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Thought Leader Thursday: The Times They Are a-Changin’

My son Evan, a sophomore studying mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan, and I were at Amer’s Deli in Ann Arbor pondering a design problem while sharing a salad and their awesome #54 Ham Dunk sandwich. I had just installed the latest version of Inspire2016, and was showing it off to Evan (the fine-looking young man in the picture below).

I used to run this type of analysis frequently in my early days at Altair, but it had been many years. Neither of us had any product training, but Inspire was so easy and fun to use we just started in. Evan grabbed the mouse and within minutes had completed his first concept design problem. As an engineer and father of 5 children, (Evan is the 4th kid, but my first engineering student), it was a very cool moment.


Nothing shoves time in your face like your children one-upping you, but it also showed how times have changed in technology, especially for design software. Twenty years ago, this same analysis was complicated, strange and relegated only to experts. Today, we can do this at a deli on a laptop in 10 minutes.

The reason I started getting my ‘hands dirty’ running software again was because of something that happened a couple of weeks earlier. At an Altair sales and partner meeting in Asia I was heading onstage to discuss the 2016 marketing plans for our solidThinking products in front of nearly 100 sales partners from across Asia-Pacific. As a former CAE analyst, I have always been more comfortable speaking about our HyperWorks simulation and optimization products than the solidThinking design tools.

Thanks to my awesome team, we had a good presentation ready, but after listening to our sales leader, Jason Napolitano, give a motivational talk on the new features in Inspire2016 and many other products, and why this is “the year” for solidThinking, I got pretty fired up and decided to go “off-script.” So I closed down PowerPoint and decided to wing it. Uh-oh.

I told of trying to sell a similar product nearly 20 years ago, Altair’s HyperShape/Pro, and why that pioneering product did not succeed in the marketplace due to a variety of 1990’s technical issues.   The idea that “design synthesis” should be embedded in a design tool for maximum impact in early stage concept design is still the correct strategy, in my opinion.  However, there were a variety of issues that eventually led to the demise of that first attempt, but have since changed.  These include:

  • The ‘strange new shapes’ were difficult to interpret and communicate. Advancements in the algorithms now enable specification of manufacturing constraints (like casting direction and wall thickness) to be specified, and a wonderful new feature for easy geometry creation from the results – called “PolyNurbs” – is a real game-changer for quickly creating usable geometry.
  • Manufacturing technologies were not quite ready for the proposed designs. It’s almost unbelievable how manufacturing methods have improved over 20 years, and today advances like 3-D printing allows creation of even the most difficult optimized shapes, even directly in metal.
  • Some features like shell-based topology and basic re-analysis did not exist. These products just do SO MUCH MORE than the early versions and the scope of problem-solving is far greater, including the ability to optimize hole placement in sheet-metal or thin-walled parts., Performing a quick re-analysis of the interpreted design can be done in minutes, without the need for other tools.
  • The interface was complicated, clunky and restrictive. After the father-son lunch session with Inspire2016, it was clear that all the hype about improved User-Experience (UE) is warranted. Simple, quick, intuitive, and easy-to-learn.
  • The market just wasn’t ready. It can be said that at the same time software was changing, so was the mentality of most engineers and designers toward this new approach. Topology optimization has now been proven by Altair and its customers to be an indispensable tool for efficient product design, and designers and manufacturers are less ‘afraid’ of strange, efficient shapes. The technique and its mathematics have been validated, and the benefits of light-weight design are more understood and appreciated.


As I’ve been working more with Inspire2016, I’ve started to remember situations years ago where we simply couldn’t solve the problem or put the customer at ease with this ‘crazy new technology’. There is no use wishing for second chances to go back and solve those problems, but there are plenty of opportunities going forward to solve new ones and contribute to great product designs.

So I’m rolling up my sleeves, getting comfortable with the latest tools, including Inspire and Evolve2016, and hitting the road to help solve tough problems and design great stuff. I’m really looking forward to it, should be fun.

As Dylan wrote: “…you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin’”.