CAD Report: Autodesk’s Grand Reunification
Autodesk University celebrates 25th anniversary; new CEO extols the virtues of 3D printing and automation as CAD company moves toward unification of its design software.1
At Autodesk University this year, the emphasis was not, surprisingly enough, on Autodesk software, but on making stuff. It was the first AU keynote for new-CEO Andrew Anagnost, who replaced long-time CEO Carl Bass earlier this year. Unlike CEOs of a few other CAD vendors, Anagnost is comfortable on stage, moving quickly through his points, making assertions with confidence – even if sometimes they seemed contradictory.
His theme, “Making Things with Automation,” was a bit odd given that, earlier this year, Autodesk got rid of its hardware for making things (e.g. the Ember 3D printer and related Spark API).
Nevertheless, Anagnost told the event’s 10,000 attendees and 13,000 online viewers that he looks forward to automation making things more cheaply using the company’s software. For instance, he showed a picture of a Tesla electric car and said that something like that should eventually cost $5,000.
We were told that automation will do much, much more, such as save the world from future disaster, reduce our reliance on raw materials and increase employment. The claims puzzled me, as I always thought the purpose of automation was to cut employment costs. Never mind that Autodesk itself lays off employees from time to time.
As in previous years at AU, executives repeatedly emphasized the benefits of 3D printing.
“Engineers were taught that complexity equals cost,” said one executive. “3D printing turns that logic on its head. There is no cost to construction; there is no cost for complexity.”
Complex parts, the thinking goes, are expensive to make with traditional subtractive manufacturing methods. With 3D additive printing, however, it costs less to print less.
“Air pockets within designs are free,” we were told, “the more intricate the design becomes, actually you are saving money” with additive 3D printing. Left unsaid was the converse: The more material that remains, the cheaper parts are to make with subtractive milling machines. Plus, the more material needed, the more expensive 3D printed parts become.
AU attendees were shown examples of several massive 3D printing jobs. The Port of Rotterdam, for instance, is experimenting with using automated wire welders to 3D-print brass replacement propellers for tug boats. The idea is to reduce the number of spare parts the port has to stock. Autodesk calmly told us that as much as 70% of spare parts are never used; wouldn’t it be better to simply 3D-print them on demand?
Other examples included a pedestrian bridge in Amsterdam that was 3D-printed using a six-axis robot; the intricately-patterned sole of a running shoe; and the lattice-walls of a cylinder head (Figure 1).
Autodesk executives, however, didn’t reveal the build-time and strength problems faced by the 3D printing jobs they highlighted. At a side event, we learned that Amsterdam’s new pedestrian bridge, for example, will take six months to 3D-print (Figure 2).
It turns out that it’s impossible to perform FEA at the design stage, because the splats of molten metal land somewhat imprecisely on top of one another. As a result, the bridge will have to be manually stress tested upon completion in early 2018. Manufacturer MX3D hopes the bridge will pass Amsterdam city approval. Incidentally, ‘hope’ isn’t a design criterion upon which engineers typically rely.
What’s New for MCAD Software
Autodesk spent most of AU talking about its grand plans for sweeping reform of the CAD/CAM industry. It was hard to nail down what features were coming down the pipeline, but here is some of what I gleaned.
Autodesk continues to develop Inventor, despite worries about its future. Nesting of sheet metal parts and five-axis machining are some of the features being added to the next release. Inventor, and its stable-mate Fusion, can now share 3D models associatively through Autodesk’s AnyCAD translator. Associativity means that a change made to the model in one program (such as Fusion) shows up in the other (Inventor).
In addition, Fusion will incorporate SPICE (Simulation Program with Integrated Circuit Emphasis) to analyze PCB boards integrated in 3D solid models. Fusion Production is a cloud-based program for managing running factories from smartphone or desktop, due out next year. Fusion will finally get access to Vault, while Vault is headed for the cloud.
In beta last year, cloud-based Generative Design is now available to Fusion Ultimate users who need to generate dozens or thousands of alternative design solutions (Figure 3). The variations are based on user-defined constraints, such as a maximum weight or a minimum strength.
Don’t confuse generative design with design optimization; the latter removes material unnecessary for the strength of the part, often making it look like a bony structure.
Finally, Dropbox is being integrated into Autodesk software to directly open and save files, beginning with AutoCAD 2018. In early 2018, Dropbox plans to beta-test a DWG viewer and markup app that runs inside Dropbox, written with Autodesk’s relatively new Forge development platform. A Dropbox representative told me at AU they were getting demand for other Autodesk formats. Autodesk says Dropbox is the biggest user of Forge services.
