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Dassault Systemes: Capturing a Beating Heart in 3D Simulation

Designers have used computers for years to build elaborate machines. But what about modelling complex experiences? Dassault Systèmes is leading the charge

Published: Jan 24, 2014 07:09:59 AM IST
Updated: Jan 22, 2014 05:22:03 PM IST
Dassault Systemes: Capturing a Beating Heart in 3D Simulation
Dassault Systèmes and UCSF collaborated on this 3D simulation of a beating human heart. One day they hope to model each individual patient’s heart before surgery

Dr Julius Guccione, a 50-year-old cardiac researcher at the University of California, San Francisco, was mesmerised the first time he saw a virtual image of a beating heart. He’d been using math models to research the heart his entire career, but now Dassault Systèmes, a French design and simulation software company, had created a complete, three-dimensional view of the electrical impulses and muscle-fibre contractions that enable the human heart to perform its magic.

If it were a model of his own heart, Guccione would have seen it racing. “This is something doctors have been trying to get to since before the 1900s,” he said. The advent of technologies like magnetic resonance imaging and echocardiography, he said, have been a “dream come true” for measuring abnormal motion in a patient’s heart. But by modelling a beating heart in 3D, the hope is that one day doctors will be able to diagnose and treat patients based on the unique forces at work within each patient and even rehearse open-heart surgery on an individual before opening up his chest.

“The heart isn’t just made of tissue; it also has an electrical current. I compare it to a machine,” says Dassault Systèmes Chief Executive Bernard Charlès, whose company has been creating digital mock-ups of machines like airplanes and automobiles for more than 30 years. With $2.8 billion in revenue and 11,000 employees (3,000 in North America), it’s the leader in the $16 billion market for product life-cycle management (PLM) software, which engineers at companies such as Boeing and Gap use to manage the development of everything from jumbo jets to jeans, saving both time and money.

As the Living Heart project suggests, Charlès, 56, is steering the company in new directions as part of a plan to double its revenue in five years. Instead of just peddling software for designers and manufacturers, Dassault Systèmes is recasting itself as a ‘3D experience company’ whose simulation technology can be applied to just about anything.

Last year it combined its nine software brands, including Catia, Simulia and Enovia, into one 3D Experience Platform, which clients can use to model and simulate not only the way a product is designed or manufactured but even how it is bought, feels or is used. Charlès’s favourite example: A woman with an armful of groceries who swings her leg under the bumper of her Ford SUV, causing the lift gate to open automatically. Catia software helped realise that “experience”.

Dassault Systèmes has already branched out beyond aerospace and automotive design to a total of 12 sectors, including life sciences, architecture and construction, energy and consumer packaged goods. Even some fashion designers are using Dassault Systèmes’s 3D tools to design their collections (though they don’t like to admit it, Charlès says).

SHoP Architects and its virtual construction arm, SHoP Construction, are known for pushing the limits of technology on projects like the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which features an undulating latticework ‘wrapper’ made of 12,000 unique prefabricated, pre-weathered steel panels.

SHoP used Dassault Systèmes’s 3D Experience software to transform the way designers and engineers worked together on the project, streamlining the process by creating a single model that all teams could work from, including plumbers, electricians and carpenters. The 3D model logged changes made by any of the construction teams in real time, so every team, regardless of trade, was always working from the most current information. That helped reduce material costs by 25 percent.

SHoP is now testing a cloud-based version of Dassault Systèmes’s technology to manage its next project—modular, prefabricated houses to replace homes lost in Hurricane Sandy. By sharing 3D design data directly with the Long Island factory that will build the housing modules, SHoP says it will be able to erect a fnished home in just 48 hours, instead of the customary four to six months.

At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, Harvard professor Peter Der Manuelian is converting its impressive collection of photos, diaries, drawings and documents from Egypt’s Giza pyramids into 3D models so he can take students inside the tombs for a realistic view of the Fourth Dynasty. Armed with that rich data and a 3D printer, he’s even recreating ancient Egyptian artefacts that had long since vanished.

“If you can imagine it, you can simulate it,” says Steve Levine, chief strategy officer of Dassault Systèmes’s Simulia, who heads up the Living Heart project. He admits there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: You need to start with good data in order to produce an accurate simulation.

In the case of the Living Heart project, Dassault Systèmes lifted geometric data about the electrical and mechanical properties of the heart from about a dozen different sources—academic researchers, cardiologists, medical device companies and regulators—then combined it into one massive database. “People had been working on different pieces of this in great detail, but no one has attempted to work it together,” Levine said.

Matching up data about the heart’s electrical impulses with its mechanical ones—called coupled multiphysics—was a meticulous job. Using a standard 48-processor workstation, Dassault Systèmes’s scientists needed about four hours to calculate the precise biomechanical forces of a single heartbeat, tracking how electricity is conducted through every strand of muscle fibre to replicate the true motion of a human heart. Once they accurately described the physics, the model operated on its own. “We do nothing more than pulse it the way nature does,” said Levine.

The next step is personalised 3D heart models. Doctors would start with the Dassault Systèmes model of a normal heartbeat, then modify it to reflect the behaviour of the patient’s own heart as detected by an MRI or echocardiogram. If a portion of the heart was damaged after a heart attack, for instance, they would observe how the physics had changed and simulate various treatment options to ensure proper blood flow.

Dassault Systèmes was established in 1981 as a spinoff from France’s Dassault Aviation, the privately held manufacturer of Falconjets founded in 1929 by Marcel Dassault.

At the time it was working on software for wind-tunnel testing, which naturally led to similar work for the auto industry. It sold its software under the Catia brand, through a distribution agreement with IBM.

Over the years Dassault Systèmes added to its PLM software portfolio through a series of acquisitions, including Enovia and SolidWorks. The company went public in 1996, though 41.5 percent is still privately held by Dassault Group. In 2010, it acquired IBM’s PLM sales force, taking responsibility for its own growth. Revenue has been growing 10 percent a year, outpacing competitors like Siemens PLM, Autodesk and PTC. And Dassault Systèmes’s stock, like its rivals’, has been on a tear, up 175 percent since 2009, as investors look to jump on the 3D printing bandwagon. Dassault Systèmes is ideally positioned. As Charlès says, “If you want to print a letter, you have to write it first.”

Today almost 70 percent of Dassault Systèmes’ $2.8 billion in revenue is recurring from software licences and maintenance, providing a cushion to explore new markets. Despite a third-quarter slowdown attributed to a weak economy, Charlès is expecting sales to bounce back in the fourth quarter and in 2014. The launch of its cloud-based software, Lighthouse, early next year should open new markets and spur companies to speed up their 3D modelling efforts, he believes.

Years ago manufacturers and their vendors were all located in the same village because they needed to be, says Charlès. But in an age of virtual design and cloud collaboration, “the world of the making” is changing rapidly, he says. “Innovation will still come from scientific breakthroughs, yes, but also from social trends and virtualisation, which have opened us to ideas we never thought were possible before. The frontiers of industry are changing because the nature of collaboration is changing.”

(This story appears in the 07 February, 2014 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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