Autodesk Reshapes Itself for the Future

10 Dec, 2014 By: Cyrena Respini-Irwin

At Autodesk University 2014, the software developer shares its plan for adapting to a new era of design, production, and demand.

The most interesting thing about Ember, in Bass's view, is that it's a test bed for materials science experimentation. Both Spark and Ember, and the manner in which they interoperate, "provide a reference design for the industry," said McQuiston.

The first machines will ship early in 2015, but the retail price hasn't been established. Materials scientists, software developers, researchers, makers, and other industry leaders can participate in the early-access Ember Explorer program for $5,995.

Shifting the heavy lifting. Autodesk is developing a "goal-directed design system," in which the designer specifies design objectives such as performance criteria, cost restrictions, and manufacturing techniques. The software then interprets design intent from those objectives and generates numerous design options, surfacing the best-performing of the bunch. In order to explore all possible options, said Kowalski, "we have to stop telling the computer what to do, and we have to start telling it what we want to achieve."

This concept is not new, noted Kowalski, but the technology has been limited because the necessary computation has been too time consuming. Now, however, we have the computational powerhouse of the cloud at our disposal.

"Generative design mimics nature's approach to design," said Kowalski, demonstrating how the results can be lighter, and use less raw material, than traditionally designed objects. "Generative design starts with your goals and then it explores all the possible permeations of a solution through successive generations until the best one is found." Image courtesy of Autodesk. 

The generative design research project, called Dreamcatcher, is described on the Autodesk Research site this way: "It does the grunt work, processing and evaluating design tradeoffs at a speed impossible for humans. What it does do, however, is free up the designer to innovate and create—to move away from repetitive design tasks and calculations and instead focus on creative design. This is cloud computing in its purest form; true computing rather than simple file storage."

Access to the full toolbox. In 2015, Autodesk will unveil a new subscription option, said Bass, giving users access to all Autodesk's tools "on any platform, any machine, anywhere in the world" for a single price. "An individual or firm would have access to all the tools they want," said Bass. The details and cost of "Subscribe to Autodesk" have not yet been finalized; the offering may include manufacturing- and AEC-specific groupings of products, for example, or may be divided into tiers based on the individual product prices.

Preparing future generations. Bass drew applause with the announcement that all Autodesk software will now be available free of charge to every student, teacher, and teaching institution in the world. Chief Marketing Officer Chris Bradshaw noted that although students and faculty already had free access to Autodesk's desktop products, that arrangement didn't extend to teaching institutions, and didn't include services until now.

Five years ago, the company reached about 5 million students globally, out of an estimated 1 billion who have the necessary hardware to use one or more Autodesk products. Today, 192 million students in 188 countries are accessing the company's offerings — "a big improvement," as Bradshaw put it. "A big push for us is access … and making our tools more accessible in lots of dimensions," he said.

Although this move will cost Autodesk in the short term — Bass joked that he had managed to turn nearly $100 million per year in education business into $0 — it will surely create a whole new crop of Autodesk customers in the future. And because new people become students every year, "this is a constantly replenishing system," Bradshaw noted.

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