Airbus A380. Altair’s software helped Airbus figure out how to shed more than 1,000 pounds from the wings by redesigning the ribs to have the same strength with less material

The future of architecture is evolving before my eyes on the laptop of Luca Frattari. In a series of keystrokes, the architectural engineering PhD, now a business development manager at software firm Altair, thins out the blocky outer shell of a new skyscraper into a willowy exoskeleton that would stand out even among the gaudier designs in the Dubai skyline. Its irregular lattice leaves room for giant, undulating pools of window glass. Yet, when he runs a wind-flow analysis on the simulation, the building’s organic form wicks away stiff breezes far more efficiently than a rectilinear structure. And the reduction in outer material gives the building an excellent chance of going up faster and for less money.

Adapting nature’s forms to human problems, a trend called biomimicry, is an idea that has taken root at engineering-intensive firms such as Ford, General Motors, Boeing and Airbus, all of them hungry buyers of technology to improve the shapes of the machines and structures they build. The biggest computer-aided engineering software firms, Ansys, Dassault Systèmes and LMS International, a Siemens subsidiary, have enjoyed double-digit revenue growth in recent years as large customers snap up their pricey suites of simulation and material analysis software.

Unseen by drivers and frequent fliers, the straight angles and solid forms under the skins of autos and airliners have been replaced over the past several years by funky-looking ribs that are lighter and stronger than the original. For each hundred pounds trimmed of a car, drivers could save about 1 percent to 2 percent on fuel economy, which could add up to billions of dollars nationally, according to the US Department of Energy. Even shaving 1 gram off a water bottle would eliminate 160 million pounds of material per year, assuming consumption of 200 million bottles per day, says Thierry Marchal, Ansys’ director of industry marketing for consumer goods.

Altair of Troy, Michigan, has a lead over its rivals in a particularly interesting field called topology optimisation, according to research firm CIMdata. Altair’s OptiStruct software simulates on metal and carbon-fibre structures the same trial-and-error forces that have shaped bone growth over millennia—but repeats them at semiconductor speed until an engineer arrives at a design that meets the need without any excess material. The process can lead to unique and sometimes non-intuitive shapes that are often 20 percent to 30 percent lighter than traditionally formed structures.

The privately held company, co-founded by CEO James Scapa, a Ford veteran, and two others in 1985, got half of its estimated 2012 revenue of $240 million (up 13 percent from 2011) from the auto industry but is growing 30 percent year-over-year in aerospace and electronics, three  times the growth of its steady auto business. Airbus used Altair software to shed a thousand pounds of the A380 by redesigning 13 wing ribs on each side of the plane. Altair now works with more than 3,000 clients, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Nasa and the US Department of Defense.

Altair Engineering and the Evolution of Everyday Things

In October, Altair released what it says is the first simulation and analysis software designed to be easily used by the engineering masses. Called solidThinking Inspire, it will be bundled into Altair’s flagship software package ($20,000 on average) or sold separately for $8,000. Early adopters of Inspire include auto supplier Key Safety Systems and the Pratt Institute in New York. Architects in the US and Europe are planning highrises to be unveiled later this year in Asia that will look like descendants of the biomorphic forms created by Antoni Gaudi and Frei Otto.

Altair got its inspiration for bone-based software 20 years ago when Scapa and his chief technology officer, Jim Brancheau, found Jeff Brennan in a lab at the University of Michigan. Brennan was a biomechanical engineer studying how human bones grow; Scapa brought Brennan in to oversee what would become OptiStruct. Brennan spent the early 1990s schlepping a computer from one carmaker to another, struggling to get analytical engineers to accept his OptiStruct software’s counterintuitive visual results. After OptiStruct became part of Altair’s bigger HyperWorks software suite and no longer needed individual salesmen, Brennan eventually took over as CMO. “We brought Jeff in, and for years and years the competition couldn’t see why we did it—they said there was no market,” Scapa says. “Now they are trying to catch up.”

Altair says it has grown at a 14 percent compounded annual rate since 2004 but has no plans to go public. It is majority owned by its three founders and last raised money eight years ago selling an undisclosed minority stake to General Atlantic for $30 million. Scapa aims to reach $1 billion in revenue by 2020, a stretch goal that largely depends on how much Inspire broadens the user base.

Even if Altair fails to hit the billion-dollar goal, it will be an aesthetic victory for the rest of us as more buildings, cars, trains and gadgets take on the swooping curves beloved by nature.

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(This story appears in the 19 April, 2013 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Himanshu Shah

    I have read one of the most brilliant article on design software and its use to optimise, structural strength, material and natures forms for human problems. Thank you.

    on Apr 9, 2013