Designing Mind

Article excerpt

"The first time we came to Boston, it was really amazing," says Charles Edelstenne, hands waving in Gallic semaphore. "Investors saw us as a kind of curiosity-like they were thinking 'What are these French people? They're coming here, to the U.S.? They must be crazy."' Edelstenne pauses, then adds, with a wry moue, "The second time we came, I don't think they saw us as so crazy any more."

Indeed they did not. It would be difficult to ascribe lunacy to a company that could manage-as Edelstenne's Dassault Systemes did-to hike its worldwide revenues by 23 percent in 1996 and then by a further 28 percent last year, to $337 million. Mad is also probably not the word to describe a computer-aided design and manufacturing corporation whose major product-a 3D CAD/CAM software package called CATIA (for Computer-Assisted Three Dimensional Interactive Analysis)has cornered 75 percent of the global aviation design market and 40 percent of the automotive one.

It's also Boeing's design software of choice; the 777 became the first commercial airliner to go straight from computer screen to finished product thanks largely to Catia's wiles. CAD/CAM systems like CATIA allow designers to develop and display parts on a computer screen and even rotate them 360 degrees for a hologramlike viewing capability. The process enables high-end manufacturers such as aircraft and automobile companies to cut costs by fine-tuning designs prior to creating an actual prototype.

Once an internal division of Dassault Aviation and still one-third owned by them, Dassault is a recognized frontrunner in the CAD/CAM field, counting Lockheed Martin, Chrysler, Mercedes, BMW, Fiat, and the entire Korean automotive industry among its clients. If this is madness, then there's method in it.

Building a tangible presence in America was a part of that method. Asked to suggest differences between U.S. and European strategic philosophies, Dassault Systemes' CEO hits on one: a willingness on the part of Europeans to treat clients as partners rather than as customers. "If you just produce software products, then you will have a lot of competitors who also produce software products," observes Edelstenne. "To make your own market, you have to be in your customers' business. Today, we have teams that are completely immersed in our customers' offices, who know what they produce, how an airplane is made, who can anticipate needs our customers don't even know they have yet. …