Autodesk Builds Out and In
Issue: Volume: 32 Issue: 1 (Jan. 2009)

Autodesk Builds Out and In

Along with Autodeskitself, Autodesk University (AU) has grown enormously in the 16 years of its existence. It has grown from a homey little conference with a few tracks to a large conference and trade show. And, over that same period, Autodesk has grown and changed so that it’s a completely different company—as it should be. CAD is a different discipline, and no one has stood still in the industry. 

The way Autodesk sees it, the point of differentiation is digital prototyping. It’s not a new idea, and Autodesk, for one, has been preaching the doctrine for some time now. For Autodesk, though, digital prototyping has become the club with which to whack competitors in the project life-cycle management (PLM) business—the idea being that better methods of building and manufacturing are the true concerns of CAD, as is project data management—and not the squishy concept of PLM.

Autodesk has developed the idea of digital prototyping broadly so that it encompasses every product the company makes. Even its technology for entertainment content creation is gradually getting sucked into the digital prototyping lineup. Autodesk sees digital prototyping as the ability to plan, create, validate, and document a design before building it and then for maintaining it after production. So, it includes conceptualization tools, including a newly revived AutoSketch and Alias Studio, as well as more flexible sketching, drafting, and modeling tools in products like AutoCAD, Revit, and Inventor.

On the other side, digital prototyping encompasses better visualization, and thus includes Showcase, a version of 3ds Max that is tuned for CAD visualization in 3ds Max Design, and a program still in the Autodesk Labs skunk works called Newport, which uses a game engine to enable fast visualization to try out ideas and collaborate.

And last but not least, because digital prototyping means creating an absolutely accurate and manufacturable digital version, the data can be used to actually create an object in the real world using CAM/CAE, rapid prototyping machines, or maybe hammers and saws. The design information that went into building a product can be used to create documentation, to provide service documents, and it might even be used when it comes time to recycle or tear down what was designed and built in the first place. These are great ideas, but so far we’re not living in a world where very many companies really take advantage of the cradle-to-grave approach.

The Big Push
At Autodesk University, Autodesk sought to sell its ideas about workflow as well as to train users of its product in its way of thinking. The company is positioning itself as the leader in CAD, and it can do that on the basis of its user population. Autodesk University had an attendance of more than 10,000—most of whom are using AutoCAD—and Autodesk is focused on moving them on to its advanced tool families built around Revit and Inventor.

As part of the plan, Autodesk has been building out its product line to incorporate more analysis of every kind into its products. The idea is that the more users who can test the possibilities of a design, the better the design. While analysis has traditionally been associated with mechanical CAD and, specifically, finite-element analysis, in reality, analysis is part of all aspects of design. After all, the first question of any design is, will it work?

Autodesk has been steadily incorporating the traditional types of analysis into its products with technology licensed from Ansys. In addition, the company acquired PlassoTech in the summer of 2007 to increase its in-house analysis capabilities, and in 2008, the company further increased its portfolio with the acquisition of Moldflow.
Douglas Look of Autodesk Labs demonstrates how far more intuitive working in Inventor might be with a multitouch computer. In this case, Autodesk worked with Perceptive Pixel to create a multitouch interface.

And, just a week or so after AU, Auto­desk announced the acquisition of analysis pioneer Algor for $34 million. With this, Autodesk rounds out its analysis portfolio and offers a suite a capabilities quite broad in comparison to competitors PTC, Dassault/SolidWorks, and Siemens.

Like digital prototyping, Autodesk is expanding the concept of analysis to include a variety of approaches and disciplines, including stress analysis, structural engineering, civil engineering, site planning, environmental evaluation, cost analysis, project planning, and so forth. The challenge of bringing the cost efficiencies exploited so well in the manufacturing side of industry to architecture means enabling contractors from different companies and different disciplines to communicate, and Autodesk has been putting a set of tools together to enable that.

