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CFD ... Or Not CFD?

I started off this series of blogs by claiming “40 years in CFD” – which is true.

It’s therefore a little ironic that when we were setting up Flomerics 20 years or so ago, we made a point of emphasising to ourselves that “we are not a CFD company” – to the extent that, some years later, when we were included in industry rankings of CFD companies, we weren’t sure whether to be pleased at a favourable ranking, or displeased that we were included in the list at all!

This isn’t as perverse as it may seem. Let me try to explain.

What we were trying to do was to distance ourselves from the traditional focus in the industry on “CFD technology” for its own sake. One could paraphrase the business model of other CFD companies at that time as – “we have great CFD technology – you (the customer) can surely find something useful that you can apply it to“. We wanted to reverse this – by focussing on the prospective customer – his needs and his problems. We are (we said to ourselves) providers of “solutions to industry problems”. CFD was, of course, a critical component of any “solution” that we set out to provide – but it wasn’t the whole solution.

One way we explained this to ourselves was by analogy with the automobile industry. Ford, VW, Toyota etc think of themselves as “automobile companies” (or “truck companies” or “SUV companies” and so on) – not as “internal-combustion engine companies”. Of course an internal combustion engine is an essential part of an automobile company’s products – just as the “CFD engine” is an essential part of our products – but it is not the whole solution, and may not even be, from the customer’s perspective, the most important part. What is important to the customer is the “whole product”.

So at Flomerics we thought of ourselves as an “electronics cooling company” (for the FLOTHERM market) and a “building HVAC company” (for FLOVENT). And the distinction from being a “CFD company” was important to us, and helped to distinguish us (in our eyes, and I believe also in the customer’s) from the “traditional CFD companies” (as we saw them).

Is this just playing with words? I don’t believe so. Taking the view we took of our business affects many things. It leads you to see things from the customer’s perspective – to identify his need, his problem (as the textbooks would say – “his pain”) – and to focus everything in the business on addressing this need. It leads you to do a lot of listening – not just at the beginning, when defining a new product, but on an ongoing basis, to keep up with customers’ shifting needs and perceptions. It affects a multitude of decisions and priorities as the business develops. It crucially affects product design (of course), and support services – and it also affects how you interact with the market and with customers, how you structure the business as it grows, how you select and develop staff, who you chose to collaborate with, which industry bodies and conferences you become involved with – and so on.

All in all, in other words, this kind of “mental model of oneself” can have an immense impact on the emerging culture and ethos of an organisation as it grows and matures. And I believe that it did have such an effect (favourably) on Flomerics, and has made us still recognisably distinct from most other CFD and CAE businesses.

However, that was some time ago. Much has changed in the CFD industry, and in the broader CAE business, over the last 20 years. Suppliers are much more commercially oriented and customer aware than they were two decades ago – and the software has, of course, improved out of all recognition. But it still seems to me that much of the industry still defines itself, and its products, largely by reference to its technology (CFD, structural mechanics, multi-physics, electromagnetics, etc) rather than by reference to the customers it serves and the problems it solves. Doesn’t this tend to indicate an industry is somewhat inward looking and can be prone to “navel gazing”? I have a nagging feeling that the quality of what we (the CAE industries generally) provide to our customers could be improved by a shift in this self-perception.

Does all this make any sense? I am interested in the reaction of other people to these thoughts – from those involved in the CAE industry, and (even more importantly) from those served by it. So – I would welcome any feedback!

History of CFD, Commercial CFD Industry

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About David Tatchell

David TatchellI qualified as a Mechanical Engineer at Imperial College, London, in 1968, and then went on to complete a PhD in Computational Fluid Dynamics (though it wasn’t called that back then). In 1972, I joined Concentration Heat and Momentum Limited (CHAM), which was then just beginning the commercial application of CFD. I was Deputy Managing Director of CHAM from 1979. In 1988 I left CHAM, with a number of others, to found Flomerics Limited. As CEO from 1988 to 2005, I saw Flomerics’ successful expansion to its worldwide market-leading position in the application of CFD techniques in the electronics industries and in the built environment. From 2005 I moved into the position of CTO. In 2008 Flomerics became the Mechanical Analysis Division of Mentor Graphics Corporation. Visit David Tatchell’s Blog

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