Autodesk University 2016, Part 1: Tomorrow's Design Reality Is Already Here

7 Dec, 2016 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson

Event Report: At its annual user conference, the company details how “futuristic” technologies such as machine learning, generative design, and virtual reality are becoming integral to the CAD workflow.

Autodesk is envisioning a future for designers and engineers wherein your computer could be your closest, most essential collaborator. Machine learning, generative design, virtual reality — these and other technologies, which sound futuristic but are here today, will inform and direct design decisions in ways previously thought to require a human.

Thousands gathered for the Autodesk University 2016 opening keynote, which included presentations from CEO Carl Bass, CTO Jeff Kowalski (above), and others.

Such was the theme at Autodesk University 2016 in Las Vegas last month, where the company played off its latest slogan, “The Future of Making Things,” to expound on the trends and technological leaps it believes will most greatly impact architecture and construction, civil engineering, and product and machine design in coming years. Nearly 10,000 attended the three-day user conference, and virtual participants tuned in a total of 150,000 times for live-streamed presentations, the company reported.

In the opening keynote, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass said, “I have something to confess: Sometimes when I listen to things being said [during our main-stage presentations], it sounds like science fiction. As crazy as this stuff seems, I come back a few years later and many of you are actually doing the things we were speculating about. ... We are doing today what a few years ago seemed impossible.” For example, he said, “Our customer SpaceX flew its first reusable rocket.”

More “human” trends, too, are shaping how we work, according to Autodesk: a growing contingent workforce, millennials’ working styles, and the pace of change that demands continual education (and reeducation) if we want to stay employable.

These trends also are shaping how Autodesk develops the software that supports its customers’ work. (For more about the latest product developments, watch for “Autodesk University 2016, Part 2,” coming soon.)

Chief Technological Insights

Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk CTO, took the opening keynote stage to delve into the what, why, and how of the future of design and engineering technology. “We are living in the earliest moments of an amazing new chapter in the history of making things. ... Computers are getting better at things that [typically] require human-style capabilities” like intuition and creativity, he said, referring to technologies such as machine learning, generative design, robotic systems, and virtual reality.

Machine learning. A type of artificial intelligence, machine learning is the subfield of computer science that gives computers the ability to learn new information and make predictions without being explicitly programmed, according to Wikipedia. But today’s machine learning is transcending a computer’s ability to, say, win a round of chess or Jeopardy! Rather, a machine today can “grab the unexpressed, making it a better creative partner for us,” Kowalski explained. “Inspiration will not just be coming from human side of the screen.

“At Autodesk, we’re bringing this kind of machine learning to the 3D world.”

Generative design. When you apply machine learning to 3D modeling, you get generative design, a technology that can produce dozens (or hundreds or thousands) of design iterations that meet functional requirements (specified by a human). “We’re collaborating with the computer, not telling it what we want to do, but what we need, what we want to accomplish,” Kowalski said.

He introduced a chair designed by Autodesk summer intern Brittany Presten using Dreamcatcher, an Autodesk generative design technology in development. She put in functional requirements, and the software generated thousands of options that could sustain a loaded weight of 300 lb, reduced displacement, optimized material use (black walnut), and were feasible to fabricate using a CNC router. “She designed and manufactured a chair beyond her talents in a few weeks,” Kowalski said. “The computer is augmenting natural talent,” applying creativity in ways that might never be apparent to the designer on her own. “That’s what I call infinite expressability.”

This chair was designed with the assistance of Dreamcatcher, an Autodesk generative design tool currently in development.

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About the Author: Nancy Spurling Johnson

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