In late 2009, Dassault Systèmes, France’s largest software company, launched a search for a location to establish a headquarters for its rapidly expanding operations in North and South America. It already had operations in Los Angeles, Charlotte, N.C., and Auburn Hills, Mich.
But ultimately, the global technology firm decided there was only one place to be: Route 128.
Dassault creates software that helps companies conceive, design, make, and improve products, and Route 128 has become the world’s undisputed epicenter of this fast-growing technology, known as Product Lifecycle Management, or PLM.
Virtually every global player in the industry, from Germany’s Siemens AG and SAP AG, to California’s Oracle Corp. and Autodesk Inc., to home-grown Parametric Technology Corp. of Needham, is clustered around the loop once known as ‘‘America’s Technology Highway.’’ There are so many that one consultant suggested a new nickname for 128: ‘‘The PLM Highway.’’
Today, just about every product that consumers touch — the cars they drive, the planes they fly in, the pots and pans they cook with — is likely to have been created with software developed in the area surrounding Route 128.
‘‘It’s not exaggerating to say that PLM customers are basically every large company that makes things,’’ said Oleg Shilovitsky, the consultant and entrepreneur who coined the ‘‘PLM Highway’’ moniker. ‘‘And it’s definitely our cluster. Nowhere else is as good at this as we are.’’
In addition to global players, nearly a dozen smaller PLM operations have sprouted nearby. They include Vuuch Inc., which employs 19 in Sudbury and develops social media applications to help designers, engineers, and manufacturers collaborate, and Omnify Software Inc. in Tewksbury, which sells a PLM software platform and employs 220, including its sales force.Another dozen firms provide specialized analytic and display tools that support the industry, adding to a pool of talent that is perhaps unrivaled anywhere.
That’s a key reason Dassault Systèmes, which has 800 employees in Massachusetts, opened its Americas headquarters in Waltham late last year. ‘‘It wasn’t a difficult decision,’’ said Al Bunshaft, managing director of North America operations for Dassault Systèmes. ‘‘It was self evident.’’
Meanwhile, the industry is only expected to grow. IDC Manufacturing Insights, a market research firm in Framingham, estimates that spending on PLM software is growing 7 percent per year, faster than spending on any other so-called enterprise software purchased by businesses. The total PLM market will exceed $32 billion by 2014, up from $23.7 billion in 2010, according to the firm.
Several trends are driving that growth, said Bob Parker, an analyst at IDC Manufacturing Insights. They include the increasing complexity of products and the globalization of manufacturing, which requires operations to be managed across scattered locations.
For example, a product might be designed in the United States, contain components made on three different continents, and be assembled in China. PLM software allows companies to manage this process from conception to obsolescence — tracking, controlling, and documenting ever-changing digital designs and files as a product evolves over its lifetime.
Software from Parametric, known as PTC, for example, is used by Volvo, Caterpillar, and Harley-Davidson to manage the design and manufacturing of vehicles that have grown exponentially more complex. Today, a single luxury car contains thousands of interrelated devices and features, as many 60 computer chips, and 100 million lines of code. Many of these features are updated or replaced each model year. PLM software allows automakers to orchestrate the overlapping updates and integrate them with existing features and technology.
The aviation industry is another PLM customer, and so are fashion firms, which use PLM software to design new styles, acquire materials, make clothing, and ship to retailers.Boston’s dominance in PLM is rooted in the state’s manufacturing history, and has been 50 years in the making. The technology grew from the invention of computer-aided design software, or CAD, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the early 1960s.
Before CAD, products were designed on paper by draftsmen using pencils, protractors, compasses, and T-squares. The process was slow and the products often difficult to visualize. CAD enabled vivid, 3-D renderings.
‘‘To represent a three-dimensional shape in pixels, on the screen, that was a leap,’’ said Sanjay Sarma, a professor in MIT’s mechanical engineering department. ‘‘It’s difficult to appreciate now how revolutionary the CAD was at the time.’’
The growth of CAD was accelerated by a confluence of developments over the next two decades, including computer networking and computer-aided manufacturing, or CAM, which allows digital designs to control machines that make components.
These advances spawned a CAD industry in the early 1970s, led by Computervision Corp. in Bedford, a pioneering firm cofounded by an MIT graduate.
As computers played a bigger and bigger role in design and manufacturing, companies like PTC, founded in 1985, began developing software to manage the growing blizzard of digital files. The sector grew in fits and starts, following the ups and downs of manufacturing, but over the long haul the adoption PLM became widespread. PTC today employs about 1,000 people in Massachusetts.
Boston’s pull on PLM firms is significant. When Peter Schroer founded his company, Aras Corp., in 2000, he lived in New York State. ‘‘But I knew that the company would have to be based in the Boston area,’’ he recalled. ‘‘There was no question: All the PLM talent is here.’’
Schroer was able to recruit workers like Nate Brown, 35, who learned manufacturing while working in information systems management at Rodney Hunt Co., a maker of valves and other water control products. Brown also had software experience, from working at the PLM unit of Siemens AG.
Brown, who joined Aras in 2011, is the now a director of product management, working with customers to generate ideas for new products and features — and the software than can make it happen.
‘‘PLM demands that you have a good understanding of both engineering and manufacturing,’’ Brown said. ‘‘You have to know the design side, but you also have to know how to get something manufactured. It’s difficult to get that in school, but you can get that experience in Massachusetts.’’
Today, Aras is based in Andover. The 60-person company supports a suite of PLM software products that customers use to design, manufacture, and support large, complicated products like airplanes, automobiles, and buses.
‘‘This is where PLM started,’’ Schroer said. ‘‘You can trace almost everyone’s lineage back to a few great companies, like Computervision. You don’t want to be anywhere else, if you’re in PLM.’’