New Autodesk Maxim: Experience it Before it's Real

19 Feb, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong

Company executives unveil new products and strategies -- including a sharp focus on digital protoyping -- at World Press Day 2007.

On February 12 in besprinkled San Francisco, more than 100 editors, reporters and analysts from around the world streamed into Zeum, a technology museum characterized by whimsical architecture and playful artworks. There to attend Autodesk World Press Day 2007 -- and get a preview of the soon-to-be-released 2008 cycle of software, as well as gain insight into current Autodesk business philosophy and future plans -- the crowd was welcomed by Chris Bradshaw, Autodesk vice-president of worldwide marketing. "No multipage product feature slides," he promised. (That came a day later in the breakout sessions.) Then he introduced his boss, Autodesk president and CEO Carl Bass.

Bass, who stepped into his current role in May 2006, briefly reflected on the past. "It took us 20 years to get to the $1 billion revenue mark, but we managed to add almost $1 billion just in the last four years. ... that's profitable growth," he said. (Autodesk reported $1.523 billion in revenue for fiscal year 2006.) Afterward, Bass summed up his vision for the future in one simple phrase: "Experience it before it's real."

Prototype Vision

"Experience it before it's real," said Carl Bass, Autodesk president and CEO.
Bass declared his company's new mission: "Allowing customers to experience the things they build before they're built." It's a mission he expects to fulfill through digital prototyping tools. "The application of digital tools is changing," he observed. "Twenty-five years ago, we used computers to create blueprints. Today, the focus is on how things look, how they're used, how they're made." The role of these tools, he suggested, is no longer confined to documentation; it now encompasses exploration, simulation and innovation.

Later, citing market research firm Aberdeen Group, Buzz Cross, Autodesk vice-president of Manufacturing Solutions, noted, "Best-in-class manufacturers build half the number of physical prototypes than the average manufacturer does."

The Transition from 2D Drafting to 3D Modeling Benchmark Report from Aberdeen (September 2006) states, "The theory that best-in-class manufacturers develop fewer prototypes holds true. Aberdeen research showed that for each product development cycle they average 1.5 prototypes compared to 2.9 prototypes for average performers."

The Palumbo Example
Case in point: Palumbo Motorcar Company, a high-end sports car maker, also a presenter at the event. Founder Joe Palumbo recounted how his firm used to create physical prototypes of car chassis in one-tenth scale, quarter scale, and full scale during each design phase.

Jason Palumbo, the founder's son, later explained that the one-tenth scale prototype costs roughly $20,000. "Our one-fourth scale model has much more detail. ... it takes longer and requires additional personnel. This costs us roughly $50,000 to complete. Our full-scale model goes much further. ... It takes much more time and more personnel. It also has to be perfect. This costs us roughly $250,000."

At those price tags, every design change or modification posed a significant threat to the fledgling company's budget. After migrating to Autodesk Inventor, Palumbo began using the software's digital prototyping tools, dramatically reducing both time and cost in the creation of the Palumbo M-80, an environment-friendly hybrid sports car.

"Inventor has saved us a lot of time in the visualization portion of our design," said Jason Palumbo. "Also, it has saved us a tremendous amount of time making build plans. We also have been able to use it for design verification, assembly animations, facility layouts and so much more."

AEC Solutions: Sustainability is Good Business

"Half of those buildings in which the Americans will live, play and work in the year 2030 don't exist yet," said Jay Bhatt, vice-president of AEC Solutions.
"By the year 2025, the world will have 30% more people. Half of those buildings in which the Americans will live, play and work in the year 2030, don't exist yet," observed Jay Bhatt, Autodesk vice-president of AEC Solutions. These statistics point to one irrefutable conclusion: There'll be a massive construction boom.

But buildings are also among the top environmental offenders, he noted: "36% of all energy consumed is consumed by buildings. 30% of raw materials used are used on buildings. Buildings account for 36% of the greenhouse gas emitted. ..." (Bhatt's source for these statistics, Autodesk press office verifies, is a recent article in The Economist. An alternate source, the American Institute of Architects, observes, "Buildings and their construction account for nearly half of all the greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumed in this country each year," in the report Architects and Climate Change.)

