Industrial design, Italian Style
By: Kathleen Maher
March 5, 2010

Industrial design, Italian Style

SolidThinking, Inc. did not make an appearance at MacWorld this year, but the company is introducing SolidThinking Version 8.0 to the international design community at about the same time.
We met the SolidThinking people last year at MacWorld, where we got a hands-on demonstration of the product. The company has been based in Europe, and its glamorous origins include early development in partnership with the Italian car industry. Since then, the company has been acquired by practical, down-to-earth Novi, Michigan-based Altair Engineering, a company that builds design analysis and optimization tools. The firm’s customer list reflects its continental origins and includes Azimut Yachts, Bulgari, Cartier, Diesel, DuPont, Fujitsu, Hugo Boss, Italdesign Giugiaro, Korg, MacGregor Golf, Mares, Masterfoods, Merck, Nestle, Nikon, Toshiba, Volkswagon, and Volvo. With the acquisition, the SolidThinking is building a broader base in more markets. It has opened up reseller channels with the help of Altair, and has added new resellers in Asia and Europe to complement its home base in Detroit.

Alex Mazzardo is SolidThinking’s vice president of product strategy and marketing. We talked a bit on the phone about 2009 and whether that was a good time for SolidThinking to embark on an ambitious growth plan, seeing that few people in the CAD industry reaped much enjoyment during that time. Mazzardo, however, contends that 2009 was not a bad time, in fact, to get things started. “We are very positive about what’s happening now,” he says. “We made a good start in 2009, and the end of the year was quite good. Several companies that were delaying investment have decided to make the step.”

Mazzardo notes that the company’s marketing efforts are paying off and the company is getting increased visibility. SolidThinking has increased its reseller channel worldwide and it is about to announce two new resellers: oen in Japan and one in the UK. It’s common wisdom that the time to build is during a recession, and Mazzardo believes that SolidThinking’s experience over the year bears that out.

It helps when you have something to sell. SolidThinking is a lovely industrial design tool with a very graphical interface. The company’s tools are NURBS-based, and the software has combined the ability to directly model an object but maintain relationships through a construction tree. As the company says, industrial designers like to make changes, so it offers designers tools that let them try out ideas iteratively without destroying the design intent or, if appropriate, just grab ad move features.

With the latest release, the SolidThinking software has received an improved interface with new 3D tools for translation, scaling, and rotation. It has improved its visualization tools with the ability to show the wireframe on the shaded model and environment maps. The product has wizard interfaces, including tools to choose modeling units and tolerances. It also has real-time rendering that takes advantage of OpenGL for GPU acceleration. SolidThinking lets users choose from a wide range of shaders, and has progressive rendering so that they can immediately see what their finished product might look like. The company has considerably beefed up its rendering pipeline, including the addition of high dynamic range imaging; it has also added complex reflectance shaders to create lifelike elements, such as glossy and blurred reflections, frosted glass, car paints, and metallic effects.

Solid Thinking Inspired

What would nature do? SolidThinking’s Morphogenesis technology lets users apply some very basic constraints to a rough block and gives it some guidelines as to how much material to save or remove. The software goes to work removing as much material as possible while still maintaining structural integrity. The result is a skeleton that can then be used to develop new ideas.

The big news for the company, however, is probably SolidThinking Inspired. This version includes the SolidThinking product and adds an innovative conceptualization tool originally developed by Altair. The technology is called Morphogenesis, and it is designed to let designers see where their designs could go and still stay within the bounds of practicality.

As the image set above shows, designers can take a rough block and apply basic constraints--in the case of the motorcycle, for instancem most of a person’s weight will go here, they’ll lean on the handlebars, the wheels are expected to stay on the ground, and so forth. The software then goes about removing as much material as possible and gives the designer a skeleton to work with. As you can see, it looks like an alien motorcycle. The principle of the design tools is to mimic natural design, and it clearly has the makings of a great tool for sci-fi content creation.

Designs suggested by Inspire can be brought back into the SolidThinking modeler to be refined into a workable design.

SolidThinking sells for $3495 for a single-node license. With the addition of Inspire, the price goes up to $4,495.

What Do We Think?
Here at Jon Peddie, we think that SolidThinking deserves the boost it is getting from the acquisition of Altair Engineering. What we didn’t expect and are thrilled to see is that Altair has some interesting technology to bring to SolidThinking. With the introduction of SolidThinking Inspire, the reasons for the Altair acquisition become much clearer, and we’re looking forward to seeing what kinds of new innovation come out of the marriage of the two companies. Mazzardo tells us that Inspire is just the first baby.

By the way, I asked Mazzardo what he thought about AutoCAD coming to the Mac platform. He sees it as a positive influence that will help legitimize the Mac for professional use. “It’s not a negative,” he says. “It will make the platform.”

Mazzardo also agrees that there is going to be real innovation on the Mac for designers as new tools are developed for the new iPad. We’ve already seen how really fun Autodesk’s Sketch is for the iPhone. Using it on the iPad will make it practical, and that’s not something that’s lost on Mazzardo or other companies looking at a brave new world of professional tools on the Mac.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, California-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at