Saab: draw me an airplane

With Lars-Olof Norell,
Former Branch Manager Sweden, Cap Gemini

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Saab: draw me an airplane

In the early 1980s, Cap Gemini Sogeti helped Saab Group reduce aircraft production time by 90% thanks to 3D computer-aided design (CAD), an innovation ahead of its time.

Designing airplanes on computer

“‘We want to use computers to build our planes!’” At the time, Lars-Olof Norell was a branch manager in central Sweden, soon to become manager of the Stockholm branch, then CEO of Cap Gemini Sogeti in Sweden. Together with Göran Björklund, a Senior Consultant on the project, he recalls the initial meeting with Saab’s IT managers and engineers. The year was 1981.

At the time, Saab was just as well-known for its airplanes as for its cars. The company had decided to build a new aircraft equipped with two propeller motors for covering short distances—the Saab 340. To save time and money the company opted to use computer-aided design. This was a first for Saab,” they recount.

The number of Saab 340 airplanes built between 1983 and 1998

A first indeed! Back then, the manufacturer’s design offices still used the good old drawing board.

Mass distribution calculations took days or even weeks,” continues Lars-Olof Norell. “I remember during one of my first visits to Saab, an engineer told me that one of the most important parts of designing an airplane was determining its center of gravity, requiring a long period of calculations and estimations.” When Saab turned to Cap Gemini Sogeti, this was the system they were hoping to improve.  

CAD in 3D completely changed the business world’s approach to IT. It kicked off a process of replacing large centralized systems with individual workstations. That’s when IT began to conquer every business function.
Lars-Olof Norell

Full throttle departure

On paper, the contract was not especially impressive. “Only three to five engineers from Cap Gemini Sogeti were assigned to the project,” remembers Norell. “It may not have been spectacular, but it still conveyed a measure of prestige. Saab was one of Sweden’s top employers at the time, renowned worldwide for its high-quality cars and planes. Our mission involved introducing brand new technology into Saab’s production facilities to revolutionize its manufacturing processes. This was an exciting challenge for a 33-year-old branch manager!

At the time, CAD was not very widespread in the industrial world. Since the mid-1970s, the most commonly used technology on the market, apart from techniques developed in-house by individual manufacturers, was the “interactive design system” developed by American company Gerber. That technology was used from 1976 to 1978 to design the Boeing 767, the first airplane in aerospace history designed entirely on computer. So the Cap Gemini Sogeti team looked to this technology to design and install the CAD system requested by Saab. But the system had limits. “The Gerber system was a 2D system that was time-consuming and wasted a lot of paper. Saab wanted to do away with the drawing board and replace it with a 100% computerized process. It was up to us to find a solution!” remembers Lars-Olof Norell.

The year Catia became the first CAD software used in the aerospace industry

Software named Catia

In the end, the solution for Saab was found in a software program called Catia. It had just been released in the French group Dassault’s manufacturing plants, and the experts at Capgemini would help set it up.

This was the first technological tool capable of offering CAD in 3D. It was a real revolution at a time when aircraft manufacturers only used 2D,” says Norell. “Developed in 1977, Catia was first used in earnest in 1981, at the very moment we started working with Saab. The Swedish group was probably the first aircraft manufacturer to use the software, even before Boeing and Airbus.”

Norell and his teams used Catia to computerize the entire aircraft design process right there in Saab’s engineering offices. And they were proud of this achievement!

We truly felt that we were offering our client the very latest innovation capable of dramatically improving its operational productivity,” concludes Norell. And that is precisely what happened. Thanks to CAD, Saab reduced its aircraft design time by a factor of 10!

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