Autodesk Heralds New Visions in 3D Modeling

29 Aug, 2006 By: Kenneth Wong

At its recent media summit, the company plays up 'functional design' as well as data-management improvements in Inventor

Last week, a motley crew of trade journalists filed into a conference room in San Francisco's Hyatt Regency Hotel for the Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions Media Summit. Having gone to a late-night baseball game the previous day, some struggled to keep their sleep-deprived heads up. Buzz Kross, vice-president of Autodesk's Manufacturing Solutions, raised their attention a notch or two with his opening remarks. But it was Andrew Anagnost, senior director of CAD/CAE solutions for Autodesk, who succeeded in providing the jolt that was stronger than coffee: "I don't think CAD is living up to its promise," he observed. "And you can blame the Russian mathematicians for that."

His playful remark, Anagnost later clarified, was targeted at the masterminds behind pioneer 3D CAD programs, such as Pro/ENGINEER. As much as he respects their genius, he argued, their long-established modeling approach is flawed. "Most design [that is, the creative process] occurs outside the computer," he says. "What we do with the computer is merely documentation." Instead, he says we should replace this geometric modeling paradigm -- selecting planes and modifying parameters until the on-screen 3D objects correspond to the product ideas in our heads -- with what Autodesk calls "functional design."

That was the thrust of the summit. Throughout much of the day, the phrase would ring louder than the rambling trolley cars below and the Ferry Building's clock tower a block away.

With Apologies to Mathematicians
Unlike "dysfunctional design" (a phrase coined by Ten Links editor-in-chief Roopinder Tara), functional design, according to Autodesk, "enables customers to create designs based on the functional requirements of a product before they commit to complex model geometry, allowing designers to put function before form." And it is an "innovative technology found only in Autodesk Inventor," the company reports.

In theory, a designer will simply draw a symbolic representation of an object in simple lines and blocks (as shown below), then use input parameters to specify the object's function. Then the CAD software -- in this case, Autodesk Inventor -- automatically generates the geometry. With this approach, Anagnost pointed out, "Simulation can occur at any stage, engineers focus on product function, and they model geometry only if necessary."

The functional design approach of Autodesk Inventor, promoted by Autodesk at its recent Manufacturing Solutions Media Summit, uses a product's function to automatically generate the required geometry.

The irony is, after Autodesk has long preached how 3D converts can save time by automatically generating 2D drawings out of 3D models, functional design may drive users back to working more closely with 2D diagrams and schematics to drive 3D geometry.

Retreating from the Vortex
Despite his colleague Anagnost's earlier jab at mathematicians, Bob Merlo, Autodesk vice-president of PLM Solutions, launched his presentation with a set of statistics: There are 56,000 registered Autodesk Vault users; 155,000 people connected to Autodesk data-management products in one way or another; and 834 million documents managed through Autodesk data-management solutions.

The company's emphasis is on data -- not lifecycle. Merlo observed, "CAD and PDM (product data management) are the strongest areas. ... We're not going to go into that enterprise PLM vortex like many of our competitors." Asked to define the vortex, he clarified, "Autodesk has made a strategic decision to focus on design-to-manufacture," signaling the company's cautious retreat from what it believes to be the unprofitable fringes of the PLM universe.

"What we typically serve are people with 15-30 seats -- workgroups," Merlo later explained. "What we have seen is that large corporations take an enterprise PLM system and push it down towards [these workgroups], imposing policies, procedures and rules that don't suit how they work every day. [Such a system] can't support the engineering environment or the workflow in the engineering environment. Enterprise PLM is not designed to do that; it's meant to handle the production processes and change management. [Workgroups] are in iterative design processes."

He admitted Autodesk, for a time, described itself as a PLM company. "Everything we do is under the PLM umbrella," he said, "so we positioned ourselves in a way that the analysts could understand us. But our users are saying, 'Wait, I don't need everything under that umbrella.' They don't, and we know that. ... Even when we called ourselves a PLM company, we focused on the design-to-manufacture segment."

Before the topic got lost in the Q&A frenzy, Buzz Kross said, "Some day, our customers may want us to go there," leaving an opening just wide enough for the Mother Ship to fly back into the risky frontiers of the vortex if and when the time is right.

