Autodesk University–as always–was a world wind of activity. Ten thousand design enthusiasts descending upon the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Conference Center in Las Vegas cannot be characterized as anything but a bit chaotic, however, upon reflection–and a few nights of much-needed sleep–I can now look back and share some of the key takeaways from the event.
I would say the word I heard most throughout the event was “disruption,” in this case meaning technologies that are going to radically change the way we think and do design and manufacturing. These disruptive technologies include 3D printing, the cloud, generative design, and the Internet of Things (IoT)–all of which Autodesk is embracing, both with products and industry initiatives.
Generative Design: Supporting the way decisions are made naturally
Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski kicked things off in the opening session giving attendees a glimpse of what lies ahead for design. He spoke of the importance of infusing “life” into current designs or products that are dead. Computers and design tools, he said, should be “portals to greater exploration” and that we all should be looking at design through the “lens of nature.”
How might this be done? He suggests through the use of Generative Design that starts with your design intent and then explores all of the possible ways to find a solution through multiple, successive generations, until the best is found.
Not not entirely new, generative design is really something only afforded to those with access to data centers, such as research institutes and large enterprises. In the future, however, with high-performance computing (HPC) centers, remote hardware accessed through the Cloud, and virtualization, generative design will be more widely available to the masses, so we can “stop starting from scratch when designing.”
The idea of Generative Design is being tested out in a research project, called Dreamcatcher that represents a new paradigm of workflow, one that blends the designers with artificial intelligence and cloud-based computing. Certainly quite interesting and I, for one, will be keeping a close eye on this project.
Autodesk really has been the first of the CAD vendors to wholeheartedly support cloud-based CAD. Nearly all of the products mentioned during the event were cloud-based. If you remember it was back in December of 2009, when Autodesk CEO Carl Bass first unveiled his vision for cloud-based CAD. Though there were many doubters five years ago, the Autodesk Cloud strategy is still moving ahead full steam with more and more products being ported to the cloud.
Today the concept of running CAD from a browser window is increasingly becoming common practice with many CAD vendors now seeking to beef up their desktop licenses with cloud-based offerings. Autodesk’s goal is clearly to move customers from perpetual licensing to access-based licensing and is a very attractive option for smaller companies and startups with limited budgets. Cloud services and subscriptions are the cornerstones of Autodesk’s plan to capture the new consumers, who are less likely to desire software ownership, more willing to pay for on-demand access.
Autodesk software now free to all students
During his address, Carl Bass announced the company’s new program to provide all Autodesk products free to all students, teachers, and schools globally. While the initiative seems philanthropic at first glance, at its heart it is also strategically shrewd. Just as its competitor SolidWorks has amassed millions of loyal college engineering students well versed in SolidWorks, thanks to aggressive student pricing, Autodesk obviously hopes to cultivate brand loyalty among the young designers of the future.
Autodesk education licensing contributes about U.S. $2 million to the corporate balance sheet, so it’s certainly not chump change to give up, but a smart move long term and while competitors have offered heavy discounts, none have emerged to match Autodesks’ “free for all” program.
Opening up the world of 3D printing
Another disruptive technology that Autodesk is all over is 3D printing. Earlier in the year Autodesk announced the Spark Investment Fund, a $150 million fund “to support entrepreneurs, startups, and researchers who are pushing the [3D printing] limits.” The company followed up that announcement by introducing Spark, the company’s open-source 3D printing software. At the show we were also introduced to Autodesk’s Ember 3D printer.
At a media/analyst breakfast briefing, Kowalski boldly proclaims that the reality is that 3D printing “kind of sucks right now.” Despite it’s promise, the reality is that 3D printing is still difficult and the failure rates for prints can still be upwards of 75%. Probably a good way to segue into introducing Autodesk’s 3D printing platform and workflow, Spark and Ember 3D printer.
What makes the whole platform rather unique is its openness; both the software (Spark) and the hardware (Ember) will be completely open source. “Ember is a reference implementation to show how much better 3D printing experience can be with integrated hardware and software,” Bass explained. “We’ll be sharing Ember’s design plans with everyone who wants to build their own 3D printer, or even hack one of ours.” Certainly not something you’d typically hear from the CEO of a software company, but then again Autodesk seems to be plotting its own course these days and we’ll happily be along for the ride.