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On the Hot Seat

Providing key aid to computer-aided design

By D.C. Denison
Globe Staff / September 19, 2010

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Jim Heppelmann, 46, is the president and chief operating officer of PTC, one of the state’s largest software companies. He was recently named CEO, and will start Oct. 1. Based in Needham, PTC, Parametric Technology Corp., provides software and services for product development. Heppelmann spoke with Globe reporter D.C. Denison.

PTC is a leader in the hot software category known as “product lifecycle management,’’ or PLM. How do you explain PLM to your mother-in-law?

I basically say that products have a recipe that changes frequently. PLM is fundamentally managing that recipe and its evolution over time.

Is Boston becoming a center for PLM?

What happened is that Boston became a center for computer-aided design (CAD), and then much of the PLM concept came out of companies that were in the CAD business. It’s a different concept, but the use of CAD tools creates a situation that PLM solves. It’s like a catalyst. One of the great things about CAD is that you can make so many versions of a design very quickly. But pretty soon you’re swimming in versions, and nobody knows which is the one you’re supposed to build. And who’s going to build it? And has it been approved? And what if we change it? And what are the implications of that? Pretty soon you realize you need PLM. It helps simplify that situation.

You’ve said that one of PTC’s new initiatives will be to make CAD software much easier to use. Is that really possible?

The CAD business has been around for 25 years. It’s mature. But at the same time there are some big problems that never got solved. And at the top of the list: ease of use. In an era that you can download iTunes and buy your first song a few minutes later, it still takes a week of training to learn how to use CAD software. We think we can solve that problem.

A lot of people are intimidated by CAD software, right?

Absolutely. I have a 5-year-old, and she already knows how to communicate in crayon and paper. But to go from pencil and paper to using a CAD tool is a massive step. And we’re skipping what should be interim steps. We think we can provide a ladder that you can climb, with small steps.

What kind of uses would there be for simple, entry-level 3-D design software?

At the front end of the process, it’s ideation: I have an idea. I want to communicate it to you. I’m not trying to communicate a completed design. I’m trying to communicate a concept. Simply. It might be a marketing person who has an idea. That person does not want to devote a week to CAD training to communicate his or her idea. I ran into this problem when I made a spice rack for my home’s kitchen. My wife and I talked about patenting it, but neither of us wanted to spend the time to learn the professional design software it would take to document it. There should be simple software that could be used for ideas like that.

Does Google SketchUp fill that need?

That’s primary an architectural design tool, but, yes, Google has shown that there’s a base of users out there who would like access to this technology, and that it’s possible to create quite a community of people around software like that.

Now that 3-D is showing up in movies and television, will that have an impact on PTC, which makes software that allows people to work in 3-D?

I think people are growing up thinking in 3-D today, and that will make a difference. If you grew up with pencil and paper, it’s much harder to make that transition to 3-D. But if you’re growing up and everything around you is in 3-D, then it starts to make sense. You would expect to do your first conceptual design, not with a pencil and paper, but using a 3-D CAD tool.

Manufacturers are the most obvious users of CAD and product lifecycle management software, but is it expanding into other sectors and industries?

Yes, and one area that’s a fast grower for us is retail. All the big box retailers, for example, have private label products. They don’t manufacture those products, but they certainly plan, specify, and perhaps engineer them. Companies like Target and JC Penney — they are using our software to manage the specifications of all the products on their shelves, and how they will be developed and approved. And how they will interact with the supply chain. They are all buying PLM software to help them keep up with that.

Jim Heppelmann,
president, PTC

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