This simulator is for real: 'Every physical product should be made with our software'

Never knowingly understated, the boss of a French powerhouse urges the world to look through his 3D glasses
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On the banks of the Seine, in the bourgeois Parisian suburb of Suresnes, on the seventh floor of an undistinguished building, Bernard Charlès is pacing about his functional little office. The irrepressible chief executive of France's Dassault Systèmes is explaining how he sees the world in digital 3D, saying: "All physical products, no matter what, should be designed and made, end to end, with our simulated 3D software."

Dassault is a €5.3bn (£3.6bn) group whose innovative computer-aided design (CAD) software has revolutionised the construction of planes, cars, boats, factories, watches, mobile phones - even a dam in Canada, and architect Frank Gehry's Guggenheim art museum in Bilbao.

"Only when manufacturers have looked at every aspect of the design and construction of their products, and verified that they will perform via virtual 3D software, should they be authorised to use the energy, resources and material to build them," Charlès argues. "Why build a product that may not work, when in the virtual world you can verify if it will work or not?"

Charlès was 26 years old when he joined Dassault in 1983 to lead teams developing new technologies. He had graduated with honours as a mechanical engineer from one of France's most intellectually rigorous universities, the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Cachan. He led the company's thrust into design software and became its chief executive in 2002.

With his lithe figure, contagious optimism and explosive energy, he is a dead ringer for the American genius of dance, Gene Kelly. When it is suggested he might resemble the star of An American in Paris, he laughs: "Some days, yes."

If only, he continues, his fellow countrymen could be so nimble on their feet. "When it comes to the approach to business here, the French may have invented the word entrepreneur but they do not always recognise it." After a pause he adds: "But we are getting better. I have to be positive about my country."

His promise to blue-chip clients such as Boeing, BMW, Toyota, Porsche and Nokia is compelling: "faster, better, cheaper" processes and products, as their far-flung teams of designers and engineers collaborate cohesively in real time courtesy of Dassault 3D simulated images on their screens.

Charlès insists there is no need for expensive physical prototypes as the final, virtual prototypes can be verified digitally, so costs and lead times to market are slashed and factory production capacity can be optimised.

Dassault software does not come cheap and businesses must also be willing to make radical changes to the way they operate, to embrace digital management of the life cycle of their products.

But evidently Charlès' messianic zeal and the power of IBM's sales and consulting machine, to which Dassault has hooked its wagon, has convinced many. The company enjoyed a 17 per cent rise in revenue and net profit last year, to €934.5m and €187.2m respectively. A week ago, it forecast a 12 per cent rise in earnings per share this year.

It has a dominant share, 23 per cent, of the global market in CAD and CAE (computer- aided engineering); there are only four smaller competitors: UGS, PTC, Autodesk and Matrix One. In the early 1980s, it had 50 rivals.

Dassault Systèmes was spun out of Dassault Aviation in 1981 when the founder, the pioneering aircraft manufacturer Marcel Dassault, and his son, Serge, told a team of engineers who were working on CAD software to build a separate, prosperous enterprise. The spin-off went public in 1996.

The Dassault family retains 44 per cent of its capital but plays no part in the management. However, Dassault Aviation is a big customer, using its former subsidiary's 3D simulation software to design and manufacture its Falcon jets.

Recently, Dassault Systèmes paid €12m for Virtools, a fledgling French software enterprise that specialises in interactive web applications for 3D content and video games. Charlès sees Virtools as a catalyst for rolling out new tools to communicate complex industrial design via the playful devices used in games. He is also in no doubt that Dassault's evolving software can be a powerful tool in the teaching of science and technology.

"Here is my vision of the future. The new generation loves games. They want to see the world through games. Engineering is boring for this generation. You have to read complex books and so on.

"The world of engineering, mathematics and technology will be one where you learn through 3D demos, through 3D virtual experimentation - which will be so fun that you will want to learn."

Charlès has drawn criticism in France for the largesse he enjoyed in his take-home pay in 2004, when he received just over €1m, including a bonus, and also collected a capital gain of $3.6m after exercising an option on 300,000 shares in Solidworks, a Dassault subsidiary.

But his fans argue that, by American standards, Charlès' rewards are modest, while his contribution to the company's growth is considerable. His singular lack of self-doubt and strong leadership make him a hard task master; his technical assistants, it is said, invariably burn out after two years - to be duly replaced with fresh young blood

But as he approaches his 50th birthday, Charlès's own flame still burns strongly. He is unstinting in the daily demands he makes of himself. When not travelling, he sets off at 6am each day for a run of up to 45 minutes from his designer apartment in Les Invalides. His cap says "Top Gun".

He claims to get "great ideas" when he's sitting in airports waiting to take flights to visit customers, collaborators and colleagues. "People know when I'm travelling because they receive more emails than ever".

Charlès is also a Formula One fan and a shiny red part of the front nose of the Toyota F1 racing car is propped up against a wall in his office. He also proudly brandishes a small piece of the grey "skin" of the new Boeing 787 jet, which is being designed and made "end to end" with Dassault 3D software.

Unashamed capitalism is in Dassault's DNA, and Charlès has little time for the protectionist pronouncements of some French politicians. "People [in France] are thinking about how to protect the past as opposed to how to build the future. Politicians may talk but they cannot stop globalisation."

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