It’s All About Design
Designers are cool. Industrial designers and architects are pretty much the rock stars of the CAD world. Don’t believe it? Go to a Pecha Kucha, a hip party featuring all kinds of designers who describe the process to a project with 20 slides delivered in 20 seconds per slide. Autodesk refined the idea with DesignSlams—which combined the Pecha Kucha concept with a poetry slam. Designers had 20 minutes to deliver a concept while rock music played and judges watched the designers work. There were two segments: one for architecture and one for industrial design.

Design is cool, but designing with the tools we currently have is hard.
Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, who somehow manages to embody a stern practicality with enthusiastic vision, prowled the stage during his keynote, literally putting the spotlight on cool, new developments and products. He got a lot of help in the oh-wow department from Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski. Neither of them bothered showing the audience the new stuff in Auto­CAD.

However, Bass did quote Linus Pauling, who said that the best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas. Autodesk has lots of ideas, and at AU, the company demonstrated some of the work in progress. For example, Autodesk showed a conceptualization approach that enabled users to create variations on a design using biomimicry principles. The idea is that once you have a general shape, the computer can algorithmically generate new variations on that shape to help spark new ideas. Now, here’s a chicken-and-egg question: Are designs becoming more organic because the tools are enabling surfaces and more fluid shapes, or are tools better able to handle and produce organic shapes because designers are doing more of this kind of work? There’s a cross-pollination going on, and it will continue.

It’s technology that has been around for a while and has been demonstrated by Bentley Systems as well as Autodesk—and by independent third-party developers that have created plug-ins for products such as 3ds Max. We’ve also seen similar approaches for color, including Adobe’s Kuler plug-in and AIR application. In a phone conversation with designer Eric Adigard of MAD Studio just after the keynote, he agreed that iterative design is a powerful tool and says, “The way for the designer to fight back against the computer is to demand that it come up with alternatives.”
The DesignSlam gave designers 20 minutes to produce a concept while rock music blares, the audience shouts, and judges mill around. Here, the challenge was to rethink the watch using AutoSketch and/or Studio. Brothers Rich and Glenn Walters of Brooks Stevens Design seemed to totally enjoy the experience.

Autodesk also brought its ideas about digital prototyping out to the stage—in a spectacular demonstration of the capabilities of rapid prototyping and new materials, a motorcycle built entirely out of parts generated by a Stratasys rapid-prototyping machine was lowered to the stage…and started up. Its lights came on, and an engine noise emanated from the cycle. But, as a matter of due diligence, it’s worthwhile to add that Stratasys competitors Objet and NextGen both expressed doubts that the motorcycle was actually started, and this reporter does have her gullible moments.

What’s New
Progress doesn’t stop, it speeds up.

Kowalski expanded on the idea of putting the computer to work. “Each year,” he said, “more computer power is produced than the sum of all that has come before.” Kowalski told the audience that “the future is coming more quickly than we ever realized.” Building on the iterative computing idea, he asked, “Why does the computer make us tell it what to do, as if its resources were valuable and ours are not?”

Kowalski built on the idea of iterative design and provided a sneak peek of what Inventor might be able to do, and maybe even pretty soon at that. He demonstrated direct modeling being used on an Inventor model. To digress a minute, the next big revolution in mechanical design is an old revolution—direct modeling, which is a friendlier approach, letting designers try out different ideas interactively. Its opposite is constraint-based modeling, which ensures that a manufacturable design is produced but is restrictive when one just wants to try out some ideas. Autodesk demonstrated the ways in which both approaches could be used together on the Autodesk University stage, and it’s an idea that is going to keep Inventor current with its competitors.

The idea of using the computer to generate ideas and alternatives is another aspect of the broadening concept of analysis, as Autodesk is putting it to work. On one hand, there’s traditional analysis that takes into consideration variables such as stresses, materials, heat resistance, and aerodynamics, and demonstrates areas that need attention, giving the designer an idea of where to try out alternatives. The point to iterative design is that the designer quickly generate alternatives. The concepts can be used together as well as separately to find the best design or, better yet, find a brand-new idea that hasn’t been tried before.

