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In 1977, with the full support of my management, I decided to launch the rewrite all our software, on a single architecture and with a full interactive graphic interface, in order to make it easy for non-specialists. Computer technologies had evolved considerably in the preceding ten years and we now had more powerful mainframes and a new generation of graphic terminals (IBM3250). It was possible to compute and visualize 3D elements like surfaces in real time. However, we were still very far from the PC’s of today. As a matter of fact, the computation time would be quite long if there were too many active users connected to the same mainframe. Moreover, the graphic terminals could only show white lines on a black screen. But this was the normal evolution of technologies. The leaders catch on to the latest technologies, even if they looks quite basic a few years later.
The new software would have to be 100% graphic, interactive, intuitive, 3D and easy to use by non-specialists. So how should we name it? After some thought and discussion with my team, I decide for CATI, an acronym which is valid in French as well as in English, which means Computer Aided Tri-dimensional Interactive application. A few years later, when we decide to market it, we discover that CATI was already a trademark. So I added an A to call it CATIA – for Computer Aided Tri-dimensional Interactive Application.
I launched the development of CATIA in 1977, with only four software engineers. The success of the first releases of CATIA was impressive. In 1980, everybody knew CATIA in Dassault Aviation. It was like a miracle for many people. Within minutes you could design a curve, a surface, a structural component, rotate it and cut it, all in 3D. You could position the cutting tool of the numerical control machine, define its path along the part and simulate graphically the machining process, all in 3D. You could see the reality. You didn’t need to figure it by trying to interpret a drawing. Nobody in the world had expected such kind of capability which is nowadays a commodity even at home.
I never imagined that CATIA would become a global standard implemented by aircraft manufacturers, and then by all the industries. For me and my team, in 1980, CATIA was only one of the hundreds of software used by Dassault.
I believe that any major innovation is, in a technological and cultural favorable context, the response to a need that is rarely expressed or even perceived by future users. You need to match the understanding of the pains supported by the users, together with the capabilities offered by new technologies, to figure out the products for tomorrow. My team was in the best position to catch the challenge because we had an understanding on both. Indeed, before CATIA became the tool of the Design Office, we had to overcome the reluctance of all the design engineers, from the top to the bottom of the hierarchy, who believed that the 2D drawing could never be replaced. They were already starting to use the computer to replace the drawing board by a graphic interactive terminal, using a software product called CADAM, developed by Lockheed Aircraft in USA. It gave some limited productivity benefits, compared with the drawing board. But with CATIA, we implemented a complete business transformation, allowing the full integration of design, analysis and simulation and manufacturing based on a single database. It was a dramatic cultural transformation in the way we designed and built an airplane, with a huge improvement on cost, cycle time and quality.
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