Bone-Based Software Improves How We Design, From Detergent To Tanks

The future of architecture is evolving before my
eyes on the laptop of Luca Frattari. In a series of
keystrokes the architectural engineering Ph.D., now
a business development manager at software firm
Altair, thins out the blocky outer shell of a new
skyscraper into a willowy exoskeleton that would
stand out even among the gaudier designs in the
Dubai skyline. Its irregular lattice leaves room for
giant, undulating pools of window glass. Yet when
he runs a wind-flow analysis on the simulation, the
building’s organic form wicks away stiff breezes far
more efficiently than a rectilinear structure. And the
reduction in outer material gives the building an
excellent chance of going up faster and for less
More things should look bony. Millions of years of
evolution have honed the skeleton into the perfect
shape for survival. Our hollow, long bones are thick
and strong where needed, and light and flexible
where possible. Their excesses were purged long
Adapting nature’s forms to human problems, a
trend called biomimicry, is an idea that has taken
root at engineering-intensive firms such as Ford,
General Motors, Boeing and Airbus, all of them
hungry buyers of technology to improve the shapes
of the machines and structures they build. The
biggest computer-aided engineering software firms,
Ansys, Dassault Systemes and LMS International, a
Siemens subsidiary, have enjoyed double-digit
revenue growth in recent years as large customers
snap up their pricey suites of simulation and
material analysis software. Unseen by drivers and
frequent fliers, the straight angles and solid forms
under the skins of autos and airliners have been
replaced over the past several years by funky-
looking ribs that are lighter and stronger than the
original. For each hundred pounds trimmed off a
car, drivers could save about 1% to 2% on fuel
economy, which could add up to billions of dollars
nationally, according to the U.S. Department of
Energy. Even shaving 1 gram off a water bottle
would eliminate 160 million pounds of material per
year, assuming consumption of 200 million bottles
per day, says Thierry Marchal, Ansys’ director of
industry marketing for consumer goods
Altair of Troy, Mich. has a lead over its rivals in a
particularly interesting field called topology
optimization, according to research firm CIMdata.
Altair’s OptiStruct software simulates on metal and
carbon-fiber structures the same trial-and-error
forces that have shaped bone growth over
millennia–but repeats them at semiconductor speed
until an engineer arrives at a design that meets the
need without any excess material. The process can
lead to unique and sometimes non-intuitive shapes
that are often 20% to 30% lighter than traditionally
formed structures.

The privately held company, cofounded by CEO
James Scapa
, a Ford veteran, and two others in
1985, got half of its estimated 2012 revenue of
$240 million (up 13% from 2011) from the auto
industry but is growing 30% year over year in
aerospace and electronics, three times the growth
of its steady auto business. Airbus used Altair
software to shed a thousand pounds off the A380 by
redesigning 13 wing ribs on each side of the plane.
Altair now works with more than 3,000 clients,
including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, NASA and the
Department of Defense, but it is rapidly spreading
the gospel of evolutionary perfection to a wider
audience in consumer products and infrastructure
and among commercial architects.
In October Altair released what it says is the first
simulation and analysis software designed to be
easily used by the engineering masses. Called
solidThinking Inspire, it will be bundled into Altair’s
flagship software package ($20,000 on average) or
sold separately for $8,000. Early adopters of Inspire
include auto supplier Key Safety Systems and the
Pratt Institute in New York. Architects in the U.S.
and Europe are planning high-rises to be unveiled
later this year in Asia that will look like
descendants of the biomorphic forms created by
Antoni Gaudi and Frei Otto.
Altair got its inspiration for bone-based software 20
years ago when Scapa and his chief technology
officer, Jim Brancheau, found Jeff Brennan in a lab
at the University of Michigan. Brennan was a
biomechanical engineer studying how humans
bones grow; Scapa brought Brennan in to oversee
what would become OptiStruct. Brennan spent the
early 1990s schlepping a computer from one
carmaker to another, struggling to get analytical
engineers to accept his OptiStruct
software’s counter-intuitive visual results. After
OptiStruct became part of Altair’s bigger
HyperWorks software suite and no longer needed
individual salesmen, Brennan eventually took over
as CMO. “We brought Jeff in, and for years and
years the competition couldn’t see why we did it–
they said there was no market,” Scapa says. “Now
they are trying to catch up.”
Altair says it has grown at a 14% compounded
annual rate since 2004 but has no plans to go
public. It is majority owned by its three founders
and last raised money eight years ago selling an
undisclosed minority stake to General Atlantic for
$30 million. Scapa aims to reach $1 billion in
revenue by 2020, a stretch goal that largely
depends on how much Inspire broadens the user
Even if Altair fails to hit the billion-dollar goal, it
will be an aesthetic victory for the rest of us as
more buildings, cars, trains and gadgets take on the
swooping curves beloved by nature.



7 thoughts on “Bone-Based Software Improves How We Design, From Detergent To Tanks

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