Autodesk Suites Are More than the Sum of Their Parts

22 Jun, 2011 By: Bill Fane

New product packages offer powerful programs at great discounts — but do they make sense for you?

This year, as always, Autodesk released new versions of its numerous software products. What was unusual this time around, however, was the introduction of a variety of software suites, which group the individual 2012 releases into bundles appropriate for various types of CAD users.

Right off the bat, this development generates a number of questions. Let's start with "Are these suites really beneficial?" The answer to that question is "Yes ... or no." If you need to "sell" your designs to clients, to customers, or to management, then the answer is "Yes." If you are designing things like factory layouts, consumer goods, industrial machines, buildings, cars, boats, or airplanes, then the answer is still "Yes."

On the other hand, if you are designing things such as punch press die sets or electrical schematic diagrams for clients or for in-house use you probably don't need photorealistic real-time animations or free-form sculpted surfaces, so you can skip the rest of this article and go read Lynn Allen's latest article instead.

Suites for the Sweet

Now let's go back and take a look at the Autodesk suites to see what species of critter they be. I'll admit that when I logged off at the end of the media webcast that introduced these new offerings, I was overwhelmed and underwhelmed at the same time.

I was underwhelmed because they seemed to be just a simple bundling of existing products. The concept behind them is that many companies use more than one Autodesk product — or at least with Autodesk's current emphasis on "digital prototyping," they think that more companies should be using multiple products.

For example, a swizzle stick manufacturer needs to go from initial styling concept sketches to a detailed design, including stress analysis to make sure the swizzle stick won't break when it hits an olive in the drink, through photorealistic renderings for management presentations, then on to injection mold design and plastic flow analysis, CNC G-code programming to sink the die cavity, and the factory layout to manufacture, package, and ship the final

Okay, so suites seem to be a simple bundling exercise to get us to buy more software. Underwhelming. More on this later.

On the other hand, I was overwhelmed by the sheer volume of software. Autodesk offers thirteen basic suites covering the full market range, including general design, architectural, building, infrastructure, factory, plant, product design, and entertainment creation. The latter category includes games, TV, and film production. In addition, many suites are available in up to three editions (Standard, Premium, and Ultimate), depending on which programs that they contain.  

For example, the Product Design Standard suite ($5,495) starts with AutoCAD Mechanical, Vault Sketchbook Designer, Showcase, and Mudbox. Premium ($6,495) adds 3ds Max Design and Inventor, while the Ultimate suite ($9,995) adds Alias Design and upgrades Inventor to Inventor Professional. Purchased separately, the components of the Ultimate suite would come to $21,515.

All these options yield a total of more than two dozen suites. My brain hurts.

How Suite It Is

The number one plays heavily when discussing the advantages of suites:

  • One purchase at one discounted price gets you all your software at savings of up to 80% when compared with buying the component programs individually.
  • One run of the usual SETUP.EXE program installs everything in one hit.
  • Everything in one suite comes on one single 16-gigabyte or 32-gigabyte (!) USB thumb drive. In addition, 32-bit and 64-bit applications are included on the same stick, and the install program knows which one to use. There is no need to worry about ordering the wrong version, or about shuffling numerous DVDs during installation.
  • One serial number runs everything.
  • After you finish the installation, activating any one product activates them all. If you chose not to install all the components initially, then you can come back later and add other items. They are automatically pre-activated.
  • Where practical, Autodesk has tried to give one consistent look and feel to the user interfaces of all the different applications.

Autodesk hasn't finished implementing its announced intention to use one standard file format for all its products, but the company is heading in that direction. Meanwhile, the components in a suite can usually write to and read from the formats of the other components.

One-stop shopping — do it all with one click on Install.

It's Now Later

Earlier, I stated that I was a little underwhelmed by the concept of suites, in that they appeared to be just another method to get us to buy more software. A short time after the introductory webcast, however, Autodesk's Manufacturing Division hosted members of the CAD media, including myself, at its headquarters in Lake Oswego, Oregon, to give us a closer look at the new design and manufacturing product suites. I soon realized that there was more to suites than a simple bundling of software products, and the sheer magnitude of all the suite variants had made it impossible to fully comprehend their implications in a one-hour webcast.