Kowalski showed off other ideas that are being tried out in the labs, including computing in the cloud with Project Showroom, which Autodesk has just made available on its Autodesk Labs Web site. It’s a tool an interior designer might use to show a kitchen and change material finishes interactively so the customer can see what a wood floor might look like versus tile, or white cabinets versus black. There are processors out in the cloud “beavering” away at processing while the desktop client updates relatively quickly. Autodesk describes it as “borrowing.”

Autodesk suggests that users could rent the use of additional processors as they need it. Both Kowalski and Bass in a later interview made it clear that this isn’t a new business for Autodesk; rather, Auto­desk would team up with a company that is offering serverfarm access. Amazon, for instance, is developing cloud computing as a lucrative hobby for all its server processors. Google, too, has a bunch of servers that conceivably have some spare time. The idea is that companies in the information business are likely to have to build out huge server capacity for peak times, but that capacity might not be used to the fullest. There are server cores available for other work.

If you think about it, human processors—our little or big brains, as the case may be—are subject to the same challenge as semiconductors, both CPUs and GPUs. There reaches a point at which one just can’t do it all by thinking harder or working faster. Semiconductors hit the wall, and we get smoke coming out our ears. So the answer in the case of semiconductors is to gang up processors to do a task, and it’s the same for us—we’ll gang up semiconductors to try out more ideas for us, or we can gang up brains for better collaboration.
The Next Generation
This is a trend happening throughout the digital content creation world as the industry tries to make the shift from tools that force us to adapt to them, to tools that adapt to our tasks and actually expand our capabilities. In a way, the first step was really just getting the process of design and documentation into the computer. Now, we’re ready for more.

Bass said two things during Autodesk University that pointed to the ways in which the company would like to change the process of design. He said, “I don’t understand why a $50 game should look better than a design product costing thousands of dollars.” And, talking about interfaces, he said “the napkin just accepts the pencil.” Much of the work going on in the labs is to try and make the software attractive and enticing to play with, and the process as simple as trying out ideas with a pencil and paper.

Along those same lines, Autodesk has acquired the aptly named Mudbox, an interactive modeling tool that lets users push, pull, carve, and cut a model into shape, just like a sculptor might do. Well, Autodesk, being the company it has become, isn’t likely to reserve that technology for entertainment content creation when it could be so useful for 3D design and surface design. Demonstrations of Mudbox at the Auto­desk Labs booth on the exhibit floor showed the software paired with an HP multi-touch display so that the user could easily pull and push a model into place using both hands. In addition, Autodesk prompts the following: Why couldn’t multi-touch be used to make navigating in 3D with tools, like Inventor, much easier.

And all this discussion seems to leave Auto­CAD, Autodesk’s stalwart CAD tool that is the most widely used CAD tool in the world, lying neglected in the dust. It’s not, so we’re told. Autodesk wants to push AutoCAD forward into the new millennium, to use all the ideas being kicked around, such as freeform design, dynamic interaction, and iterative design, to make it a more useful tool for the first step in getting into a buildable, or manufacturable, form. In a casual conversation, Luc Robert from the RealViz team, said, “Our job now is to make AutoCAD cool again.” Now that might be a big job, but it is kind of “job one” for Autodesk.

As Autodesk University so clearly demonstrated, the company’s real power base is founded on those 10,000 or so people excitedly chattering in the halls at AU. They filled the classrooms where new techniques were taught and new products were demonstrated. They’re hungry for tools that can help them do more. This year, Autodesk seemed to be saying that it’s not a matter of moving people off AutoCAD and onto new platforms, but rather to move AutoCAD forward so it’s a vehicle allowing its users to do more and, along the way, incorporate more tools into their tool set.

Kathleen Maher is a contributing editor to CGW, a senior analyst at Jon Peddie Research, a Tiburon, CA-based consultancy specializing in graphics and multimedia, and editor in chief of JPR’s “TechWatch.” She can be reached at