Some executives from Autodesk were made available to the CAD media for a question and answer session. Sometimes more than one executive provided an answer.
Q: You have indicated that Fusion is the future for MCAD at Autodesk. What does this mean for Inventor?
A: Inventor’s future is bright, with lots of programmers working on enhancements. We are connecting Fusion to Inventor, so designers can use either one, depending on which does a better job.
A: Fusion has a data connection to Inventor through AnyCAD. But our emphasis is on the manufacturing process through improvements downstream.
A: In our PDM (product design and manufacturing) collection, all users can use Fusion as well as Inventor, so it’s not either/or.
Q: How many customers buy a collection because it is the only way to get Inventor?
A: We are still collecting data, but we find that most customers use two [of 14 programs in PDM collection], we would like to see them get to three. [Author’s note: The PDM collection consists of Inventor, HSM for CAM, HSMWorks for Solidworks, NASTRAN for CAE; Fusion 360 and Factory Design; AutoCAD, Architecture, Electrical, and Mechanical; ReCap Pro; Navisworks Manage; 3ds Max and Rendering; and cloud storage. It costs CDN$3,210 per year.]
Q: With data being centralized [in the Quantum-like database], does this mean each product line can access this data?
A: We are making sure that the right pieces can flow to each persona [or applet, a subset of a program]. This is different from importing and transferring data between programs.
A: The cloud makes files go away; you query and get access to the data, no huge files need to be accessed. Our first example is Project Quantum, which is currently focused on accessing Revit data. We might emphasize data flow [between products] over [product] features in the future.
A: Forge is the common platform on which everything is being built now, and to which customers and partners also have the exact same access.
Q: How do you prioritize the needs of the Forge platform when you have so many different kinds of users, say construction users versus augmented reality users.
A: We find it is not a problem. Every one needs to access data, and then people see what applets can help out, such as visualization. Forge is the same for programmers inside and outside Autodesk.
Q: I remember when Fusion was a platform. Are you moving away from that?
A: It was probably a linguistic thing; Fusion is built on top of Forge. We are seeking the unification of simulation, design visualization and so on.
Q: How much exclusivity is there in making Forge-based apps in specific areas?
A: We have a mix, where some developers are opportunistic. And then there are some who Autodesk approaches and we ask them to build a specific Forge app. We will allow three, four, five developers to go after the same market, so that customers can decide.
Q: Why was Configure One [software for configuring, pricing, and quoting] acquired, then divested?
A: It was a change of focus by us. It was useful at the time, and now they are a [third-party] Forge partner.
Q: You have said you are aiming for 50% direct sales (including from your website) and 50% of sales through retailers. How will this change the distribution channel, and who will be the retailers?
A: Partners have to move to a services model, where they sell services (i.e. consulting, installation, training) in addition to selling product. Some of them are Forge developers.
A: Customers can buy either way, direct, online or from a reseller.
Q: Is Fusion Connect [IoT cloud service for connecting to and managing remote products] being used with IoT in buildings and products?
A: We have not yet found the sweet point in IoT for us. We need to figure out how to get development partners to build on top of the IoT capabilities in Forge, like bringing field data back to the design.
Q: What is your top priority for the next year?
A: Making sure users see value in putting all the software products together, instead of being in three departments – BIM, MCAD, and Civil.
The master plan outlined at AU is clear, even if parts are still tentative. Here is what to expect from Autodesk:
- All Autodesk software to run on the cloud (partially implemented)
- Sole payment method by on-going subscriptions or tokens (mostly implemented)
- Each program to store its data in a single database (baby steps taken)
- All programs and data to connect with one another through the Forge API (partially implemented)
In many ways, the plan mimics what Dassault Systemes did when they launched V6 (now named 3Dexperience) nearly a decade ago. In that framework, Envoia holds all data from their CAD and other software in a single database, with software and modules paid for by subscriptions.
While this model is suitable for large corporations and some startups, the direction is a concern for Autodesk customers who do 2D drafting with software on permanent licenses.
CEO Anagnost stated clearly he has little interest in retaining legacy customers who don’t want to follow his plan. As a result, the many firms that provide AutoCAD workalikes with permanent licenses will benefit from Autodesk’s change in direction.
Autodesk has stated that it wants most permanent/maintenance licenses converted to annual subscriptions by early 2021. In the meantime, Anagnost has asked doubters to give him a year to prove the benefit of paying subscriptions in order to access cloud-based services that would otherwise be unavailable.
Ralph Grabowski writes on the business of CAD on his WorldCAD Access blog (www.worldcadaccess.com) and weekly upFront.eZine newsletter. He has authored many articles and books on AutoCAD, BricsCAD, Visio and other design software.