Autodesk University 2010
Karen Moltenbrey
December 8, 2010

Autodesk University 2010

Right after the Thanksgiving holiday, approximately 47,000 professional designers found themselves back at school—at Autodesk University
Right after the Thanksgiving holiday, approximately 47,000 professional designers found themselves back at school—at Autodesk University, that is—for intense three-plus days of learning the nuts and bolts of company’s design software and information about the industry in general. Of those people, 7000 attended the conference in Las Vegas, while the other 40,000 attended virtually. (See “The History of AU” for more information about the event.)

The theme of this year’s AU (which marks number 18) was “The Power of the Possible.” In a marked turn from past AUs, during which the focus was forward thinking, this year’s event looked at what is possible today with hardware and software. What is possible? Plenty, and then some.

Consumers, Mobility Rule
Autodesk has been trying to make its technology more accessible to all players in the industry, and in doing so, has been looking at optimal form factors on which to deliver it: smartphones, the iPad, tablets, and so forth. As Chris Bradshaw, chief marketing manager, pointed out, those devices have changed the way the company’s customers get data to the field. As a result, in two months, a half-million customers have downloaded AutoCAD WS—a Web and mobile application for AutoCAD software that lets users view, edit, and share DWG drawings through a Web browser or mobile device. Indeed, it is a concept used in the B-to-B space, but it was definitely not born in the B-to-B space. “Mobile access is critical for us,” says Amar Hanspal, senior vice president of PSEB (platforms and emerging business).

In fact, a lot of discussion at AU centered on technologies that have a definitive business application but were born from the consumer space. Say what? Yes, the recent spate of consumer technologies (among them, the iPhone and iPad for mobile communication) have been a godsend not just for the consumer space, but for high-tech business, too. Another example: Autodesk’s SketchBook Mobile, a painting and drawing app that turns an Apple iPhone or iPod Touch, or Android device for that matter, into a sketchpad. It does so using the high-powered SketchBook Pro software (remember that technology from Alias?). For business, users can employ SketchBook Mobile for devising product design concepts; consumers can use it to create personal artwork. Two different types of users, one goal: to digitally capture sketches on the go.

Cloud Computing
Another hot topic this year, as last year, was cloud computing. Indeed, cloud computing equals fast rendering. But what does that really mean? A lot of things. More design iterations and smarter designs as the computer continually builds upon each iteration, making subsequent versions “better,” thus spawning the term “iterative design.” At Autodesk, it also means pulling—and here it is again—consumers into the process.

Autodesk has taken advantage of the lightning-fast rendering capabilities obtainable through cloud computing and software as a service (SaaS) by offering Project Showroom, whereby a user—say, a person redesigning their kitchen—can actually plug in a model of an item into the layout (a new refrigerator or cabinets, for instance) and mix and match product selections, textures, and colors from leading manufacturers using a Web browser. Moreover, the user can connect directly to the manufacturer of that item, and can order the items on the spot. But most impressive is that the user can get a photorealistic rendering of the room’s layout in a snap (seconds), and can move around the items quickly until an ideal layout is achieved. As Autodesk CEO Carl Bass commented, “Cloud computing gave us processing we just didn’t have in the ’90s on a PC.”

On a higher level, with iterative design, users can improve upon their work during the design process, and they are able to perform far more simulations, analyses, visualizations, and such upfront (while they are designing) rather than at the back end, where it can be extremely expensive to change the design. The result: a better building design.

Last year we heard a lot about sustainable design: . designing physical objects, to comply with the principles of economic, social, and ecological sustainability. This year, the buzzword is “life-cycle design,” or cradle-to-grave, or even cradle-to-cradle design. It is not just about going green. That was so yesterday. Today, the concern is to design, engineer, and manufacture/build in such a way as to achieve optimum use and recyclability over the lifetime of the building and beyond—to drastically reduce environmental loads, resource conception, and waste to “acceptable” levels from the start to the end of a building’s life. This thinking also pertains to past projects. People need to be smarter with upgrades and maintenance.

Designing for optimal energy efficiency starts early in the process and continues throughout the operation of the building. Hanspal noted that people say they want to go green but cannot afford the costs associated with the move. But if they are aggressive with their designs, they can reduce the operating costs, “and we allow them to look at the whole picture so they can do that [by using the various Autodesk packages].”

As Jay Bhatt, senior VP f the AEC group, pointed out, sustainability in terms of architecture means being proactive as well as reactive—not about making something less bad, but about making it good. To this end, Autodesk Labs’ Vasari can help users apply energy concepts in their design to achieve optimal efficiency in that design, as they iterate more and reflect longer on their decisions. Project Vasari is a standalone design tool that does analyses in the cloud pertaining to energy and carbon output. Think of it as Revit for architectural designers and those concerned with energy analysis.

In discussion, clean technology came up. According to Autodesk, it is a burgeoning industry right now, as companies seek alternate energy sources—part of the sustainability big picture. “More venture capital is spent in this area than any other grant program with us, to use our software as part of the R&D in this area,” said Bradshaw. To this end, the company is looking at how it can tune all its tools to do better simulations and analyses, which are vital components to alternate-energy folks.

