Autodesk University 2008

13 January 2009

Autodesk University in Las Vegas kicked off the CAD vendor conference season at the tail end of last year. Martyn Day and Al Dean report back on the hot new technologies and developments on show.

Everything about Autodesk University (AU) in Las Vegas is big. From the cavernous main stage halls, the catering for nearly ten thousand attendees, the projection screens and exhibition space, to the shot measures and breakfast portions. Over the last ten years, Autodesk has gone from being a big 2D CAD company with one product to a multi-industry dominating, multi-product giant and there’s nowhere better to feel the company’s velocity than AU. This yearly event is the destination to hear the official corporate view, get inspired, get trained and see technology that’s in development or about to be released. There might even be a bit of time to socialise.

Having watched Autodesk for two decades, it’s pretty obvious now that for two years under the management of company CEO, Carl Bass, Autodesk has become a very different operation. In the past, Autodesk was much more guarded about what it was developing, rarely seemed innovative and rushed incomplete products to market. However, Autodesk did have a very successful and robust business model and channel, albeit that it had undergone a slow evolution from a one-product company to industry divisions under previous CEO, Carol Bartz.

Carl Bass is fundamentally a technologist and there seems to have been an explosion of software development, with open beta programs, technology and company acquisitions, resulting in many new and cool products for dealers to sell. From attending AU last month, it’s clear this trend is continuing, with yet more hot technology on show. While in the past, Autodesk employees would admit that Autodesk was rarely first to market and commonly had to repeat the excuse ‘we will get it right in the end’, Autodesk is now undoubtedly an innovator and driven to compete. While as a customer, you still have to put up with the much resented ‘obit’ program of existing releases, it’s now more obvious that some of these billions in revenues are being used for R&D than merely building shareholder value.

If you attend AU you can expect: to attend a number of general keynote sessions, industry specific sessions and tracks (manufacturing, building, visualisation, geo etc.), lots of hands-on training, Labs, networking events, a massive partner exhibition, lots of hallway conversations, and a ‘beer bust’ party of some kind each evening. After long days of absorbing all this information there’s always a big party at the end and maybe some time to do a little gambling as AU is nearly always in Las Vegas. Although the downside of this is if you do feel the urge to actually go outside and leave the cocoon of the hotel, as we did, into the beautiful 20 degrees December sunshine, don’t count on finding too many places that do anything ‘al fresco’.

General session

The main presentations were from CEO Carl Bass, CTO Jeff Kowalski and guest presenter Tom Kelley, founder and general manager of the famous product design company, IDEO. While I say Autodesk is more open and willing to show new products, it has a habit of hiding these in the keynotes. Rather than saying hey look at this, examples are projected onto the screens, mixing existing product capability with forthcoming technology or ‘canned’ demo ideas. Usually it’s only from knowing what the products can do that you can have an inkling of which bits are the cool new stuff. It’s not unlike a solving a Sudoku puzzle. It always makes AU keynotes a bit fun.This year’s certainly didn’t fail to impress with a lot of new technology on display.

With the credit crunch in everyone’s mind, Carl Bass looked at how customers can stay competitive by keeping an innovative mindset and embracing sustainable design methodologies, highlighting initiatives that Autodesk is undertaking to build green tech into its analysis products. Also Bass highlighted how real customers from across the design spectrum were using CAD tools to design, model and detail their products in the digital environment before building prototypes, experiencing them before they are real, as it says in Autodesk’s current marketing drive.

Autodesk now has a formidable array of technology in its war chest to be put to work in existing and new products to tackle both old and emerging markets

Kowalski talked about the future of design innovation, giving us glimpses of what’s in Autodesk’s Labs, together with some way off predictions. It was at this point that a very interesting product momentarily appeared on the screens – an MCAD modelling tool that didn’t have much of an interface and had direct modelling capabilities on a par with Siemens’ Synchronous Technology, CoCreate/PTC, SpaceClaim. Then Kowalski went quickly on to show a 3D sketching tool that looked amazing (more details in the Manufacturing keynote section). He also showed a ‘cloud computing’ rendering solution for kitchen interiors that’s being trialed and talked about the abundance of computing cores that aren’t being used. In the future expect your CAD software to be guessing what you will want to do next and may well be doing it in the background at no speed cost to your modelling. So as your design changes, Inventor could be automatically performing a rending operation and an FEA calculation, instantly ready for your next command, relevant to the geometry selected.

