Francis Bernard recently retired from Dassault Systemes, the software offshoot he helped take to the public markets. But he is not putting his feet up just yet.
A veteran software engineer, Mr Bernard is widely credited as the inventor of three-dimensional computer-aided design. Catia, the product he developed when he worked for the French aircraft maker, is still the industry standard for creating fighter aircraft and other highly engineered products.
The 66-year-old Frenchman is now embracing a fresh challenge as head of a small Irish company that is taking the technology he pioneered 30 years ago and exploiting its potential as a maintenance tool for airlines and as a sales aid for component parts makers.
The experience of Parallel Graphics illustrates that even a small company, headquartered in a basement office in Dublin, can create an international organisation, with its product manufacturing in a separate country and its marketing effort spread across Europe and the US.
Parallel Graphics is run from Dublin but its software engineers are based in Moscow. Mr Bernard, who is set to be appointed chief executive this week, will continue to live in his native Paris.
The company’s origins lie in Russia. George Pachikov, who will take up a new position when Mr Bernard takes over from him as chief executive, started out running a small Moscow design team making handwriting recognition software for Silicon Graphics, and eventually came to lead a management buy-out. It was then that Connell Gallagher, a Dubliner who was at the time running a venture fund in Russia, joined the company.
Mr Pachikov still heads the Moscow operation alongside chief technology officer Alexander Vovkula, but leaves the sales and marketing side to Mr Gallagher – and now to Mr Bernard.
“There are a lot of scientists in Russia. They are strong in this area. But the market is in America, in western Europe, not in Russia. That is the difficulty,” says Mr Bernard. And this is where the Frenchman’s experience and contacts should make a big difference.
Mr Bernard’s expertise should prove invaluable in other ways. At Dassault he was instrumental in persuading the engineers to switch from 2D design to 3D. He has much the same task at Parallel Graphics.
“We are in the same field,” says Mr Bernard. “Dassault was focused on design and manufacturing. Parallel Graphics is focusing on maintenance of the product.”
Although aircraft today are designed using 3D, the after-sales side – maintenance, training and other activities – relies on a 2D flat view. Parallel Graphics’ product captures all the detail a mechanic would need but in a form that is lightweight enough to be downloaded from the internet or stored on a handheld device.
“Today if you worked as a mechanic at Dublin airport and you had to change the outflow valve on an Airbus, what you would have is a manual, which is not very different from when you buy a washing machine.” With Parallel Graphics’ software, says Mr Gallagher, “I have my PC, maybe I can even use a palm held. I type in the name of the aeroplane and select the assembly and I will see our product.”
For Mr Bernard, applying 3D software to the after-sales market is a logical step in the history of the application of design. He likes to recall that Leonardo da Vinci used to illustrate his industrial inventions with complicated sketches that perhaps only he really understood.
“Without the drawing, there would be no way to have big groups of people designing complex products like the first trains, and the first aircraft,” he says.
As drawings created a common visual language, the industrial process took off. Today, with the advent of computers and 3D design, engineers can work across many countries. An aircraft frame made in China, for instance, will match precisely with an adjoining part made in France.
The commercial possibilities of the technology were not spotted immediately, says Mr Bernard. “We started doing 3D design at Dassault in order to remain competitive. It was an internal tool. But we knew if we kept it to ourselves it would eventually die, because some other product would come onto the market and do the same job.”
He should be able to provide some tips when eventually Parallel Graphics is in a position to float, after his central involvement in the sell-off of Dassault Systemes, now the largest European software company after SAP, its German competitor.
Other companies are developing similar software. But Parallel Graphics’ product is already in use at Boeing and Airbus and the company is in discussions with other large aerospace manufacturers and component makers. The next step is to take it to the airlines.
“Like Francis, we started with one customer. Not Dassault in our case, but Boeing. We took it to Airbus, and now we’re rolling it out to others. Then we plan to go upstream to the principal component manufacturers and then ultimately downstream to the airline companies,” says Mr Gallagher.
Parallel Graphics is largely owned by its management. But Mr Gallagher, who ran the Framlington Russian Investment Fund – one of the first venture funds in Russia in the 1980s – used his contacts to bring Mint Capital, a Swedish venture fund, on board as investors. “We’ve built the company fairly conservatively. Unlike other software companies we are making a profit,” says Mr Gallagher.
Like most owners of private companies, he prefers to keep that figure confidential, but reveals that the company made sales last year of under €5m ($6.7m, £3.4m).
The company has audacious hopes for expansion. Asked how long it will be before Ikea deploys his software as an aid to assembling its furniture, Mr Bernard replies: “It took us 15 years for Catia to become a commodity in the aerospace industry. But the industrial life cycle is shortening all the time. I think you could see a company like Ikea making use of similar design tools five years from now.”
Francis Bernard’s potted history of industrial design