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Q&A with Altair’s CMO Jeff Brennan: Celebrating 20 Years of OptiStruct®

This month Altair celebrates the 20th anniversary of OptiStruct®. The software was originally released in 1994 and has significantly impacted the way computer-aided engineering (CAE) practitioners view optimization today. Born as a disruptive technology for topology optimization of structures, OptiStruct has matured into Altair’s structural analysis and optimization solver solution for linear and non-linear structural problems under static and dynamic loadings.

Altair’s Chief Marketing Officer Jeff Brennan introduced the OptiStruct technology to Altair and became the initial champion for the product. In an interview, Brennan answered questions related to the history of OptiStruct, the importance of its technology, and what’s next for OptiStruct.

Q: Tell a little bit about how you discovered and brought OptiStruct to Altair?

JB: In the early 1990s, I was studying topology optimization at the University of Michigan as part of my graduate work. We were researching bone growth patterns and the theory that bone responds directly to external stimuli. We wanted to create a mathematical model to represent bone growth in the human body. The first papers on topology optimization technology were published in 1988 and further research was underway to find out whether bone responds in a topological manner. We found that the body does in fact try to find an optimal structure and microstructure in reaction to stress. With this information, we could try to predict the way that things should be growing and use math to expand upon it. This led to the creation of commercial software that would apply those mathematical principles to create shapes that were optimal. The software became the first commercially available version of a topology optimization algorithm. I joined Altair in the spring of 1992. Soon after, chief technical officer Jim Brancheau and chief executive officer James Scapa said they were interested in the research and wanted to pursue topology optimization as a commercial product. Altair initially partnered with engineers at the University of Michigan to create OptiStruct. The name is a fusion of the terms “Optimal” and “Structure”. It took a little over a year to get the software ready and OptiStruct was officially launched in 1994, becoming Altair’s second commercial product after HyperMesh®. GM Powertrain was the first customer and began using the software to create underhood brackets.

For the first five years, I was the product manager, ran sales, wrote the software manual, and handled much of the application engineering. I traveled frequently with my workstation to demonstrate the software and its ability to improve structural designs. Throughout 1996-1997, Altair took over the complete development of OptiStruct, adding software developers and investing heavily in the product. Several key people were integral to the development and success of OptiStruct, including Harold Thomas, Nari Pagaldipti, Ming Zhou, Dhiren Marjadi, and Yaw-Kang Shyy. It has taken a lot of trial and error in industrial reality throughout OptiStruct’s 20-year history to make it truly successful. In the last five to ten years, the software has become an accepted form of design and people can better understand this disruptive technology. It is “disruptive” in the sense that the technology creates strange looking shapes than can look unsettling or wrong. It requires a different way of thinking – essentially simulation before the design, before even the first prototype, which is counterintuitive with respect to conventional knowledge and wisdom. Although this approach may impose downstream challenges for manufacturing, it makes the manufacturing process better. The software is breaking down technology barriers and it is evident that this is still ongoing as OptiStruct continues to merge into the mainstream industry.

Q: What impact do you see that OptiStruct has had on optimization in the CAE industry in the last 20 years?

JB: OptiStruct has really challenged people’s way of thinking about design. It puts the function in front of the form in the equation. The products themselves are more efficient – they are lighter, stronger, and look different. People are also much more comfortable with that “different look” now than they were before. Probably the biggest impact OptiStruct has had on the industry is its “greenness”. I spoke with Al Gore a few months back about OptiStruct and explained that OptiStruct is truly the greenest thing out there. Of the three “R’s”, “reduce” is extremely important, even more so than “reuse” or “recycle”. OptiStruct has the ability to affect sustainability from the outset and guides material placement very early in the process. This eliminates the need to carry the material with you throughout the lifecycle of the design. This creates a lighter and more efficient product without having to discard or dispose of any material later because it simply wasn’t there to begin with. OptiStruct facilitates a better solution from the beginning and allows you to refine and create a more perfect final solution.


Q: What capabilities enable OptiStruct to stand out against its competition? How does Altair position OptiStruct effectively?

JB: The breadth of OptiStruct’s solution capabilities is unrivaled in the industry. Other software pieces do some of the same things, but OptiStruct had the first-to-market advantage. So much energy has been put into OptiStruct that its head start has never really been relinquished. OptiStruct has a full range of linear and nonlinear finite capabilities and a world class solver element. It guides the user through the definition of optimization objectives, variables, and constraints to the design which allows for problems to be solved up front and make the overall design better. The software has been used for 20 years and that experience gives Altair an advantage. Consultants and software developers understand OptiStruct very well.

The concept of an “optimization center” has also increased the penetration of OptiStruct technology in multiple industries, particularly in large organizations. It couples two strengths – technology and domain expertise. By allowing people from a particular company to collaborate with people who understand OptiStruct, they can seamlessly introduce a disruptive technology and make it work efficiently in the environment of the customer. Optimization centers minimize the risk of introducing a disruptive technology into an existing design process. This provides a vehicle for knowledge and technology transfer and is a good teaching mechanism, enabling faster and easier integration.  In addition to OptiStruct’s software capabilities, optimization centers are a unique feature to Altair.

Q: What’s next for OptiStruct?

JB: I believe we will continue to see rapid growth for OptiStruct as technology converges with market awareness. The technology is improving every year and the software is able to solve more and more problems. The market is also becoming more aware of the technology in general and the impact it can have on material reduction and sustainability. Topology optimization coupled with 3D printing is an example of a new convergence. As materials become more affordable, OptiStruct is poised for a period of rapid growth. Although OptiStruct has been in the software game for 20 years, people are still discovering it which keeps the product fresh. Our research indicates great potential for OptiStruct in vehicle design and minimizing the cost of travel, specifically in the automotive and aerospace industries. Tougher standards are emerging and driving renewed vigor of lightweight design efforts for vehicles.

Lightweighting is the easiest way to minimize fuel consumption. By creating lighter parts, less energy is required to propel the vehicle leading to smaller engines and less ancillary structure, creating a virtuous cycle of lightweighting. There is great potential in lightweight design through topology optimization. When manufacturing constraints are removed and “wild” shape ideas are created, the potential extends even further. It is an exciting time to observe the current position of Altair and OptiStruct – there is a convergence of manufacturing, lightweighting, and a general acceptance of this methodology. People are less afraid of strange looking shapes now than they were 20 years ago. Whereas some of the designs were previously challenging from an aesthetics and manufacturing perspective, organic shapes are now being tagged as “bionic” or “elegant” and 3D printing has made execution feasible. Perspective has changed and this type of technology is at the top of its game. Altair will continue to invest in more solution types and more multiphysics approaches in optimization. We really are in the right time, with the right people, and creating the right software.


Q: How would you promote and position OptiStruct to potential customers?

JB: OptiStruct produces really good solutions. When you pose the problem correctly, you get something that is very interesting and very efficient. The math behind the software is strong – don’t be afraid of strange looking shapes. OptiStruct provides great opportunities for customers as it creates new ideas and fresh approaches to design in many cases. When using OptiStruct for topology optimization, the customer should think of it as a really useful starting point for design. This is a “design assist” tool in the toolbox. The customer will still need to conclude the design in the typical way, but OptiStruct gets you to the end result faster. A key way to position and sell the software is by focusing on lightweighting and time reduction. OptiStruct isn’t just a topology optimization tool, but a world class finite element solver. Customers can have confidence in Altair as the creator of the technology with a stake in the game for 20 years. It is a strong product with a strong company to back it up.