Product Picture
Autodesk is trying to make all its products available to users by offering more suites that are far more complex than the dual-software suites offered last year. Autodesk’s Plant Design Suites are comprehensive plant design and engineering solutions that combine AutoCAD, AutoCAD P&ID, AutoCAD Plant 3D, and Navisworks software into a single package for faster time-to-productivity and better project coordination. The company is piloting the suites now, and Bradshaw promised we would see more suites in the coming year.

The Entertainment Factor
While AU was mainly for those playing in the engineering, design, and manufacturing space, there was no question that the company’s Media and Entertainment group are major players on that team. As Marc Petit, senior vice president of M&E, noted, the company is repackaging its various entertainment technology and making it available to designers in the architectural, civil engineering, and manufacturing realms—all those who use visualization technology to sell their concepts. As Petit pointed out, visualization helps them win bids and community support for projects. This has become a big obstacle lately, as the public’s expectation has grown extremely high: They have developed a sophisticated visual taste after feasting on high-end visual effects and complex games.

Tools that have brought us Avatar and Assassin’s Creed offer a high-quality viewport that is valuable for aggregation (showing how an object interacts in an environment, such as a plane at an airport), iteration, narration, and presentation (for selling and marketing a project). What’s more, the M&E side is a major player in the rendering revolution, and with this in mind, offers the first point and shoot renderer (via Mental Images’ Iray solution), which has been incorporated into the Autodesk Subscription Advantage Pack for Autodesk 3ds Max 2011 and 3ds Max Design 2011 software. Harnessing Iray rendering technology and the parallel processing power of Nvidia GPUs, 3ds Max and 3ds Max Design 2011 subscribers can render images faster and more accurately and photorealistically—with 0 percent setup.

Another M&E breakthrough technology is the company’s Kynapse AI middleware, a valuable tool for the gaming industry—and for manufacturing. Users can achieve point-and-play character animation with this technology, which has been repackaged as People Power for the industrial side, to provide thousands of characters with believable motion and interaction moving around within a designed architectural space. One possible use: for considering crowd management. Another: to add life to a design. Obviously, there are dozens of uses.

The ultimate power of the M&E group came in the form of entertainment—an obvious choice and crowd-pleaser. Last year, attendees were wowed by clips from the about-to-be-released Avatar. This year, Autodesk followed up with a peek at the highly anticipated Tron. (Security was presidential-tight, with attendees having to hand over cell phones, cameras, and any type of electronic device that could be used to record as much as a single frame being shown; security armed with wands ensured that this mandate was followed on each person entering the theater. The inconvenience was definitely worth the trouble—the movie looks fantastic! You can read about its cutting-edge effects in the December/January issue of CGW.)

Prior to the showing, Petit pointed out Tron’s importance to the manufacturing-oriented designers: The VFX artists were able to design an entire new virtual world using CG technology. Last year, it was a lush landscape; this year, it was the cycles, the landscape, the structures, the concept design—things pertinent to the core users at AU. “Tomorrow you will design in 3D,” Petit told the audience. And not just on PCs, but on cell phones and other devices as well.

Industry Outlook
It seems that the future for those in manufacturing has some storm clouds hanging on the horizon. Buzz Kross, senior vice president of manufacturing, gave the bad news: 15 percent of the engineering jobs that were lost during the recession are not coming back. More bad news: The US is graduating fewer engineers than other countries. The good news: Autodesk is committed to helping to move engineering beyond simple engineering/design.

To this end, Autodesk is focused on students, hoping to foster more interest in science and engineering. A good start: 50,000 downloads of Inventor were by students. So, what’s the problem with so many students turning away from engineering at this point in the US? Surveys reveal that students say they are interested in the subjects but believe they are too difficult. How can this be reversed? Make them understand the principles through a game. At the show, Autodesk showed off Tinkerbox, an app that will be available for the iPhone, iPod, and iPad; the game is designed to bring engineering challenges and engineering education (in a fun way) to users—young and old—within a game-like environment. User have to solve fun engineering puzzles and challenges, each progressive more difficult.

Okay, say you are already enthusiastic about designing, and you even know what you want to make. Well, at TechShop, a facility dedicated to allowing creatives (from arts and crafts to inventors and designers) to bring their idea from concept to fabrication. TechShop, under the guidance of CEO Mark Hatch, provides the physical plant space and equipment (3D printers, the appropriate software—a lot of it Autodesk products, of course-and more) for its members to use to fulfill their project dreams. A great concept and a great way to foster interest for those who are not the typical designer types: atypical engineers. Or perhaps soon, typical engineers.

So, how much can an industry change year to year? Quite a lot, as AU 2010 showed.

Click here to see what Autodesk CEO Carl Bass had to say about the industry and the company.
AutoCAD University 2010: A roundup of the annual show
AutoCAD University 2010: A roundup of the annual show
AutoCAD University 2010: A roundup of the annual show