So the architectural design market of the future, Bhatt predicted, will be fueled by not only aesthetic concerns but also green concerns. That makes sustainability not just a socially responsible pursuit but also a profitable one. Revit, Autodesk's BIM (building information modeling) platform, takes the center stage in Bhatt's sustainability discussion.

At Autodesk World Press Day 2007, the spotlight shined on the Autodesk Revit BIM solution, indicating Autodesk's pursuit of the sustainable architecture market in earnest. The program's expected interoperability with other media and entertainment products, such as Autodesk VIZ and Autodesk 3ds Max, may open up additional opportunities -- for instance, improved daylighting studies through better visualization power.

  • Revit Architecture 2008 (formerly Revit Building), according to the Autodesk, "delivers new features to enable sustainable design with analysis of materials, quantities, energy use and lighting. With enhanced gbXML (Green Building Extensible Markup Language) functionality, designers can quickly perform energy analysis and study building performance using tools such as those from Green Building Studio, Inc. and IES Ltd." The announcement highlights improved management of linked model information and improved DWF file specification support; a plug-in for publishing Revit models to Google Earth; and better interoperability with Autodesk 3ds Max.
  • Revit Structure 2008, in Autodesk's words, makes it "easier for structural engineers, designers, and drafters to design and visualize their structures." New features listed include new modeling tools for parametric structural trusses, warped structural, slabs and curved beams; construction documentation enhancements such as dependent views for split drawings, dimensions and element visibility; and improved usability and interoperability with industry-standard tools and third-party analysis applications."
  • Revit MEP 2008 (formerly Revit Systems), according to the company, "delivers BIM for the mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) engineering market with improved features to support building performance analysis and better decision making." Product highlights include fully parametric change management; automated exchange of engineering design information; and a direct link to the Integrated Environmental Solutions (IES) Virtual Environment.

The dizzying product name changes, as seen in the Revit platform, reflect Autodesk's reshuffling of the AEC portfolio. The list now includes

  • AutoCAD Architecture (formerly Autodesk Architectural Desktop);
  • AutoCAD MEP (formerly Autodesk Building Systems);
  • AutoCAD Civil 3D;
  • Autodesk FMDesktop for facilities management;
  • Autodesk Buzzsaw for collaborative project management; and
  • Autodesk Constructware for construction project management.

AutoCAD 2008: We Won't Forget 2D
"We believe that 2D processes are going to be around for a long time, and we're committed to supporting it," said Jim Lynch, Autodesk vice-president of marketing for AEC Solutions, renewing the company's devotion to its core customers: AutoCAD users.

To this end, the company is reportedly updating its 2D workhorse. AutoCAD 2008 brings "simple, intuitive creation, editing and management of annotation scale, tables, text and leaders; more than 35 enhancements in response to customer visits, Autodesk User Group International's (AUGI) top-10 feature wish lists, and feedback forms."

The new AutoCAD 2008 will be complemented by

  • AutoCAD LT 2008, the lightweight 2D drafting and drawing program;
  • Autodesk Design Review 2008 (now available for free), a set of viewing, measuring and markup tools that do not require CAD software; and
  • Autodesk Impression 2008, a new product for transforming 2D AutoCAD illustrations into colorful illustrations.

AutoCAD Architecture 2008, another 2D favorite, gets a boost with the new Drawing Compare module, for comparing different drawing versions and identifying the changes.

The Drawing Compare module for Autodesk Architectural Desktop (soon to be renamed Autodesk Architecture) lets users identify changes by comparing DWG files.

Manufacturing Solutions: Reconnecting with DWG
Autodesk considers its 3D midrange CAD product, Autodesk Inventor, "the best choice for designers who want to redefine their product development process and power their workflow with digital prototyping." To lure its AutoCAD user base to the new 3D platform and to prevent them from defecting to competing 3D CAD programs, Autodesk is adding DWG interoperability in the form of the new DWG TrueConnect feature. It's designed to let users read and write DWG files without translators while maintaining full associativity with the 3D Inventor model.

