Automotive Styling Market Heats Up

18 Jul, 2007 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Dassault combines aesthetics and engineering with ICEM acquisition.

In late April, Dassault Systemes announced that it was acquiring ICEM, a developer of high-quality surface modeling and rendering applications. Dassault’s intent behind the acquisition was to extend CATIA’s presence in the automotive styling communities.

At the time of the acquisition announcement, Dassault president and CEO Bernard Charles said, "Aesthetics and design quality create emotions and are key contributors to product success and brand recognition. With ICEM's set of technologies and expertise in this domain combined with Dassault's 3D and PLM technologies, customers will benefit from styling concepts to final shape. High-quality design is an opportunity for Dassault's customers to innovate and differentiate themselves.”

Looking for any competitive advantage, the automotive industry has increasingly integrated aesthetics as a component of the engineering process. One of the critical steps is the "Class A Surface" process, which creates mathematically complex surfaces from styling sketches, and ICEM is highly regarded in this tough niche. Before the acquisition, ICEM already had several automotive OEM customers, including Ford, VW, BMW, Porsche, PSA, Renault, and Nissan.

With this acquisition, ICEM looks like it has finally found a permanent home after changing hands a few times in the past several years, first as a stand-alone company that became a PTC property, then later stand-alone again, and now part of the Dassault family. The acquisition was not surprising because ICEM had increasingly based its product line on Dassault Systemes’ CAA V5 architecture that integrates it with CATIA. What observers do find intriguing, though, is how this acquisition might affect ICEM’s two biggest markets, automotive and aerospace, and how its major competitor will respond.

As an industrial designer and mechanical engineer originally from the Detroit area, I have noticed an upsurge in the complexity of the surfaces found on vehicles. These increasingly complex surfaces require increasingly sophisticated software to create, visualize, and produce them. As Dassault’s Charles alluded to, automotive manufacturers realize that complex surfaces are “emotional” cues that differentiate their products from those of the competition, which explains the increased interest in digital design products that can create and handle complex surfaces. Although scale clay models are by no means extinct in the automotive styling studios, digital styling methods are being used more all the time, and the two most popular styling tools today are from Autodesk (AliasStudio, an Autodesk acquisition) and ICEM.

Since its earliest days, ICEM has concentrated on developing advanced surface modeling, surface model validation, and design visualization software. Historically, the main market for this software has been the automotive industry, although aerospace companies, sporting goods, and consumer products manufacturers also use it. These are all markets and products in which aesthetics and surface quality are vital.

The company’s original product, ICEM Surf, is used today by most automotive OEMs and their tier-one suppliers in the design development of what the company calls “customer visible surfaces,” which include the body skin and exterior components, such as radiator grilles, headlamp assemblies, wheel trims, and the interior components of a vehicle, such as the center console, instrument panel, and door and head linings.

In 2005, a new software product, ICEM Shape Design (ISD), joined ICEM Surf. ISD introduced a number of capabilities, such as parametric modeling, that previously were not part of ICEM Surf. The software was developed on the Dassault Systemes CAA V5 architecture so that it integrates with CATIA V5 and Dassault Systemes’ extended V5 PLM family.

A few months ago I spoke with Pete Moorhouse, director of product marketing at ICEM. When asked what makes ICEM unique and sets it apart from the competition, he said there were two things. “First, the company concentrates on what it’s always done and therefore, what it knows best -- that is, software for modeling and visualizing high-quality complex surfaces with compound curvature [also known as Class A surfaces]. Second, with ICEM Shape Design, CATIA V5 users are able to use native V5 data from the initial vehicle body and interior design sketch stage right through to tooling design, with no data translation required anywhere along the way.”

ICEM’s principal target market has always been, and still is, the transportation industry. That includes cars, motorcycles, commercial vehicles, trucks and buses, agricultural and construction vehicles, and also associated transportation areas, such as tire design.

It’s difficult to put a figure on the ultimate size of the markets ICEM could serve, but Moorhouse thought that for every 10-15 engineering CAD/CAM seats in use, there could be a need for one dedicated to advanced surface modeling, so it’s a fairly sizeable potential market.

So, beyond the acquisition itself, I’ll be interested to follow if, when, or how ICEM surfacing will connect with another product and company that Dassault acquired, SolidWorks. The competitor in high-end stylized surfacing, namely Autodesk, continues its efforts to better connect the data generated in its advanced surfacing package, AliasStudio, to Inventor. Will Dassault follow suit with ICEM and SolidWorks? I doubt it; at least not right away. However, ultimately I think it will as a means to stay competitive with Autodesk in the Class A surfacing arena with product mixes in alternative price ranges. At any rate, the acquisition will surely get aesthetics into more engineering workflows.

As advanced surfacing packages, AliasStudio and ISD are roughly equivalent with regard to end result, although they go about getting that end result using different methods. Today, Dassault has the advantage that ICEM with CATIA is perceived as a higher-end package. However, with time, Inventor will certainly improve so that when paired with AliasStudio, will present more true head-to-head competition with Dassault, but it remains uncertain how much the automotive market will ever embrace Inventor. Because of the positive CATIA perception, though, ICEM may actually displace at least some AliasStudio seats that are already in place.

The big question is whether Dassault will ever let ICEM and SolidWorks marry. Doing so would really cut into their CATIA business, but would sell more seats of ICEM surfacing (which is not an inexpensive product). Looking to the future now is very much “wait and see.”