Analysis moves closer to design

Many of America's-make that the world's-fastest growing high-technology
companies call Silicon Valley home. Apple, Sun Microsystems, Intel, and Silicon
Graphics made their mark here, to name but a few. To find a clear standout among
such Olympians is like discovering diamonds in a gold mine. Rasna Corporation,
however, may be such a diamond.

From 1989 to 1993, Rasna grew an amazing 15,628%, placing it third on the 1994 Inc. 500 list of fastest growing private companies. Not that the pace has slowed since. Sales jumped roughly 55% last year and should reach $37 million in 1995. Even more impressive, profit growth now doubles that of revenues; and the company has made money for the past thirteen quarters.

In the Etruscan language, Rasna means "the enlightened ones." A bit immodest, perhaps, but quite appropriate considering the company's success. What everyone wants to know is, how did it become so enlightened?

Foundation in frustration. The year is 1987. At IBM's Almaden Research Center, four engineers wrestle with the design of a new computer disk drive. Employing the latest design tools, they spend days constructing CAD models and then weeks producing FEA studies of their designs. Out in the lab, they build physical prototypes that often prompt interim revisions to the analysis model. It's a painfully slow and frustrating design process, as most engineers can attest.

Most discouraging is the lack of flexibility exhibited by the design-automation software. Functioning more like verification tools than design tools, the software packages don't support the "what if?" studies necessary to optimize a design. Feedback often arrives after the design is completed, instead of early on when it would be most useful.

What the researchers need is a new kind of design-automation tool. One that's intuitive, powerful, and easy to use. One that integrates CAD and FEA so that engineers can quickly iterate and optimize a design. Realizing that there was no such software tool available in the marketplace, the four engineers set off to create one themselves.

The company they built is Rasna, and the design-automation tools are called Mechanica. Release 7, introduced this past December, consists of ten integrated analysis applications, including modules for structure, motion, thermal, vibration, nonlinear, buckling, subassemblies, cams, loads, and equations.

Mechanica's intent is to allow the generalist design engineer to improve designs without having to create expensive and inefficient physical prototypes. The software actually helps the user optimize a design by combining the engineering requirements, geometric parameters, CAD model, and performance goals into a computer simulation. Engineers can investigate the effects of proposed changes. And when given the go, the software will systematically reduce component weight and cost, enhance performance, and improve quality to achieve the desired goals. "We don't simply do analysis," says Dave Pidwell, president and CEO. "We use analysis to find the best design. Mechanica is a design tool."

Critics question whether design optimization is useful, given the current state of technology. "I think it's too time-consuming," says Steve Wolfe, publisher of the Computer-Aided Design Report. "But, there may come a time when the software becomes so automated that they can analyze everything."

To foster seamless, simultaneous design and analysis, Mechanica integrates tightly with numerous CAD packages such as Computervision's CADDS 5, Unigraphics, Dassault's CATIA, and Parametric Technology's Pro/ENGINEER. Three of the four engineers who founded Rasna still work for the company. One of them, Christos Katsis, serves as manager of analysis technology. "We go one step further in integrating with Pro/E," says Katsis. "During the design-optimization process, we actually use Pro/E's parameters, not Mechanica's. We call this Design Parameter Integration."

Easy to operate. Key to Mechanica's success is the program's ease of use. While almost every vendor makes such claims for its analysis software, Rasna popularized the idea. It offered a clean interface built from the ground up by developers who, having never been analysts, could easily take a new approach. The company also wasn't burdened with a large installed base of users needing to migrate to a new product.

Ease of use, however, wasn't just a selfless attempt to help the design engineer. The concept lies at the heart of Rasna's marketing strategy. Most CAE tools remain in the hands of highly skilled analysts-PhDs with 15 or so years of experience. But engineers possessing PhDs represent a rather limited market. "Other companies often create interesting technology, but they don't address the generalist," says Katsis.

Don't be fooled, however, by Mechanica's friendly face. Under the skin lies sophisticated analytical power, such as the adaptive p-method of FEA, which can use curved as well as straight-line segments. The method requires fewer elements to create a mesh, and makes for faster model building and, says Rasna, more accurate solutions.

Yet nice as Mechanica is, it can't explain Rasna's ballistic growth profile. "The secret is people," says Pidwell, "and we've got some of the best and brightest." Need proof?

"I used to leave the building and feel like I was departing a different world," says Kathy Pagano, manager of technical services. "Everyone here operates on such a high plane."

"I never worked so hard to get into a company," says Tom Fletcher, quality-assurance manager. "Here I'm just one among many standouts; this company is an arsenal of intellectual firepower."

"The team is so cohesive, so tight," says Michael Wheeler, chief technical officer. "We make such quick progress that you can't help but grin; we just knock people's socks off."

We'll have fun, fun, fun... Yes, everyone works and plays hard. And Pidwell promotes an atmosphere of openness, responsibility, and authority. "If I'm going to make all the decisions here in my office, we're going to fail," he says.

Each month, a meeting is held to evaluate the company's financial performance. Every employee owns stock and actively participates in matters most private companies hide behind closed doors. "The more that employees understand about what the company is doing, how it is doing, the better they perform," says Pagano.

And while corporate "team" concepts are almost clich', at Rasna it's a religion. The company holds pep rallies and sings corporate songs before trade shows to get everyone into the selling mood. Back home, customer success stories get broadcast across the voice mail. "Our competitors hate us," says Fletcher. "At Autofact we're loud and enthusiastic. We're not trying to impress anyone. It's for us. We're just having a great time."

A great time translates into fun, or as Pidwell calls it, GPW-a Great Place to Work. Ask anybody at Rasna about GPW and you'll receive almost fantastic reports of job satisfaction. Says Pidwell, "If you're not having fun here, then you're making a mistake."

Fun also means fast. Twice a year engineers define, develop, and deliver a new version of Mechanica. "Customers love it," says Katsis "They see continuous progress and every six months they get something new to play with."

So far, customers like Northrop, Hewlett Packard, John Deere, and MedTronic appear to endorse Rasna's approach. But Mechanica's spread to these larger corporations brings the need for increased emphasis on customer training and support-two often- overlooked aspects of the software business. Continuing to provide superior support will be Rasna's challenge for the late "90s. Says Pagano: "As we grow from $20 million to $100 million, quality and service will become the most important aspects of our success."

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