Steve Wolfe: Shrinking COE Conference Sharpens Its Focus On CATIA Users

The Icelandic volcano and a shift of marketing resources to another conference made for a smaller CATIA Operators Exchange (COE) conference, but quality was superb says Contributing Analyst L. Stephen Wolfe. P.E.

By L. Stephen Wolfe, P.E.
Contributing Analyst

Big events have a lot of energy. SolidWorks World and Autodesk University are big events, with attendance topping 5,000. These events pale compared with really big shows, such as the Consumer Electronics Show that takes over Las Vegas each winter. The energy, the money, and the great parties are fun.

But one needn’t have these luxuries to host an exceptional customer meeting. The CATIA Operator’s Exchange, Dassault Systemes largest organization for CATIA and related Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) software in the Western Hemisphere, has been swimming against the bigger-is-better trend. Since its founding in 1984, the annual COE conference combined customer education and new product marketing in one event. Beginning in October 2009, Dassault established a separate Customer Conference to perform the marketing functions. This action reduced the number of sales, marketing, analysts, and press people at the annual COE meeting.

In 2007, annual COE conference attendance had peaked at about 1,450, said COE president Tom Crume. Last year’s event in Seattle drew about 750 people  in a time of tight travel budgets. This year’s attendance might have been higher had not the volcano in Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull Glacier blown its top, filling European skies with abrasive ash that grounded all flights between Europe and the US. About 50 people, including 20 scheduled speakers from Dassault,
couldn’t attend, Crume said.

The Eyjafjallajokull volcano stymied European plans for a trip to Las Vegas.

Dassault Systemes and the COE organization performed admirably in the face of natural disaster. Dassault replaced all the scheduled speakers from France with people from its North American sales organization. Some of these had joined Dassault on April 1, with the acquisition of IBM’s engineering software marketing organization. John Unsworth of Bentley Motors, Ltd. gave Monday morning’s keynote address from his kitchen table in England. Thanks to the improving Internet infrastructure, the presentation came off almost as smoothly as if he had been the room.

High Quality Sessions
The quality of presentations at the 2010 COE conference seemed to have improved despite the reduced attendance. All three keynote sessions focused on practical applications of CATIA and related PLM software. Gone were the bewildering PowerPoints of marketing presentations delivered by high-level IBM and Dassault executives.

The Bentley Mulsanne was the first car designed with CATIA V5 and “the best car we have ever put together,” according to Unsworth.

Unsworth showed how CATIA V5 was used to design the Bentley Mulsanne in 3D. The 3D models were not only used to check the appearance and fit of the  assembly, but also to verify that parts were able to be assembled. For example, computer simulation performed early in the design schedule revealed that a  one-piece carbon-fiber composite floor of the trunk (or “boot” as the English like to say) could not fit into the car as one piece. This discovery allowed designers to change the design before production of prototype tools had begun.

The Mulsanne sells for $330,000 US and up. Only a few hundred are likely to be produced. So one could argue that Bentley could afford anything, even CATIA and Delmia.

Tata Nano Ramps Up
On Tuesday morning, T.N. Umamaheshwaran, chief technology officer of Tata Motors, explained how his company used software from DS and other suppliers to design the world’s lowest-priced production passenger car. The Tata Nano sells in India for the equivalent of $2,500 US and Tata plans to ramp annual production to 750,000 units.

Umamaheshwaran’s relatively young development team works with a variety of software from different suppliers. Autodesk’s Alias, CATIA V5, and  Pro/ENGINEER were used for product design. Altair’s Hypermesh is the primary tool for finite-element modeling. CATIA V5 is used for production engineering and Delmia V5 for manufacturing planning. Siemens’ Teamcenter Enterprise is used to manage the design and manufacturing models.
Yet the process and business benefits were remarkably similar to Bentley’s.

Priced at the India Rupee equivalent of $2,500, the Tata Nano is affordable by an estimated 65 million Indians.

Digital models were produced and assembly processes verified before physical models were made. This procedure enabled Tata’s engineers to redesign parts to simplify assembly processes before committing themselves to tool design. Suppliers also reviewed designs early in the development process to suggest cost-saving measures.

Gulfstream Eliminates 2D
At Wednesday keynote session, Jeff Retey of Gulfstream Aerospace explained how his company eliminated 2D drawings altogether in the design of the  Gulfstream G650 executive jet. Gulfstream convinced the US Federal Aviation Authority to accept 3D CATIA models in ISO 10303 (also called STEP) format for design certification in lieu of drawings. Important dimensions and tolerances were annotated directly on the models with CATIA V5 before exporting the models to the standard format.

Suppliers also design major subassemblies (such as wings) in 3D. Parts makers learned to build directly from 3D models. Although designing entirely in 3D
required extensive investments in computer infrastructure, training, and documenting of procedures, the 3D processes reduced labor costs, schedule time, and errors in fit and assembly. Tools and assembly fixtures also were designed in 3D.

The G650 is the first airframe designed, manufactured and FAA certified without 2D drawings.

Assembly floor workers learned to use CATIA to obtain critical dimensions they needed to do their work. The result was major subassemblies such as wings
and body sections “fit right the first time,” instead of requiring redesign and rework.

Not all the COE presentations presented big-picture overviews. Breakout sessions covered a range of applications from advanced surface modeling to  numerically controlled programming. Sessions on software and procedures for migrating from CATIA V5 to V6 and the new licensing schemes for V6 drew packed crowds.

Gulfstream’s suppliers have differing levels of access to its engineering data network depending on the amount of design work they do.

Customers shared their experiences setting up large data management environments and supporting diverse user communities over the internet. There were also ample hands-on training sessions for various CATIA V5 and V6 applications.

Probably the most important aspect of COE is the product sessions (formerly called Development Planning Councils) where customers from various  industries and CATIA product managers sit down to discuss details of needed software improvements. No other user communities I have visited are so organized in this respect.

The future challenge of COE and other customer organizations will be to disseminate knowledge to people who can’t be physically present at annual  meetings. Crume said that audio recordings were made of this year’s sessions and will be available to COE members on the Web.

COE regularly hosts “Ask the Experts” Web conferences and publishes a monthly newsletter. Yet there is still no substitute for getting together with one’s peers to gossip over coffee or to ask questions of product managers face-to-face. For these reason the annual COE spring conference and the smaller automotive and aerospace workshops are likely to remain valuable resources for CATIA customers in the Western Hemisphere. §