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