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Carmakers flock to Mass. for digital design help

The last car rolled off a state assembly line years ago, but area companies crank out software essential to the modern automobile

NEEDHAM - In this sprawling facility on Route 128, sporty Kia coupes and Volvo trucks are regularly taken apart and reassembled. Caterpillar tractors and Harley-Davidson motorcycles are put through exacting trials that test the latest advances in power steering and antilock brakes. Both Aston Martin Racing and the Penske Racing Team come here to shave seconds off their times.

But the 1,000-plus employees at PTC never touch a wrench or ball-peen hammer. Instead they develop and advance software that allows automakers to design, build, and service the latest automobiles rolling off production lines all over the world.

Ford stopped making cars at its assembly plant in Somerville in 1958.

Globe File

Ford stopped making cars at its assembly plant in Somerville in 1958.

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“The actual making of cars has moved to other parts of the world,’’ said Sin Min Yap, PTC’s vice president for automotive market strategy, “but the digital making of cars is thriving here.’’

Twenty years after the last auto factory in the state closed, the automotive industry is in the midst of a resurgence in Massachusetts, where companies crank out software essential to the creation of the modern automobile. Just 12 miles from PTC’s campus of connected glass-and-concrete buildings on Route 128, the French software firm Dassault Systemes has established its North American headquarters in Waltham, where engineers are improving digital tools used by major automakers such as Ford, Honda, BMW, Jaguar, and Land Rover.

In Bedford, Progress Software provides Volvo and General Motors software to manage the streams of data flowing through their organizations. Automakers use products from MathWorks in Natick to help designers find errors before they reach the prototype stage. Local divisions of IBM, Autodesk, and Siemens also sell high-end design software that automakers use to digitally sculpt future models.

Meanwhile, the Changing Places Group at MIT’s Media Lab is working on a new vision for urban driving: a car that can be folded to fit into the tightest parking spaces.

“All the significant players in the manufacturing software that’s used in the automotive industry are here,’’ said Oleg Shilovitsky, a Massachusetts consultant who blogs about this cluster of companies in the Boston area.

Companies like PTC and Dassault Systemes represent a second coming of the auto industry to Massachusetts. In the earliest days of the motorcar, the state was home to dozens of companies experimenting with steam and electric cars. Even after the industry shifted to the internal combustion engine and the Midwest, Massachusetts kept a connection to auto manufacturing.

For decades, a Ford assembly plant thrived in Somerville, on the site still known as Assembly Square. The plant closed in 1958.

General Motors also operated a Massachusetts plant, which, in the post-World War II boom, employed as many as 5,000 workers. But as the American auto industry shrank, so did the GM plant in Framingham. It limped through the 1980s, closing for good in 1989.

The site of Ford’s former plant, shown in this 1920s photo, is still known as Assembly Square.

File photo

The site of Ford’s former plant, shown in this 1920s photo, is still known as Assembly Square.

Today, the entire auto and parts manufacturing industry in Massachusetts is little bigger than a midsize company, employing only about 1,100 employees statewide with payroll of $15.2 million.

But even as auto assembly lines ground to a halt, a new tide of technology was rising in engineering labs of local universities and companies along Route 128. First developed at MIT, software to help manufacturers design products and manage processes via computer was rapidly advancing.

It became known as CAD-CAM for computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, and has continued to grow in scope so that it now allows engineers and designers around the world to collaborate to develop and refine both prototypes and automobiles rolling off assembly lines.

The result is a very different looking auto presence in the Bay State.

At Dassault Systemes, automotive-related work accounts for 20 percent of the company’s business, second only to aviation. Automakers use a suite of Dassault design, simulation, and collaboration software to learn how vehicles will operate, be manufactured, and perform before making capital investments.

A Japanese automaker, for example, recently used Dassault software to create a simulation of the assembly line for an upcoming new model. After running the simulation, the manufacturer learned the car’s dashboard as designed was too big to fit through openings to be installed in the car. A redesign was ordered, long before the car or the assembly line was built.

“That would have been a very expensive miscalculation,’’ said Al Bunshaft, managing director of Dassault Systemes’ Americas organization.

Globalization of the auto industry is a major factor in the demand for software created by Massachusetts companies. These tools allow engineers to collaborate and automakers to coordinate operations across far-flung locations, said PTC’s Yap, who spent 10 years at Ford Motor Co. before moving to Massachusetts from Michigan.

“Today a car’s chassis could be designed in Michigan, the body in China, the powertrain in Japan, and the interior in Europe,’’ he said. “It takes sophisticated software to pull all that together and manage it.’’

Another trend driving the adoption of Massachusetts-made tools is the increasing complexity of cars and emergence of high tech features that appeal to car buyers. New automobiles, for example, can help drivers parallel park and detect unexpected obstructions ahead.

As consumers flock to cars with advanced features, automakers need more sophisticated technology to build and operate them.

Bill Berutti, executive vice president at PTC, noted that a typical luxury car now has about 100 million lines of software code embedded in thousands of interrelated devices and features. The challenge of coordinating and updating all these systems is what attracts automakers to PTC’s slick training center in Needham.

As he sat in that center last month, Berutti cited new Mercedes automobiles that will automatically start windshield wipers when a sensor detects rain. If the car is parked, the software will close the windows.

During the height of its productivity, GM’s plant in Framingham employed up to 5,000 workers. It closed in 1989.

Globe File

During the height of its productivity, GM’s plant in Framingham employed up to 5,000 workers. It closed in 1989.

“That’s three different systems that have to work together: the sensor, the wipers, and the windows,’’ Berutti said. “And guess what: They are built by three different companies. Our software makes sure those systems all work together.’’

And keep working together.

Service and parts now account for as much as half of an automaker’s profit, leading them to invest more to stay on the cutting edge of maintenance and repair, Berutti said. One of PTC’s fastest-growing products is a system that brings the auto manual into the 21st century, making it interactive, updateable, and accessible from anywhere.

As automakers race toward next-generation vehicles that reduce pollution and dependence on fossil fuels, that should provide more opportunities for Massachusetts firms, local executives said. Manufacturers will need tools to design and build prototypes, test them in computer simulations, and work out kinks before going into production.

“As the auto industry continues to explore new ideas, and new vehicles that are powered by electricity and alternate fuels, it will get much more complex, and more global,’’ said Bunshaft, of Dassault Systems. “That will play to Massachusetts’ strengths.’’

D.C. Denison can be reached at denison@globe.com.
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