Product Design

AU 2008: Greening Las Vegas?

10 Dec, 2008 By: Jeffrey Rowe

This year's Autodesk University in Sin City emphasized green, sustainable design and technologies.

I'll say it up front, and without going into detail, Las Vegas is not at the top of my list of favorite cities to visit. However, the manufactured environment and the engineered life experience that is Las Vegas in a strange way seemed to provide a good venue for this year's Autodesk University (AU) 2008, held December 2-5 at the Venetian Resort and Hotel. I was joined by what I estimated to be more than 10,000 attendees who experienced some interesting keynote addresses, more than 600 classes, and 130-plus vendors in the exhibition hall.

Prominently displayed near the registration area was Autodesk's Sustainable by Design booth that featured demonstrations of its efforts and the results of its sustainability report with regard to its global operations. It also featured design products and examples across different industries for enabling more sustainable design decisions. Digital prototyping and 3D modeling were showcased in terms of visualization, simulation, and analysis to demonstrate how they could be implemented in sustainable design practices.

Here, from Autodesk's perspective, are the four basic tenets of its strategy for sustainable design:

  • Conduct business responsibly.
  • Minimize the environmental impact of operations.
  • Optimize design products for doing sustainable design.
  • Partner with companies that can maximize the sustainable effort put forth by Autodesk.

These are all impressive goals, but holding a conference like AU in Las Vegas with all the attendant excess, consumerism, and disposables (virtually no recycling that I saw) is hardly what I'd term green or sustainable. On the other hand, Las Vegas may be about the only venue in the country that can affordably accommodate a crowd as big as this.

What If vs. What Else
The opening general session for this year's AU was themed "Design Innovation." I feel the whole "innovation" thing is getting old, much like "paradigm shift," "totally integrated solution," and "seamlessly interoperable." That aside, the session was actually informative and entertaining.

Carl Bass, Autodesk's president and CEO, took to the stage with a discussion of digital prototyping centered on making ideas real. "It's hard to get things right the first time," he said. "Design is the process of answering questions for solving a problem. You keep going until you get it right. And you do that by asking 'What if?' over and over again." He said that design software should be used for exploring, expressing, generating, understanding, and validating design ideas, not just documenting them. "Software lets you make mistakes digitally until you get a design right and experience it before it’s real."

Bass wrapped up that portion of the general session with the following two trends in "what if" design that he predicted might advance design techniques not just incrementally, but exponentially:

  • Biomimicry is the idea of drawing design inspiration from nature. It has been used recently to solve design problems, borrowing from nature's ideas such as adaptability and natural selection to arrive at an optimum design solution.
  • Algorithmic design is writing algorithmic scripts that generate new forms and design alternatives so you can quickly explore a variety of options. This concept goes beyond parametric design because it provides more control using a keyboard for writing algorithms for alternative designs that can be generated much faster. For example, using algorithmic design techniques, Boeing was able to explore more options for aerospace design in six days than they had in the previous eight years.

Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski discussed an interesting design philosophy of moving from a "what if" scenario (what he called "recipe oriented") to more of a "what else" scenario (that is more goal oriented and shows you a starting point for finding the best option). Kowalski noted that the basic relationship between human and computer hasn't changed much since its invention. The computer is passive and waits for us to tell it what to do. He believes that computers should be more proactive and let designers focus on what they want to make, rather than the specific recipe for how a design is going to be made. He asked, "Why not have the computer anticipate what we want to do and generate options for us to choose from. Keep track of the details that help us achieve overall goals and free us up to be more creative and effective as designers?" Kowalski challenged the audience to accept the changing relationships of people and technology. He also said that Autodesk would continue to strive to make design software more creative and interactive and less like math homework.

Bass came back on the stage and closed the general session by announcing a partnership with Stratasys and showing what he said was the largest assembly ever produced on a rapid prototyping machine -- a full-scale motorcycle.

Autodesk partnered with Stratasys to produce this motorcycle via the fused deposition modeling process.

Later in the day, Bass held a Q&A session for the attending media. Here are some of the more interesting tidbits that were revealed:

  • Autodesk recently resurrected AutoSketch v10, a relatively inexpensive (less than $200) 2D drafting package that the company previously and repeatedly said would never again be marketed.
  • Autodesk continues to spend approximately 22% of its revenue on R&D.
  • Future, short-term acquisitions will probably be small to medium sized; nothing really big on the horizon.
  • An economic downturn, like we are currently experiencing, lets companies like Autodesk bring new software developments more slowly.
  • Regarding accusations that Autodesk tries to gain a competitive edge by not sharing its data to facilitate software interoperability, Bass said, “It would be crazy to compete on the idea of making our data inaccessible rather than on meeting our customers’ needs.”
  • Companywide, Autodesk is moving its products away from an application focus (the products themselves) to a data focus (the data created with the products).
  • Autodesk is moving away from creating technologies just for technology's sake -- technology must have a solid reason for being.
  • Bass estimates that Autodesk earns 80% of its revenue from 20% of its products, so with 150-plus products to develop, market, and support, expect to see more products bundled together and fewer stand-alones.
  • Going forward, Autodesk will probably sell more of its products via an e-commerce channel.

One of the highlights of AU 2008 was the manufacturing keynote given by Burt Rutan, aerospace entrepreneur and designer extraordinaire. He's not only a great designer, he's also a gifted, nonscripted speaker who provides a refreshing and often irreverent view of some institutions he believes need shaking up, such as NASA and our educational system. Rutan is a person who knows what he's talking about when it comes to creativity and innovation. He's designed, built, and flown an average of one new aircraft every year for the past 40 years!

During his presentation, he focused on how design breakthroughs happen. He said we are most creative when threatened and that we must have confidence in ideas that some may consider nonsense. He also went on to skewer management that assumes few risks but would be much better served by setting difficult goals (seemingly impossible) and by focusing on what can be done, not what can't be done. He concluded that creativity contributes to breakthroughs much more than productivity, which can be stifling and boring.

Next year's AU will take place at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, December 1-4, 2009.

Related content:Cadalyst's AU 2008 event coverage, MCAD, Sustainable Design

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