Digitisation, desktops and developing new businesses

The way things are designed and made is being shaken up by things such as new materials and greater connectivity. Better, cheaper tools are enabling more people can start their own businesses. Brent Balinski spoke to Dassault Systemes SolidWorks CEO Gian Paolo Bassi about all this and more.

Design for digital cities

Connectivity is changing and shrinking the world. Manufacturing isn’t immune, and software companies are responding by trying to make things as smooth as possible across communication channels.

“People think globally today, and they will do so even more [in future],” Gian Paolo Bassi told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“And our customers today – the best customers we have, the most innovative ones, just work like that.”

Available in 14 languages and with over 3 million customers, Bassi’s company receives feedback from a wide audience and pays close attention to its needs.

Right now, he sees similarities between the “uberisation” of our lives and the demands from the (global) industrial community.

Comparing the creation of a worldwide marketplace for manufacturers to expectations from Amazon or Airbnb, companies want transparency and to be able to easily define their own parameters when looking for suppliers.

“You want to make it as easy to create, to manufacture anything as it is to buy a book or to take a vacation nowadays,” he said.

Bassi’s company took a step in this direction last year, announcing SolidWorks Manufacturing Network (there are, at the time of writing, no Australian participants). Exalead (which, like SolidWorks, has Velizy, France-based Dassault Systemes as its parent company) also designs software to suit this need.

“We have technologies that are going to be more and more embedded in the design phase and can tell you ‘you are designing this jobs, but are you sure you want to design and produce it yourself?'" Bassi explained.

“Why don’t you use this one, by the way, down the road?”

Other trends among users that are driving what Dassault/SolidWorks are offering include the prevalence of additive manufacturing and the vast amounts of data created and captured in communities.

During SolidWorks World 2016, the company announced a product incorporating PCB design (using PCB 3D printing company Nano Dimension as a case study) and presented on the rise of “plastronics”.

This year, for example, Voxel8 and Nano Dimension will both begin selling printers able to create in conductive plastics. The expansion in printable materials poses a challenge to CAD companies.

Another trend influencing both industries and the software businesses that service them is the abundance of data, and how this can be made useful.

Citing Dassault’s Virtual Singapore project (scheduled to be complete in two years), Bassi said the digitisation of more environments would take away a lot of guesswork.

Singapore’s “digital twin city” will see sophisticated analytics guiding design and future development.

“If you go in the city of Paris and there’s a flood, nobody knows how many apartments will be underwater, because they have no idea; in Singapore they will,” said Bassi.

“They want to know how many people live where, how many people move across what streets, how many bus stations are where, how many cars are where at any time of the day… then they can look at the analytics and say ‘there’s a bottleneck here – we need to create another way or a larger lane’.

“They can decide and plan how their investments go. But the best way to plan for the city of the future is to know what to plan and how to plan. This can only come from the analytics that come from the full digitalisation of your environment.”

Not about to kill the desktop

Bassi’s company is managing its own shifts in terms of demands for connectivity.

Many of its users have grown up with SolidWorks, and are happy with a product installed, run and storing on the desktop. Some older users are skeptical of the idea of design in the cloud for the sake of it.

As he did in his presentation, Bassi pointed out that the company was happy to continue providing a desktop version of its product as long as users kept investing in it.

“We are not going to replace the desktop generation with the online generation because it’s fashionable,” he said, with many competitors offering a “subscription only” model. They would service the desktop generation, currently making up 100 per cent of revenues, “for as long as needed”.

Acknowledging that the future at some point would be purely online and, Bassi said his company had to keep three generations on customer happy: the desktop, connected (online storage on a database rather than computer files) and online (pay-as-you-go) generations.

“It’s like an automotive company, right?” he said, adding that while it was inevitable practically all vehicles would one day be electric, established carmakers would not switch to producing solely electric vehicles right away.  

“So today there is no major automotive company that can afford to not go electric. None. Toyota, BMW, Mercedes: they all have hybrid and electric cars,” he said.

“Just as when people are ready for the electric car I guess Mercedes and BMW will be ready. Until then Tesla will only make happy the guys who want to go electric.”

As newer CAD companies – for example Onshape – could purely offer online, pay-as-you-go software, new car companies could purely offer electric cars.

As well as the Mechanical CAD suite, SolidWorks has released cloud products, starting two years ago with Industrial Designer and Conceptual Designer (the first SW applications to run on Dassault’s 3DEXPERIENCE platform). It announced another at SWW 2016 with Xdesign, a browser-based collaborative product to be released in beta form later this year and also running on Dassault’s platform.

There was, however, no plan to do away with the desktop generation. Again, he drew from the example of car companies.

“Do you want to rent a car or to lease the car or to own a car? There are options in the automotive industry,” he said, adding that start-ups – who might be cash-strapped and keen to avoid capital expense – were generally the keenest on online products.

“Why can we not have the same options for software if you want that?”

Get them hooked early on

Basso was also keen to talk about the company’s new start-up initiative, SolidWorks for Entrepreneurs, launched in July last year.

Qualifying early-stage businesses get access to all of SolidWorks’ products for the price of $US200 (with 80 per cent of the non-refundable entry fee going to the Rwanda High School For Girls scholarship program.) They must also be deemed worthy by a selection panel and participate in marketing events.

The program is so far only available to entrepreneurs in North America, but there are plans to bring it to Australia “after Q2, I suspect,” said the company’s Benjamin Tan, Director of Professional Channels AP South, who would oversee the program here when it begins.

Tan said he was optimistic Australia would adopt the program enthusiastically when it is rolled out. Though Australia’s capacity for producing start-ups is sometimes maligned, by one of Dassault’s metrics, we’re doing better than some.

According to the company, last year almost 60,000 new licences of SolidWorks were sold worldwide, with roughly a one-third of those to new customers. In Australia, “almost half” of all new licenses were to new customers, said Tan.

“There’s a lot of budding companies out there, in our part of the world especially, which are forming,” he added.

Also announced at the event was a new Apps For Kids program, to be released in spring this year in North America.

Announced as a product to nudge those aged 4 – 14 towards a lifelong love of STEM disciplines, the app aims to – in a simple and intuitive way – take a doodle or a picture and turn this into a 3D printable file.

Along the way, a child will hopefully – in an idea that’s been likened to Minecraft for its simplicity and game-oriented nature – pick up a few things about design and engineering principles and want to learn more.

Time will tell if this does something to eventually narrow the gap between the market need for STEM graduates and the amount produced.

However, it seems to make good sense in lengthening a pipeline of customers – from ages 4 – 14, to high schoolers and university students, to start-ups and larger firms – who will use and develop some sort of familiarity with and loyalty towards SolidWorks’ programs.

“That’s why we sponsor every possible maker lab, every possible incubator. We are visiting many of them, and have provided software to many incubators, because this is where the companies of the future come from,” Bassi explained of the investment in the new entrepreneurs program and other initiatives.

“And of course, very close to this way of thinking is education, where we invest massively. We are in 82 per cent of the top 200 educational institutions in the world.

“82 per cent teach with SolidWorks and, importantly, use SolidWorks. Including MIT. They use SolidWorks in their research labs. It’s the software of choice for the inventor of the future, as I like to say. So education, incubators – it is a thread, you know?”

Manufacturers' Monthly attended SolidWorks World 2016 as a guest of Dassault Systemes.