The finale of Kowlaski’s keynote was the introduction of a complete full-scale chopper motorcycle that had been rapid prototyped using Fused Deposition Modelling (FDM) by the team at RedEye (Stratasys’ service bureau). At the same time Autodesk announced the ability to send out jobs for prototyping from within AutoCAD via a web service and is working with both RedEye and Z Corporation. Although 3D printing a whole motorcycle at full scale would set you back in excess of $70,000.

Manufacturing keynotes

The second full day at AU saw the assembled masses split into industry factions, with each industry vertical having its own keynote session. The Manufacturing community was welcomed by Buzz Kross, Vice President of the Manufacturing Solutions Division, who introduced guest speaker, Burt Rutan.

Rutan is the owner of Scaled Composites, an aerospace company based in the Mojave Desert. While he has many achievements and world firsts, Rutan and his team is best known for winning the $10 million X-Prize for the first privately funded spacecraft to enter space twice in a two week period. The core technology developed as a result of this feat has been licensed by Richard Branson for his Virgin Galactic enterprise, due to launch next year.

Rutan is always a popular speaker with engineering-focused crowds – after all, this guy builds spaceships for a living. But more than this, there’s a real sense of adventure, excitement and of pioneering spirit embodied in a man that does look like a true old school hero. Rutan had many wise words, but perhaps the most interesting is that true innovation or technological breakthrough never happens in comfortable times. It’s always when the chips are down that the breakthroughs happen.

Following Rutan, Kross took the stage again to show the assembled crowd some of the technology Autodesk is working on, both for very near future release and a little further out – and this is worth spending some time on.

Design for Injection Moulding: Autodesk is building up a very interesting set of tools for the design of injection moulded parts and extending that into mould design – which along with the Moldflow acquisition, means that there’s an interesting set of tools brewing. A demo showed the process, from part design, through core and cavity creation, gating design, mould-based creation and, of course, documentation.

Documentation: Autodesk appears to be working on a documentation/technical publications application. Whether that’s standalone or within in Inventor, isn’t too clear. This sees tools for component explosion, manipulation and view creations as you’d typically need to create disassembly/assembly or service or instruction manuals – or with the animation tools, output to video.

Design review/presentation: Autodesk Showcase has been on the market for a while, but the real-time rendering, visualisation and presentation tool’s adoption has, to date, been largely focused on the Automotive market. A version tailored for the Inventor user community was demonstrated to show how quick it was able to load data, apply materials and use it for design presentation or review.

Sketching + 3D Curve app for Mac OSX: The penultimate demo previewed a conceptual design tool that showed some intelligent sketching tools, that follow the paint-style interface of SketchBook Pro, but with some serious additions. The system, which run natively on Apple’s OSX operating system, has ultra impressive tools for creating smooth curves, with a very intuitive interaction method. What was really amazing was when the curves were then flipped into 3D and interacted with, in a similarly intuitive way, a 3D curve network was created that looked like it could be used to create surfaces. The system doesn’t have a name (so they say), but from what we saw, it looks an incredible tool for the industrial design crowd and anyone involved in concept development.

Inventor Fusion: If you’ve read our news pages this month, you’ll already be aware of Inventor Fusion. While this was shown briefly at the keynotes, the Manufacturing community got to see this in a little more depth and we also had a personal demonstration later on that day. It is very early days for Inventor Fusion, but the potential is clear, that Autodesk, like many other vendors, is looking at a way to integrate dynamic, history-less modelling with traditional parametric technologies – hence the name. What’s interesting is that this looks like it’s going to be done in public to some extent, with Autodesk Labs probably being the host for the public test versions. From what we saw and although it’s liable to change, this could be the most intriguing thing to happen to Inventor for quite some time. You can sign up for more details at www.inventorfusion.com

Conclusion

Overall, AU felt like it was the culmination of a lot of development work and acquisitions that started when Carl Bass took over the running of the company. Autodesk now has a formidable array of technology in its war chest to be put to work in existing and new products to tackle both old and emerging markets. Moreover, it’s not afraid to experiment and with Autodesk Labs, is getting customers involved at a much earlier stage.

It’s unfortunate that these new technologies are coming out at a time when the world has gone more than a little bit financially ‘wrong’ but I’m sure it will be appreciated by those on subscription and in a time when things turn around.

On the rumour mill, it sounds as if the next release of AutoCAD will see some serious 3D capabilities added to it. There had been a short, but painful, debate internally as to if or why AutoCAD should get some of these advanced modelling capabilities like parametrics and direct modelling. I hear Autodesk’s concentration on getting everybody to a vertical is to take more of a back seat, with Autodesk realising that AutoCAD is popular, not going to go away anytime soon and should not be limited by the ambitions of its vertical divisions.

au.autodesk.com

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