Evolution of Commercial CFD

The evolution of the commercial Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) industry from the original pioneers makes for an interesting trip through time. Join me as I trace the ancestry of current day CFD vendors.


Fluent launched the first salvo in consolidating the CFD industry in 1996 by, ironically, being acquired itself by a little known heat sink producer called Aavid Thermal Technologies, then listed on the NASDAQ as AATT. Fluent thus gained access to funds to purchase its nearest competitor, Fluid Dynamics International (FDI), and a lesser known Belgium company, Polyflow, which specialized in CFD polymer and glass processing. FIDAP and Icepak (for electronics cooling analysis) from FDI, and POLYFLOW from Polyflow were added to Fluent's product portfolio.

At the time of their acquisition, FDI were in the process of developing FIDAP 8, a new integrated pre-processor, solver and visualization package that went on to become GAMBIT. GAMBIT replaced ICEM CFD's GEOMESH, which Fluent had been licensing as its pre-processor for geometry preparation and meshing. The GAMBIT team was led by renowned meshing expert Ted Blacker. Richard Smith - me - with a newly minted EngD from UMIST, England and British Aerospace, joined the Gambit team at the time of the acquisition and started development of a Cartesian subdivision meshing tool called GOCARTS.

Aavid hit hard times in 1999 and was acquired by Chicago private equity firm Willis Stein and Partners (WSP) for US$260 million. The deal was a leverage buyout. The same kinds of deals that Wall Street found attractive after 2001 and then ended with the sub-prime mortgage credit meltdown in 2007. We'll return to Fluent's fate later.



The UK's Atomic Energy Authority (AEA) privatized a portion of itself in 1996 as AEA Technology which contained their CFD business (FLOW3D later renamed to CFX) within its Engineering Software Business unit. With an eye on growth, AEA Technology, bought Canadian company Advanced Scientific Computing (ASC) in 1997 to gain access to their new, unstructured solver (TASCflow). AEA Technology abandoned their in-house development of an unstructured solver and instead used TASCflow as the basis for the next version of CFX. CFX became the name of the CFD group within AEA Technology.

Source: CFX


ANSYS is the leading supplier of analysis tools within the Computer-Aided Engineering (CAE) field. However, it was only in 2003 that ANSYS could finally field a strong CFD analysis tool after it purchased the CFX division of AEA Technology. As a precursor to its CFD purchase, ANSYS purchased ICEM CFD in 2000. ICEM CFD was a specialist in providing advanced meshing tools (such as Hexa and Tetra) for CFD and FEA analysis - recall they also used to supply Fluent with GEOMESH prior to GAMBIT. The prolific lead developer at ICEM CFD was Wayne Christopher, who was also responsible for the meshing and user interface in Icepak, owned by Fluent after their purchase of FDI.

Not content with having one of the leading CFD vendors, ANSYS purchased Fluent (the world's leading CFD vendor) from WSP in 2006 for US$630 million - a handsome payback compared to the original purchase price of US$260 million WSP paid for Aavid and Fluent combined. ANSYS is now a CFD superpower and had to obtain FTC clearance for the Fluent purchase after concerns were raised about it forming a CFD software market monopoly.



Almost since its inception, Computational Dynamics (CD) struck a symbiotic alliance with adapco. adapco's meshing and engineering consultancy services complimented well the STAR-CD CFD solver. The two companies are now known as CD-adapco which is headed by Steve McDonald.

With their new single identity, a new CFD package emerged, called STAR-CCM+. A team led by Fluent alumnus, Wayne Smith, has rapidly developed STAR-CCM+, from scratch (starting in 1999), into a leading light in the next generation of CFD packages. I played a role in developing the Java based user interface for STAR-CCM+ while at CD-adapco during 2001-2003.

CD-adapco have forged strong links with Dassault Systemes (who produce CATIA), and it would seem that the CD-adapco CFD solvers would make a handy addition to the Dassault SIMULIA product. Though there are no signs of a Dassault purchase of CD-adapco, it seems, given ANSYS's move on Fluent, it's only a matter of time...

Source: CD-adapco About Us


CHAM continues to be an independent CFD vendor as does Flow Science. Both have long histories that date back to the beginning of commercial CFD.

The Future of Commercial CFD

What is the future of commercial CFD? Is it now a mature industry where we can expect more consolidation, such as the purchase of Fluent by ANSYS? Or is there room for more players with diverse offerings that are not covered by the established CFD vendors? I guess no-one knows, but I'm still game to make some predictions, so check back soon.


Predictions on the Future of Commercial CFD

Want to see my predictions? Then try: Future of Commercial CFD.

unstable flow in CFD business

The two main numerical simulation regimes of FEA and CFD actually saw dramatically different business activites. The major players in FEA area have seen very stable business. Abaqus and Ansys have remained stable and independent through its inception. The recent Dassult system's purchase of Abaqus is actually a positive sign that gives Abaqus more strength in tight integration with CAD work flow. The other players Nastran and Algor are also more or less stable, and MSC taking care of Nastran and Algor now being only recently purchased by Autodesk for CAD integration. In all these purchase, the code base of each package has been stable and maintained its independency and integrity. In a simple word, there has been no major merger of competing codes or companies.

But in CFD business, so many merger between competing code and total shift of deveopment. I never consider combining different codes into one software a sound technical proposition as it will contaminate the fundation of a good code.

now, with CFX/Fluent all under Ansys, it seems that it is only logic for cd-adapco to join abaqus in simulia in pushing a unified CAD/FEA/CFD development enviroment. I would seriously doubt Ansys's ability to merge CFX and Fluent and ansoft into a unified code as the only way to do so might to re-write the code from ground up. but to make their business case, ansys has to do so, and it will mess up big time. It is also not clear in the surely happening trend of unified CAD/FEA/CFD future, how ansys put its software into the majore CAD software.

It often happens that the late-comer who takes the pain of starting from scratch and maintains its independence while doing so (instead of always want to take short cut and buy something) would pervail in long term. This has happened to Abaqus, and will be happening to Star-CCM+ if cd-adapco can get the money to support the development. I believe that once Star-CCM+ becomes matured in a few years, it will be merged into Simulia brand.

What about ESI's products?

We might not be the biggest player in the game, but I guess ACE+ Suite, PAM-FLOW and CFD-FASTRAN all have their right of existence. ;-)

ESI's CFD Software Business

I'd say more than "have their right of existence". ESI is now a major force in CFD, what with its recent purchase of the OpenFOAM trademark and OpenCFD from SGI.

I added a comment on the origins of ESI's ACE+ Suite and CFD-FASTRAN on the post "Origins of the Commercial CFD Industry".

I'm not familiar with PAM-FLOW, so feel free to post more on its history.

Thanks for the mention!

Thanks for the mention! However, Mike Hohmeyer https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-hohmeyer-10086b3/ was responsible for the meshing in ICEM CFD and Icepak, and I wrote most of the user interfaces and the Icepak geometry engine.