Autodesk Fusion 360
30 July 2013
Autodesk has been talking about the cloud for a couple of years. With the launch of Fusion 360, it finally puts its money where its mouth is. Priced at $25 a month, is it a toy or can you get into some serious design work? Al Dean reports
|Price||$25 per month|
If you’ve been keeping up to date with Autodesk’s news over the last few years, you’ll be familiar with two of its initiatives; the cloud and Inventor Fusion.
The first is the desire, commonly shared with many vendors, to move solutions to a cloud-based infrastructure. The second, is its experiment with direct editing — Inventor Fusion, which has been in ‘technology preview’ (or public beta test) for some time as a traditionally installed, local client software application.
In the last year Fusion has moved to a cloud-based environment. So, what does that mean?
If you break it down to basics, Fusion 360 is a cloud-based platform for collaboration that has, as a starting point, 3D design tools heavily integrated into it.
I say “as a starting point” because this will be expanded to include things like CAM, simulation as well as third party applications (I can think of at least one rendering company looking to integrate with the platform).
The modelling technology is built on Autodesk’s experiments with direct modelling and the integration of the t-splines modelling tech, which it acquired last year. What’s interesting is that the modelling application doesn’t run ‘in the cloud’ per se. It’s a local application but it can’t be used in the traditional sense.
At present, you need to be online to use it, although an offline mode is expected some point soon.
You sign up for an account, which is currently free to try for the next month or two, and start the download.
This installs on a Mac or PC — it’s OSX native as well as Windows. You then hit the icon, log-in and the system connects to the Fusion 360 server. It’s here where the collaboration hub is presented.
Projects and collaboration
As I’ve already said, collaboration is at the heart of Fusion 360. Of course, you can work with it alone but if you are working with a team or partners, it’s been built from the ground up to support just that.
At present, the hub interface is a little complex and it’s not entirely clear what needs to be done to kick things off. Think of it like this: you have Groups and with those, Folders.
Groups are like a project, create one for each project. Into this, you can add Folders to store and categorise data — whether that’s CAD geometry (more on that shortly), documents such as PDFs or resources such as images, videos or links from the internet.
You can then invite users to collaborate with this Group. This enables them to see the data you collect, comment on it or even ‘like’ it. It’s all traced and visible to everyone.
If you’re a fiend for social media it’ll be second nature, if you’re not, then it’s about time to get with the program because this is how a lot of the future of design technology is going to work.
With that covered, let’s dig into the design tools. The starting point is kicking off a concept or product design. If starting from scratch, you simply create a new design from the hub. This loads up the Fusion 360 modelling interface and you’re off. If it’s existing data you want to work off, it needs to be uploaded to the hub first.
Fusion supports a range of formats, including the usual IGES and STEP, but also a number of part file formats from SolidWorks, NX, Catia and, of course, Inventor. If your data is large, you’ll have to wait a while, but following an automatic notification and a translation report, it’s time to crack on.
So, let’s break down each of the ‘modes’ that Fusion 360’s modelling tools work in — Sculpt, Patch and Model — and see what they can do.
For those familiar with Fusion 360, the sculpt environment is one that’s going to be of the greatest interest. It’s here where the t-splines technology, which Autodesk acquired, has been integrated.
If you have experience with sub-divisional surface modelling (SubDs), this will be familiar. For those that haven’t, SubDs is a way of editing complex geometry using direct manipulation of points, edges and faces to create geometry.
You start with a seed geometric entity. Fusion 360 has all the usuals in place from spheres and cylinders to the box that is shown in the image below. Once the starting geometry is created, add in the number of sub divisions needed (as ever, a little pre planning goes a long way).
Now the manipulation of the form can begin. There’s a whole host of commands and operations to provide control over what’s happening to what geometry and where, but it’s all very push, pull, rotate and move.
Some of the interesting tools to take note of and explore are the matching tools that allow you to connect t-splines geometry to more traditional analytic geometry. Curvature control is there and it makes that process of mixing and matching geometry types a breeze.
Given a couple of hours playing with the Sculpt tools, it quickly becomes clear that these are based on mature technology. All of the control is there it’s just a case of digging in, experimenting and seeing what you can do.
t-splines has been around for a while and it’s good to see it take a leap into a more mainstream offering. For those that are used to working with curve networks, manually creating surfaces from scratch, the ability to push/pull surface geometry and have the system take care of the curvature continuity will make you wonder what you’ve been doing all these years. Yes, it’s that good.
The Model environment will be more familiar territory to the majority. This is where all the solid modelling operations are. Sketch, push, pull, rotate and move are all order of the day. It’s quick to build geometry and its even quicker to edit it.
As ever, the idea that Direct Modelling removes the need for preplanning that’s associated with history based systems, is proven to be nonsense. Just as much forethought is needed with these tools, otherwise you can quickly model yourself into a corner.
Autodesk has added a lot of intelligence to both how it handles geometry changes as well as the editing tools. All across the board the ability to be both fluid and freeform but also precise, is present.
The triad is all important and Fusion 360 has a particularly nice implementation, covering movement, rotation, orientation to geometry, scaling. All from one UI widget.
There’s also a smattering of feature recognition, boolean and splitting tools, to help build exact geometry. It’s a pretty flexible and powerful set of solid modelling tools.
The Patch Environment is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not just about patching geometry, repairing, healing and knitting surfaces, but also creating them from scratch.
There’s a host of primitives (spheres, boxes, cylinders etc), but also all the sketch based tools needed to create sweeps, lofts and such. It works in a very similar manner to the Model tools, but with open geometry rather than closed entities.
While we don’t have time to dig too deeply into the tools and how they work, one thing that’s worth discussing is how you take t-splines geometry into the engineering process and flesh it out with solid features.
To do this, you need to convert it to a solid. There’s an operation in the pull down menu. The system retains the originating t-spline data set, hides it and lets you carry on. But as with all direct editing systems, there’s always an issue with making edits to that original surface. Essentially, any subsequent ones will have to be reworked.
This is Fusion 360’s first outing as a released offering. It’s been in development for a good long while and it shows. It’s also clear that these tools are going to see a lot of work over the coming months and years.
There’s talk of Autodesk integrating more traditional history-based, parametric modelling tools, which would complete the toolset for 3D design nicely (see the comments on editing t-splines parts that have already been through engineering design as a case in point). There’s also more to come in terms of CAM and Simulation. This much we know for sure.
At present, Fusion 360 represents a departure from how your design systems work.
Yes, the modelling tools are incredibly intuitive and the ease at which models can be knocked up is a real eye opener but I’m not entirely sure you could base your complete design to production workflow on it — there’s no documentation or drawing tools and there’s also a lack of cohesion. Of course, at present, if your internet connection bottoms out, you’re pretty much screwed.
That said, for those looking to work fast, perhaps with different team members across geographic boundaries, the collaboration tools are worth exploring further, even if they do need a little more clarity in terms of workflow.
But what’s interesting is how this system is priced. We’re all used to paying for software in terms of a large capital expense followed up by a recurring maintenance cost — in the order of thousands per year. Fusion 360 is available now for $25 a month per user. That user can set-up as many machines as they like. If you can get it online, it’ll work.
I’m sure Autodesk is working out what’s added next, how to increase that subscription cost, but compared to many other ways to adopt technology, it’s ridiculously inexpensive.
My advice? Get an account and take a peek at the future of how design tools will work.