A Silver Lining
Issue: Volume: 30 Issue: 12 (Dec. 2007)

A Silver Lining

It’s been 25 years since Autodesk first introduced its AutoCAD software, forever changing the way engineers and designers do their work. Amar Hanspal, senior vice president of Platform Solutions and Emerging Business at Auto­desk, looks at how this software revolutionized an industry.
Q: With this year marking 25 years for Autodesk and its flagship product, AutoCAD, can you provide us with a snapshot of the industry back in 1982?
A: The CAD industry consisted mainly of very high end systems that cost tens of thousands of dollars and required expensive software and training, along with an IT staff to set up and run. (Imagine running SAP for a one-person firm.) Only the larger companies could afford the expensive CAD systems and training that was available then. With the advent of the PC, an opportunity to build applications that were more affordable and less IT-intensive became viable. Unlike a spreadsheet or word-processing program, running CAD on a personal computer was very computationally intense. At that time, there weren’t any graphical interfaces or graphics cards; these were the days of DOS. 

AutoCAD was written from the ground up to take advantage of the new PC revolution. It offered a graphics system that could be run and supported without requiring an IT professional, so small to midsize businesses could now benefit from the same capabilities as larger firms. The program also created a system of value-added resellers and developers that helped customers take advantage of the open architecture and APIs of the early AutoCAD versions.

Q: How did the industry initially respond when Autodesk launched AutoCAD?
A: The traditional CAD industry’s first response to the introduction of AutoCAD was that the early PC CAD products were toys. The theory was that the CAD programs could only be run on a very sophisticated machine. However, when it launched at COMDEX 1982, AutoCAD garnered a great amount of interest, not only from CAD customers, but also from the PC industry as a whole. The software was a proof point in support of the viability of the democratizing power of the PC. At that time, it was already apparent that CAD would be a serious productivity tool for the industry.  

Q: AutoCAD has served as the foundation for some of the industry’s innovative products and solutions. Was this the expectation from the start?
A: From the start, the company made a key decision: to build a customizable and extensible architecture for AutoCAD. This let the founders focus on building a broad horizontal platform for design and engineering productivity, which customers or other companies could extend to solve specific problems. This allowed a robust community of developers and CAD managers to be formed around AutoCAD, and that community continues to grow today. Our customers have customized or extended AutoCAD to build some very unique applications.

Q: What has given AutoCAD its staying power?
A: In short, we have kept up with the needs of our customers. AutoCAD is Autodesk’s flagship product, and it has delivered solid, useful functionality and ongoing innovation to the customers; it addresses the demands of various industry segments, including architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, power and process, government, and telco and utility organizations. AutoCAD has the largest community of users. And because customers have provided us with valuable feedback over the years, we have been able to make product improvements that better suit the needs of our customer base, while staying abreast of new industry trends.

Q: How has CAD software evolved over time to meet the growing demands of designers?
A: In many ways, the evolution of PC-based CAD software has tracked the evolution of the PC itself. In the 1990s, the advent of Windows as an operating system enabled us to dramatically improve the usability of CAD applications. Later, the advent of the Internet provided an infrastructure by which to extend the productivity of CAD applications from individuals to teams, adding collaborative capabilities. More recently, the computing power available on the desktop has enabled us to provide more sophisticated design solutions in the form of digital prototyping environments for product design in manufacturing and building, as well as civil design modeling environments in AEC.

In the past 25 years, several other CAD vendors have entered the market, and we’ve seen a growing number of vertical products that have emerged to address designers’ individualized needs. An example of this is AutoCAD P&ID, which we launched earlier this year; it is tailored to the needs of the process engineer. We’ve been able to create a family of products that leverage the AutoCAD platform, while also providing platforms for the next generation of products.

Q: What does Autodesk do to inspire technology innovation within the CAD industry?
A: Earlier this year, Autodesk Labs was launched to get innovative ideas out to the CAD community. The Labs’ ideas are the kinds that have been “percolating” in the minds of engineers trying to solve customer problems. Autodesk may know, for instance, that customers want to share designs with both CAD and non-CAD professionals. What’s the easiest way to do that? Maybe the answer is an Autodesk Inventor LT model or a ShareNow application. We say to customers, ‘Here’s an idea. Try it out. Does this solution work for you? If so, we can take it and incorporate it into a product. If it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK. Let us know. We have another option.’

Before Autodesk Labs, many good product concepts were put on a shelf and lost to the public forever. Others may have made it into fully released products without benefiting from user feedback in the early stages of development. Autodesk Labs aims to provide a critical bridge from the world of traditional product development to a new world of community-driven innovation. The user feedback from the Labs helps drive future product releases.

While many of the technologies posted here are in their infancy, the intent is to gather user community feedback and reactions early in the process. We invite our customers to join us and try our new technologies. It can be fun, as well as useful and informative. Visit http://labs.autodesk.com, and check out two of the Labs’ technologies that have just been posted: a Visual Search service that allows you to search for a part using a sketch or image, and a vector-based drawing service that requires no software download. Both are, in fact, online services free to anyone who visits the Labs Web site.

Q: What do you think is the future of design?
A: We’re focused on continuing to deliver technologies that enable our customers to increase efficiency and productivity. For example, digital prototyping provides tools to virtually explore a complete product before it’s built, so you can create, validate, optimize, and manage designs from the conceptual design phase through the manufacturing process. Whether you work in the industrial machinery, consumer goods, or automotive and transportation industries, digital prototyping can boost design efficiency, save time, and reduce costs by building fewer physical prototypes.

Building information modeling, or BIM, is another trend for the future of the building industry. BIM represents a new vision for architecture, engineering, and construction whereby digital design tools capture and make available consistent and coordinated information from a shared building information model. Because this information is a reliable digital representation of the project, it allows designers to experience their ideas before they’re built—in turn, allowing them to visualize, simulate, and analyze their design early on in the process. This provides the flexibility to optimize and improve designs before they’re actually created, thereby helping to foster innovation, improve quality, and save time and money.