PARIS - It reads like a fairy tale but it's a true story: a small department of a French military aircraft maker transforms itself into the world leader in a key technology for all automakers.
The story is about Dassault Systemes and its computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing software, called Catia.
In 1981, a team of 15 engineers from Dassault Aviation, the French maker of the Mirage military aircraft, set up Dassault Systemes to develop a software package for mechanical design.
The founders decided to focus on developing the software and formed an agreement with IBM to sell it worldwide. That agreement ended up being critical to the success of Catia.
In the 1980s, Catia was adopted by some of the biggest aircraft makers and carmakers, including Chrysler Corp., BMW, Mercedes-Benz, PSA/Peugeot-Citroen,
and Boeing. But Dassault Systemes didn't really gain momentum until the 1990s. During the past decade, step by step, Catia has prevailed over its main competitors.
'We won almost all European carmakers in the 1990s,' says Bernard Charles, Dassault Systemes president.
Audi, Fiat, Porsche, Renault, Volvo and Volkswagen also become Catia users. Honda, Mitsubishi Motors, Suzuki, Subaru, Daewoo and Hyundai soon followed.
Toyota, which developed its own in-house software, uses Delmia, Catia's companion software for manufacturing.
But the story isn't over. 'We will be at Nissan,' predicts Charles. But Ford, which uses SDRC, and General Motors, with EDS' Unigraphics, still resist.
A key factor in the company's success has been the scope of Catia's capabilities. 'First, we bet on the design of a complete car; then, we decided to develop a library of software dedicated to each craft of the automotive industry, such as: body, powertrain, welding and assembly,' said Charles. 'It has paid off,'.
Today, Dassault Systemes estimates that it holds a 50 percent market share in the automotive CAD/CAM market, based on the number of workstations using the software.