The secret is that the whole of a suite is typically greater than the sum of its parts. A suite collection usually includes additional capabilities that you would not get if you bought the components separately.

For example, we saw that the Premium and Ultimate Factory Design Suites include AutoCAD and Autodesk Inventor along with AutoCAD Architecture, Showcase, 3ds Max Design, Navisworks Manage, Vault, and Factory Design Utilities. That's not big news; Inventor and AutoCAD have been available as a bundle for quite some time now.

To understand the power of the Factory Design Suites, we need to look instead at how factory layouts are usually developed, at least according to Autodesk. The company claims that factory layouts typically start out as simple 2D CAD layouts, wherein block insertions representing machinery and material handling components are moved around until things look right. (I think they are wrong; it is my firm belief that the vast majority of designs of any type, in any field, start out not with CAD but with NAD [napkin-aided design: informal sketches on paper].)

Historically, factory layout design stopped at the 2D level and moved to implementation, usually with an accompanying "Oops" factor. (The “Oops” occurs when work commences in the real world, and it is discovered that a conveyor belt passes through a main building beam, or the sewer line passes through the cafeteria.) With their buzz phrase "digital prototyping," Autodesk marketers believe you should move from the initial 2D layout to a 3D computer model before physical implementation. The 3D layout can then be used for detailed analyses such as collision detection, and to ensure room for manoeuvring of material handling equipment.

To help with the 2D layout design, the AutoCAD portion of the Factory Design Suite includes a library of standard factory components such as material handling equipment, robots, conveyors, and common production machines. You can do your initial what-if experimentation by inserting these standard block components into an AutoCAD drawing, then moving and manipulating them as desired.

A factory layout designed in Autodesk Factory Design Suite 2012. Image courtesy of Auotodesk.

The magic comes when you move the 2D AutoCAD file over to Inventor (as long as your copy of Inventor is the one that comes in the suite). It automatically populates the Inventor model with 3D models that correspond to the 2D blocks from the AutoCAD drawing.

Everything remains associative and parametric. If you revise or move a machine in the 2D drawing or 3D model, everything updates in both files, including the connecting conveyors. Change the width of a section of conveyor, and all connected sections will update accordingly.

But wait — there's more! If you create 3D models of your own custom machinery, then flat 2D plan blocks are automatically created and inserted back into the 2D AutoCAD drawing.

Note that all this associativity between the programs only exists if you bought them as a suite, and not separately.

Pros and Cons

Buying a suite may get you software you'll never use, but on the other hand Autodesk hopes that you'll be introduced to some software you didn't know about, or that you'll realize how a particular program could help you. Many people continue to do things the old way, even down to the level of not using certain features in the software they already own, simply because they don't know that the better functionality exists. So the new product suites might open up new worlds for you; just be sure you fully understand the various suite versions available so you don't buy more than you really need.

Heads You Lose, Tails You Lose

Historically, CAD companies have taken two different approaches to selling their product: "all-in-one," where a single product at a single price includes all available functionality, or a "building-block" plan, where you buy only the modules you want and need.

Historically, both approaches have been wrong. If a vendor sells a building-block product then customers complain, "Man, they nickel-and-dime you to death. Every time I turn around I have to buy another module!" On the other hand, if a vendor sells an all-in-one product, then customers complain, "Why do I have to pay for features I never use?" Incidentally, it was the latter complaint that led to the release of AutoCAD LT for customers who didn't like paying for advanced AutoCAD features they didn't need.

It's going to be fun to watch how suites work out for Autodesk and its customers, particularly in comparison with the opposite approach being taken by PTC and its recently launched line of Creo modular tools, which are designed to provide CAD users and others in the product design workflow only the tools they need to get their jobs done, and nothing more.

Editor's Note: Watch for
Cadalyst magazine’s First Look review of the Autodesk Building Design Suite Premium, coming in the Summer 2011 issue.


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