Reclaiming AutoCAD's Legacy
A technical glitch nearly killed the post-lunch technology preview, but the problem was eventually solved, allowing Amy Bunszel, Autodesk's product line manager for Inventor, to showcase a series of DWG-interoperability features expected to debut in an unspecified future version of Inventor.

"Think of DWG as one of Inventor's native file formats," Bunszel proposes. Her copresenter, Garin Gardiner, Autodesk's technical marketing manager, ran a series of exercises that show how, when available, this feature will let Inventor users directly open AutoCAD 2D files --without a wizard, without translation. "The best translation is not to have translation at all," she said. The demonstration emphasized how exchanging data between AutoCAD and Inventor -- for instance, using an AutoCAD object in a current Inventor project -- will become much more seamless.

Taking the release of AutoCAD 1.0 in December 1982 as AutoCAD's birthday, the industry's de facto 2D drafting program turns 24 this year. "People who will move to 3D quickly have already moved," observed Anagnost. The 2D holdouts are the ones Autodesk and its competitors are now targeting for conversion. Autodesk hopes this new, enhanced DWG interoperability between AutoCAD and Inventor will convince these holdouts that if they're going to migrate, they should migrate to Inventor and not a competitor's product. The pitch is, "Move to 3D with the company that brought you 2D."

One of the users present, Donald Gradin, mechanical designer for escalator modernization at KONE, was duly impressed. What's embedded in legacy AutoCAD files, he said, is "knowledge that we can't currently access now without jumping through a lot of hoops." KONE, by his estimates, still maintains approximately 80,000-90,000 DWG files.

"A lot of them are hierarchical data. We'd want to convert them to Inventor files. ... What's great about [the DWG-interoperability feature] is that we're not depending on a third party to come in and do the translation for us. The people doing the translation are the ones who wrote [the original authoring tool]."

New Faces in the Crowd
The ponytailed crowd, as Buzz Kross informally referred to it in his opening address, consists of the aesthetics-conscious designers -- specifically, users of AliasStudio software. With Autodesk's January acquisition of Alias for US$197 million, the industrial design product formerly known as Alias StudioTools became part of Autodesk's 3D portfolio, as did Maya software for digital image creation, 3D animation and visual effects. The former Alias products are well-known in the media and entertainment sector, served by other Autodesk products such as 3ds Max and VIZ. Nevertheless, AliasStudio is officially part of Autodesk's Manufacturing Solutions Division, so the ponytailed crowd is now part of Kross' crowd. "We think it's becoming important that machines look pretty. ... It's a trend we're well-positioned to take advantage of," said Kross.

That signals, according to Merlo, the elimination of "the barrier between conceptual design phase and the core mechanical engineering." Those involved in conceptual design generally consider themselves artists; consequently, they place a greater emphasis on form -- some might argue, they do so at the cost of function. Merlo thinks the blending of the two phases will lead to better products: "The conceptual designer will be able to share very early on the footprint within which the mechanical engineer will have to operate." More importantly, they can do so in reusable 3D data -- not just in numerical dimensions and 2D sketches.

Treasures in the Pirates' Chest
Kross announced that currently there are "seven million legal, registered Autodesk product users globally, but there are probably about three times as many unregistered users ... Autodesk still considers them customers." Why would a company want to consider an illegal user a customer?

One of the users present admitted -- right in front of the Autodesk executive team -- that when he was trying to convince his management to migrate to Inventor, he did it with a pirated copy of Inventor. It was a successful attempt, leading to the purchase and installation of legal Inventor copies throughout his company. It's proof that, for many technology vendors, piracy is a delicate matter, a double-edged sword. A heavy-handed approach often preferred by local authorities is not necessarily what all vendors want.

Kross conceded, "We can't make our products impossible to pirate" -- that is, there is no way to prevent illegal duplication. He also pointed out sometimes people don't realize when they're using a product illegally. Lost in the shuffle of complex licensing agreements and questionable IT practices, someone might inadvertently install an unpaid seat. "Our approach," he said, "is more carrot than stick."

Editor's note: Cadalyst contributing editor and Learning Curve columnist Bill Fane offers more insight about the Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions Media Summit on Ralph Grabowski's WorldCAD Access blog.

About the Author: Kenneth Wong

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