CONCORD, NC – Despite NASCAR’s humble beginnings and the racing body’s historical reluctance to adopt new technologies, Dassault Systemes SA is helping one team bring its racecar engineering and manufacturing efforts into the digital age.

Gillet Evernham Motorsports (GEM), which manages a trio of Dodge Chargers in NASCAR’s premier Nextel Cup series, highlights Dassault’s push into the sport through its use of the software company’s virtual-engineering and product-lifecycle management tools.

“Tolerances are so close (in NASCAR), these systems allow us a real advantage (over our competitors),” Ray Evernham, GEM founder, president and CEO, says at a recent race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway here. “The future of the sport clearly is technology in manufacturing and design.”

GEM began using Dassault’s products, including the CATIA virtual product development suite, in 2000. It officially added the company’s PLM tools last year, making it the first NASCAR team to partner with the French supplier.

Other engineering software companies, such as Siemens PLM Software, also are becoming heavily involved in racing, with applications including NASCAR’s Hendrick Motor Sports and Joe Gibbs Racing, as well as teams in the Indy Racing League, National Hot Rod Assn. and Formula 1.

Originally designed for the aerospace industry, Dassault’s PLM software tools allow for greater networking of various engineering and manufacturing operations. This shared integration, which allows design and validation work to be carried out almost entirely on the computer, reduces development times and associated costs by eliminating the need for time-consuming physical prototypes and guesswork-engineering solutions.

For example, when digitally altering a suspension component to comply with rule changes made between weekly races, the PLM technology automatically reconfigures the rest of the suspension to correspond with the modified part, Evernham says.

“When we’re satisfied with our design, we can send it directly from our computers to the machine shop through software modules,” he says. “We don’t lose any time or accuracy translating design data into manufacturing specifications.”

Dassault’s software systems also allow GEM to place a greater emphasis on computational fluid dynamics, or CFD, which is rapidly replacing the expensive and time-consuming aerodynamic tests race teams perform in high-speed wind tunnels.

“Wind tunnels will be like tape measures (in the future) and will be used only for quality control,” Evernham says, noting the greater accuracy and speed of these virtual systems are proving invaluable to the successful development of NASCAR’s new-for-2007 Car of Tomorrow racecars.

Although these advancements are relatively new for NASCAR, which traces its origins to the illegal moonshining trade of the Prohibition Era, the same PLM technology is widely used throughout the automotive industry for the manufacturing of production vehicles, says Jim Ryan, vice president-channel sales, for Dassault’s North American operations.

Dassault’s current customers include numerous global auto makers and suppliers, he says, noting the company’s PLM software also is widely used throughout the manufacturing of ships and various industrial products.

Operating on a much larger scale than the racing applications, PLM virtual networking and design tools enable greater coordination between an auto maker’s design and engineering teams. Suppliers also benefit from the technology, as design data and specifications can be transmitted up and down the supply chain as development parameters are adjusted.

Dassault currently is a PLM supplier to many Formula 1 racing teams and is in the process of courting another high-level NASCAR team for next year. However, the company is looking to expand and apply the benefits of PLM technology to other industries, as well.

“World-class technology (traditionally) has been in the hands of engineers,” Ryan says. “Our vision is to put that (technology) in the hands of consumers.”

Sectors Dassault is looking to enter include the manufacturing of various consumer goods, as well as the life-services and medical industries. The video-game industry also is a possibility, as are web-based operations, Ryan says, noting Dassault recently partnered with Microsoft Corp. for the launch of a new satellite-based, global-mapping tool.

Called Microsoft Virtual Earth-3DVIA, the online application allows users to create and share virtual 3-dimensional models and see how they will interact with actual places, buildings, structures and topology.

As to the future of PLM tools, Ryan is optimistic about the breadth of the technology’s uses.

“If we can virtualize the building of a car, we can virtualize the building of a molecule,” he says.

msutton@wardsauto.com