Along with Inventor, the company is preparing to release new versions of

  • Autodesk AliasStudio, with a set of tools for the conceptual design process;
  • Autodesk Showcase, an interactive tool for presenting and reviewing designs;
  • AutoCAD Electrical, for designing and documenting electrical control systems;
  • AutoCAD Mechanical, for designing and documenting mechanical systems; and
  • Autodesk Productstream, for automating the release-management process.

GIS for Engineers, by Engineers

"Most of the world's GIS data is created in AutoCAD," said Amar Hanspal, vice-president of Platform and Geospatial Solutions.
"Most of the world's GIS data is created in AutoCAD," declared Amar Hanspal, Autodesk vice-president of Platform and Geospatial Solutions. To distinguish Autodesk's GIS solutions from the competition, Hanspal introduced the term "engineering GIS," based on the notion that CAD and GIS ought to be seamlessly integrated. The suggestion is that other GIS vendors like ESRI or Intergraph can only address the GIS issues, whereas Autodesk can address both. The new positioning catch-phrase went into effect almost immediately, as evident in the latest announcement of AutoCAD Map 3D 2008:

"A leading engineering GIS platform for creating and managing spatial data, AutoCAD Map 3D 2008 includes new FDO [feature data object] features to improve users' ability to access and share data more effectively, regardless of its location or file type. Key enhancements in the latest release include: Faster access to data using FDO data access technology. ... Capacity for more powerful analysis and visualization of GIS and CAD data. ... Tools for easier import, export and publication of data, enhanced interoperability with other AutoCAD-based applications for publication of fully stylized maps" [italics added for emphasis].

On the same day, the company also highlighted

  • AutoCAD Raster Design 2008, for handling scanned paper drawings, maps, aerial photos, digital elevation models, satellite imagery and similar digital design data;
  • Autodesk MapGuide (Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise and Autodesk MapGuide Studio), a Web-based mapping platform for publishing and distributing spatial information via the Internet; and
  • Autodesk Topobase, for consolidating CAD, enterprise asset, GIS and customer information by linking AutoCAD Map 3D, Autodesk MapGuide Enterprise and Oracle Spatial technology.

(Note: The last two products, Autodesk MapGuide and Autodesk Topobase, are currently available. No new updates are expected for these till later this year.)

Visualization Goes from Fun to Functional
Espousing what sounded like a variation of Bass's message earlier, Marc Petit, Autodesk vice-president of Media and Entertainment (M&E), described his division's purpose as "ideas realized before they materialize."

Though better known for video game development and film-making products, Autodesk M&E is poised to invigorate certain Autodesk AEC and manufacturing products with its visualization technologies. One of the first to benefit from M&E's contribution may be the Revit platform.

"The latest version of Autodesk VIZ 2008 software provides architects, designers and visualization artists with the modeling, lighting, rendering and animation tools required for professional-quality 3D architectural visualizations," Autodesk states. "VIZ 2008 also includes improved support of AutoCAD and Revit software files; new, simplified architectural rendering tools; speed and performance enhancements; and new learning tools."

Hands-On Toys
"Not all designs are better evaluated in the virtual world," said Jeff Kowalski, who succeeded Scott Borduin as Autodesk CTO. For those who prefer the tactile approach of the physical world, Kowalski previewed two visualization tools still in development: the Touchwell, an oversize display panel that responds to touch commands, and the Boom Cam, a mounted display device that simulates perspective when rotated. With such devices, Kowalski pointed out, engineers can put design "literally at their fingertips."

Weary of PLM
Responding to a question from Cyon Research president and CEO Brad Holtz, Bass revealed his skepticism for PLM (product lifecycle management). "What's my anti-PLM?" he asked rhetorically, before adding, "No company that I know wakes up in the morning and says, 'I have a PLM problem.' There're only three companies that have PLM problems, and you know who they are." He meant Dassault, PTC and UGS, the three vendors dominating the PLM market.

Later, in a separate meeting, Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk senior director of product management, Manufacturing Solutions, clarified, "PLM is an artifact" -- in other words, a term created by industry pundits and vendors to describe the complex integration of scattered data infrastructures. Autodesk, he explained, subscribes to the notion of data visibility and process consolidation, just as most PLM vendors do. So what's the difference? Autodesk believes digital prototyping is the way to achieve this vision.

The 2008 products unveiled at the event are scheduled to become available in Spring 2007.