Maplesoft has existed for more than two decades as a purveyor of mathematical and analytical software, notably Maple and MapleSim. But the marketplace is changing.
Maplesoft’s engineering services business is growing by leaps and bounds, thanks in part to its electric propulsion expertise. Image courtesy of Maplesoft.
“We’ve learned over the past five or six years that the glory days of a software company developing software, and then pushing it out to a hungry market are long over,” says Paul Goossens, vice president for Professional Services at Maplesoft. “You have to add other elements to the offering. For us, it’s the service element.”
Maplesoft is a mathematical modeling company, so those services are of a mathematical modeling nature. And while engineering services is still a small slice of business compared to the license sales, it’s helped the company to sell and upsell its software products. Originally, that was its sole purpose: to support the sale and implementation of Maplesoft’s software. Now, the focus has shifted a bit.
“In the last couple of years, we’re starting to get people coming to us saying, ‘We have a problem. Can you please help us solve it? We don’t care what tool you use.’ We just happen to use our tools to do it,” Goossens says.
Maplesoft’s engineering services are varied, but the company has had a lot of success in electric propulsion engineering, particularly in the automotive industry, says Goossens: “We’re working on everything from the motors to the e-drives to the engines and the batteries.”
Maplesoft’s work on batteries, he says, represents the leading edge for mathematical models of batteries.
“We can model the physics behind the charge and discharge characteristics of the battery,” says Goossens, “right down to the actual internal physics and the ion transfer from one electrode to another. The physics vary from chemistry to chemistry, but the underlying mathematics doesn’t change that much; it’s just down to different parameter values.
“We can characterize the different chemistries just by changing the parameter values. We can model the battery being charged. We can model the battery being discharged,” he continues. “We can look at battery degradation over multiple cycles. That’s just another set of equations that sit on top of that core set of equations.”
That’s a pretty sophisticated model, with many, many hours invested, however. Most applications won’t require anything like that level of detail, he says.
“The majority of the work that we do, from a mathematical modeling or simulation perspective, is not that complex,” says Goossens. “It just requires the hands and brains to get it done.”
Why Can’t I Do That Myself?
Maplesoft uses its own tools, primarily MapleSim, to build these models. But since you can buy MapleSim for yourself, right off the Internet, why not just model your own battery or other widget?
“Maybe the customer comes from a mechanical engineering background,” says Goossens, “and what they want to model is on the electrical side. Or they may have a lot of experience on the empirical side, with testing and hands-on work, but not a lot of expertise and knowledge in terms of doing mathematical models.”
The majority of people using MapleSim to simulate batteries, for example, aren’t the battery manufacturers themselves; they are the designers and engineers putting together systems that happen to require those batteries, he explains.
“We do a lot of work with consumer electronics,” says Goossens. “The guys who are putting the design together are electrical engineers and electro-mechanical engineers who don’t really have in-depth knowledge of battery physics. They just want a battery model to implement in their full system model.”
Not Enough Time in the Day
Some of Maplesoft’s customers actually do have the requisite expertise to develop their own models, but this expertise is currently being deployed somewhere else. “They just don’t have the resources or the cycles to do it,” says Goossens. “They can bring us in to just do that one project.”
Managers like the fact that they can just “turn on the funding to do a project, and then turn it off when it’s finished,” he adds. “They don’t have to worry about retaining highly qualified staff for that kind of work.”
Sometimes you have the expertise, and still can’t crack the problem in time, says Goossens.
“We have customers who say, ‘Look, we gave it our best shot, but we need some help to get this model completed by a certain deadline.’ We’ll work with them to make sure they understand how we’ve developed the model, and hopefully they’ll learn something from that.”
Other times, Maplesoft doesn’t have all the expertise that is required.
“We have very close relationships with the engineering departments at various universities,” says Goossens. “If it’s a particularly thorny problem, if the research hasn’t been done on it, or if the information is scant, we would reach out to one of our academic partners, introduce them to the customer, and start defining a research project to solve that problem.”
Maplesoft is currently gearing up for a project with a well-known battery manufacturer to study the problem of charge leakage during storage. “This is a company that does have this kind of expertise,” says Goossens, “but they’ve still not been able to find a way to do this. It is going to require a full research project, so we’re bringing in a couple of professors from universities to do this work. We’ll engage them in doing full research, with our customers partially funding it.”
Every Kind of Client
Battery models are just a small part of what Maplesoft’s engineering services do. In fact, it’s difficult to categorize its current clients. They might be individual engineers, small firms or globe-spanning manufacturers, building anything from mining equipment to trucks to satellite systems.
“We’re working with a manufacturer of tattoo machines,” says Goossens. “They’re a very small company that has no expertise in this area, but needs to get a handle on the internal physics of their design so they can improve it. Some of our customers are huge, but they’ve never done this kind of work before.”
Goossens says he’s been surprised by how many traditional engineering companies have approached Maplesoft that have not previously used model-based design tools or virtual prototyping.
“For them, designing was putting your drawings into CAD, putting your production drawings out, building a prototype, and then figuring out what the problems were,” he explains. “They’re looking at the benefits that people in the aerospace and automotive industries have derived from using these modeling tools, and they’re now gearing up to use these tools themselves. They can’t just keep investing in prototypes and then finding out what the problems are.”
A good case in point, he says, is truck manufacturers: “They’ve been able to design and build trucks very successfully without using model-based design tools. But now, they’re being hit up with fuel efficiency regulations, and being pressured to reduce costs. They are now starting to adopt tools like ours in a big way.”
What, exactly, are these tools? “We describe our tools as system-level, 1D simulation,” says Goossens. “You’re simulating your full design, which can have different domains — electrical, mechanical, thermal, fluid, hydraulic chemistry — and you’re trying to put the whole lot together to see how the various subsystems interact with one another.”
In other words, you just want to understand whether the system you’re designing is going to work.
“Let’s say we put a bigger motor in here. That’s going to pull more power from the battery,” Goossens offers as an example. “What effect is that going to have on the charge/discharge cycles for the battery? What effect is that going to have on its life? What seems like an innocent change to one subsystem can have a significant effect on other subsystems. It’s important to be able to get a view of the whole system, so you can understand what effect a change is going to have.”
The engineering services segment of Maplesoft’s business is growing rapidly, Goossens says.
“It’s actually quite astonishing,” he adds. “We started down this route two or three years ago, just to support the sale of and implementation of licenses on customer sites. But it’s turned into something where people are coming to us to help solve their engineering problems.”
Contributing Editor Mark Clarkson is DE’s expert in visualization, computer animation, and graphics. His newest book is Photoshop Elements by Example. Visit him on the web at MarkClarkson.com or send e-mail about this article to DE-Editors@deskeng.com.