Pioneer in engineering analysis

DN Staff

July 10, 1995

5 Min Read
Pioneer in engineering analysis

Los Angeles--Dick MacNeal has probably been with you on every plane you've flown and every car you've driven.

Not physically, of course, but intellectually. He was the creator of, and remains the technical visionary behind, MSC/NASTRAN, one of the first and most widely used finite element analysis codes in the aerospace and automotive industries. On any given day, some engineer at NASA, Boeing, Ford, or other company uses the software to analyze how the company's products will survive real-world conditions, such as stress, vibration, heat, and electromagnetic fields and forces. And, the engineer will use the results of the analysis to make the design better.

Technical niche Finite element analysis software for determining how well a product will behave in the real world. Products encompass structural and thermal analysis, finite element modeling, materials evaluation and selection, and nonlinear static, dynamic, and transient analysis.

MacNeal didn't invent finite element analysis (that honor probably goes to Boeing's Jon Turner, who wrote the seminal paper on the subject in 1956). Nor is he the only engineer to combine prodigious technical and business skills to develop and market such a complex tool--John Swanson, founder of ANSYS, Inc., Michael Bussler, founder of Algor, Inc., and Victor Weingarten, founder of SRAC, are among others who have been similarly successful technical and entrepreneurial visionaries.

Industry pioneer. But, Dick MacNeal was the first to conceive of the idea of selling or leasing FEA software to other engineers. When he and the late Robert Schwendler formed the MacNeal-Schwendler Corp. in 1963, many say he helped pioneer an industry.

"Dick is a driven, persistent man with enormous technical skills and complete confidence in his own abilities and vision," says Caleb "Mac" McCormick, Jr., a former technical director of program development at MSC.

Today, with eight major software products for engineering analysis, MSC is at the top of the heap in the growing niche market of finite element analysis, grossing about $100 million a year in revenues. MSC/NASTRAN, its flagship product, is now in its 68th release. It is widely regarded as among the most comprehensive and mathematically robust codes available for solving the largest design-analysis problems, such as those involving structural and thermal stresses on airplanes and spacecraft.

He and other pioneers originally conceived the software for use by analysis specialists working on mainframe computers, but later directed its development toward the growing workstation and personal computer markets. Now, he, along with others, is leading the effort to make analysis more accessible to engineers.

An electrical engineer with a B.A. from Harvard and a PhD from Cal Tech, he spent five years as a researcher and faculty member before deciding he wanted a taste of the real world. He cast his lot with other Cal Tech professors in 1952 to start Computer Engineering Associates. "I threw in $50 to help start the company and we tried to build a business designing analog computers," he recalls.

But demand went down, not up, so he and Schwendler, whom he had hired from General Dynamics, quit and went out on their own. Their original goal: to make a living as consultants. Their first project: to develop a code for structural analysis by digital simulation of analog methods. It took them three months, but the resulting product--SADSAM--sustained the company for three years, as they used it to solve problems for clients.

Software leasing, which was to become their primary business, was unheard of in 1963. MacNeal and Schwendler still believed they could make their fortune in analog and hybrid digital-analog computers. They were wrong, and nearly lost their company as a result. Demand was shallow, and they couldn't build the few computers customers ordered on time or within budget. Unable to get a loan from a bank, they mortgaged their homes and strung out vendors as long as they could. "We almost went bust," MacNeal recalls.

What saved them was the fruits of consulting labor they did for NASA. In 1965, the space agency issued a request for proposals for development of a general-purpose finite element code for its space program, and asked MacNeal to be a member of the evaluation team. He declined. "I want to bid on the contract," he said.

The tiny consulting firm linked up with Computer Sciences Corp. and Martin Marietta to provide the engineering input for the code. They won the contract, and four years and $2 million of development time and investment later, they had developed NASTRAN (NASA Structural Analysis Program), one of the first efforts to consolidate structural mechanics into a single computer program.

Since they had developed NASTRAN and the code was in the public domain, MSC in 1971 decided to develop its own proprietary version of the software and began leasing it to other companies. Slowly, it began to dawn on MacNeal that his company's future might really be in licensing its software.

But, NASA wanted to lease the code too and saw MSC as a competitor. The agency wanted royalties from every copy of MSC's NASTRAN sold. After two years of legal wrangling, MSC paid NASA $125,000 to settle the complaint.

"I never started out wanting to run my own company," says the Philadelphia-born son of a certified public accountant who himself was a businessman. But working for himself became MacNeal's only viable alternative when he left the academic world.

"I never could get along with any of my bosses," he says, "so eventually I decided I couldn't work for someone else. When I finally started MSC, I felt good because no one was telling me what to do."

Through most of its life, MSC has lived off MSC/NASTRAN. But, MacNeal and his team have developed other software analysis codes too, including MSC/DYTRAN, for nonlinear, transient dynamic analysis, and MSC/EMAS, for electromagnetic analysis.

In 1993, he purchased Aries and christened its ConceptStation software MSC/ARIES. Later, he purchased PDAEngineering, and got the pre- and post-processor Patran, and M/VISION, which engineers use to integrate materials information into their designs.

"You have to take risks in life," he says, and he promises to continue taking calculated risks to make sure his company maintains its leadership in finite element technology.

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