A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to spend a few days at the 2012 Americas edition of Altair’s HyperWorks Technology Conference. Over 800 people heard Altair; T.K. Mattingly of Apollo 13 and Apollo 16 fame and a NASA Space Shuttle pilot; Luca Pignacca, chief designer at Dallara Automobili and session speakers from many other companies discuss how simulation is critical in solving their gnarly design problems — with far more commonality in their solution approach than their disparate industries would indicate.

Altair is a private company so doesn’t report its results the way public companies do, but CEO Jim Scapa gave attendees a glimpse into how well the company is. Mr. Scapa said that revenue in 2011 was $213 million, well ahead of his forecast of $200 million at last June’s conference, and predicted strong growth for this year. While he didn’t offer specifics, Mr. Scapa said that the company is expanding its footprint in its traditional automotive vertical, while also seeing increasing acceptance of Hypermesh in the aerospace vertical, which helped grow revenue from that industry by 37% last year.

Mr. Scapa’s vision is to “radically change the way organizations design products and make decisions”. He sees a move to “innovation intelligence”, using simulation and optimization to inspire and innovate. This means putting simulation much earlier in the design process and using techniques that make it easier and faster to run design studies, both of which will be new to many companies that still use simulation as part of their make-and-break process.

Mr. Scapa and his leadership team also gave a glimpse into Altair’s future directions. Altair is investing heavily in improving the user experience of its solutions and in porting products to new hardware and operating systems, including Apple’s MacOS and mobile apps (where that makes sense). Other areas of focus include continuing work on Altair’s ‘HyperWorks in the Cloud’, which debuted last year, and its extension to private clouds and appliances. HyperWorks Enterprise, Altair’s simulation data and process management solution, was also on the list, although I didn’t note any specific enhancements. For hardcore analysts, Altair is continuing to add solver technology, advanced material modeling, support for high performance computing, optimization and decision support.

During his presentation, Mr. Scapa several times said that Altair focuses on the needs of the advanced analyst, modeling complex physics and product configurations. He believes that Altair is alone in focusing on that part of the market and has a commanding lead in serving those customers. Not surprising, then, that everyone I spoke with at the event was an analyst or methods developer — not a single CAD user in sight. One very interesting thing I noted at the event was the number of presentations given by organizations that need to put methods and wrappers around their CAE processes, to broaden use within their groups and to ensure more repeatable and consistent outcome. I had hoped to include more about that in this post, but am working with speakers on what they feel comfortable sharing — after all, these methods are key differentiators that may make one enterprise more successful that a competitor. Look for a follow-on post about what NAFEMS has termed “simulation governance” in the near future.

Altair’s product team used the example of its BUSolutions LCO-140H, “the world’s first series hydraulic hybrid transit bus”, to walk users through the company’s growing product portfolio. They did a great job explaining how everything fit together and I hope Altair puts a shortened video version online somewhere so that you can see it, too. I’ll post a link if I find out about it.

But of course, CEO presentations and demos, no matter how impressive, pale when there’s a real-life hero in the house. Ken “T.K.” Mattingly was famous in his own right and was introduced to a whole new generation when Gary Sinese portrayed him in the movie “Apollo 13”. Mr. Mattingly gave many examples of how the aerospace industry has benefited from simulation advances, spoke about the difficulties of getting engineering teams to work together, and shared stories from his Apollo and Space Shuttle days. He ended with a story that I hope I do justice: He and the other astronauts were quarantined just before an Apollo mission when Mr. Mattingly got antsy. He wound up crawling around the rocket the night before the launch and came upon a technician who was working on the electrical systems. Mr. Mattingly struck up a conversation, and they eventually got around to the risks of the mission. “Do you think you’ll get to the moon?”, asked the tech. “Yes”, said Mr. Mattingly. “Do you think you’ll get back?” “Yes”. “Well”, said the tech, “I don’t know for sure, but the mission won’t fail because of me.” I’m paraphrasing, but the point of the story (and my retelling) is that everyone concerned with Apollo had a strong personal commitment to the project and to the men strapped into those tiny capsules. Normal life, and normal jobs, aren’t often that dramatic, so we’re more likely to lapse into what could be termed as petty behavior, insisting that our approach to solving a problem is the only one. Mr. Mattingly’s point: no matter what you do, engineering, design or simulation, you are accountable for ensuring that the product works, and that means working together, across disciplines. “Don’t launch hoping it works, make sure it does.” Words to think about.

More soon.

Note: Altair graciously covered expenses and registration for the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.