Autodesk University from 37,000 Feet

13 Dec, 2006 By: Robert Green

Airborne analysis of the AU 2006 conference in Las Vegas.

As has been my custom for many years, I'm writing my AU (Autodesk University) summary while flying back to Atlanta -- what better way to kill a few hours than to capture what I've been thinking about during my visit to AU?

"Why write about Autodesk University?" someone may ask. That's easy: because there are so many CAD managers in attendance and I know of no better way to take the pulse of the CAD management community than to attend, teach some classes and observe the trends in the Autodesk user community.

Author's Note – Autodesk doesn't have a monopoly on user-focused technology events. Other software vendors, Solidworks specifically, also hold huge user conferences that you can take advantage of. The trend toward user conferences that present technical information and training (instead of just marketing) with an emphasis on solutions is a trend all CAD managers should celebrate and take advantage of!

Who Was There

I continue to marvel at how much bigger AU gets every year. This year's total attendance of more than 7,400 people represented a 40% increase over last year and, given how crowded the halls, meal lines and classes were, I believe that number to be accurate. As has been the case in past years, attendee demographics were heavily tilted toward engineers, architects and designers (many of whom are CAD managers) that represent all disciplines, industries, countries and backgrounds.

Some of the big trends in attendance I noticed this year were:

  • Many more IT managers were in attendance than last year.
  • There was much more interest in BIM/Revit this year.
  • Civil engineers were there en masse, and Civil 3D was still the hot ticket.
  • Mechanical users were focused on bigger models and higher-end tools.
  • Interest in programming was much higher than in past years.

Let me offer a few thoughts on each trend and explain why I think these trends are worth noting for all CAD managers, even those who aren't currently using the products in question.

IT managers.  The prevalence of IT managers in AU classes demonstrates the continuing trend of IT departments taking more control over CAD. Of the IT managers I talked to, most have an engineering or design background and had simply morphed into IT managers over time. I think the trend of having IT managers with CAD/engineering backgrounds is probably a good thing, because they'll by definition have more understanding of CAD user needs. 

The "watch out" item for CAD managers is that you may want to know more about IT, because the trend is moving that way.

BIM/Revit users. The heightened level of interest in BIM/Revit this year simply shows that this technology is being adopted by industry. Until very recently, only big companies were testing the BIM waters; now it seems like everybody is checking it out. The key driver that I kept hearing over and over was that governmental agencies want BIM deliverables in the near future. It is clear to me that nobody really has a handle on what BIM will mean for architects and construction firms, but the cat is out of the bag and we're going to see big movement in this industry shortly. 

The "watch out" for CAD managers in AEC environments is that BIM is coming at you soon, so start getting ready for it now! I honestly don't think you can afford to wait another year to start researching this topic.

Civil 3D users. Civil engineering markets continue to be hot, and labor supply for those who can use Civil 3D is very tight. When you take a hot business segment and combine it with a labor shortage you can draw only one conclusion: There's money to be made! 

The "watch out" for CAD managers is that if you have a civil engineering background, you should be implementing and studying Civil 3D as much as you can. If your current firm doesn't want to implement Civil 3D, there are plenty that do! 

Mechanical CAD users. The mechanical attendees I spoke with didn't have a "gee whiz" or "show me what's new" attitude so much as a desire to get better-behaved tools that work with bigger models and solve bigger problems. The mechanical users were also the ones I saw salivating over the new HP quad-core machines. 

The "watch out" for CAD managers is that you should be paying a lot of attention to the hardware and operating systems that are available, because they may give you more productivity gains than upgrading your software!

Programming interest. Far more attendees were taking classes in Visual Basic and AutoLISP than in years past. As an example, I taught an AutoLISP class with 375 people in it. And although you don't have to program to be a CAD manager, it sure doesn't hurt. 

The "watch out" for CAD managers is that more and more of us know programming, so those who don't will be in the minority shortly. Do you want to be stuck without a critical skill set like programming?

The Tone and the Keynote

This year Autodesk didn't show any truly new technology at its main stage presentation, preferring instead to use customer testimonials to demonstrate how existing technology is being used. Even for press attendees (like yours truly) there were no non-disclosure demonstrations of cutting-edge technologies. It seems like Autodesk was stressing the application of its software tools more than trying to sell the next big thing.

Note: I don't think it was an accident that new CEO Carl Bass (who is at heart a very technical guy) was more technology-focused than his business-savvy predecessor, Carol Bartz. There was a palpable change in tone.

All the main stage demonstrations were highly focused on 3D or GIS technologies. From military applications to mobile tracking of workers via GPS technologies to visualization studies for municipal planning, Autodesk made it all look seamless.

Some highlights:

  • Stereoscopic aerial scanning of Baghdad yielded a computer-generated topographical map of the city. The map was then used to analyze line-of-sight data for security and troop movements in hostile areas to avoid snipers.
  • Visualization studies for new development in old London, where preservation of historical views and skylines is a key decision maker for municipal planners.
  • Interactive manipulation of complex 3D curves and surfaces in automotive design using Alias.
  • There were even some examples of performing visualization of new construction in the parallel universe of Second Life. In this presentation a U.S.-based architect collaborated with an English couple to facilitate the design of their lake home across the Atlantic, enabling all parties to virtually visit the property. It's worth noting that Second Life isn't even an Autodesk product, but it received a good chunk of time in the presentation.

The thought I had during these presentations was, "Who's actually modeling all this stuff?" because clearly somebody had to put all the information in, and the richness of the information presented was much more complex that what you'd see in Google Earth's Sketchup-driven 3D world. I'll continue to ask these questions and see how the real world is dealing with the tremendous volume of 3D data creation that is necessitated by these types of software tools.

Where's AutoCAD?

What was conspicuously missing from the presentations was AutoCAD itself. After seeing presentations on all manner of visualization tools (including the recently acquired Alias Studio tools), the venerable AutoCAD didn't even get a mention. After the over-the-top touting of AutoCAD's new 3D capabilities at last year's AU, it seemed strange to me that AutoCAD wasn't addressed this time around.

I think it's clear that Autodesk wants us to move to an integrated 3D future where all their products combine to form a virtual world. In this new reality you'll create buildings in Revit, make machinery in Inventor, lay out sites in Civil 3D and pull in site data from Map. What I didn't see, and Autodesk isn't showing, is a unified field theory that allows GIS and surveying data to interact with the traditional CAD data that most of us work with. 

For more detailed coverage of technology shared with Cadalyst at AU please see the Cadalyst AU show report

CAD Managers Under Pressure

I spent a lot of time speaking with CAD managers regarding what I see as ever greater pressure to deliver more productivity with more software platforms in less time -- with the same number of users. I was able to verify that it isn't just me who sees these trends, because almost everyone I talked to validated my read on the market.

The conclusions I draw are as follows:

  • Companies view productivity and profitability as the key metrics they use to gauge success. It's not about software tools or how cool all this CAD stuff is, it is about getting work out the door and making money.
  • CAD managers are the key personnel in implementing new technology changes in engineering, architecture and design. Those CAD managers who recognize their value will be more highly compensated and upwardly mobile.
  • Taken together, I believe these trends point toward a CAD manager profile that is technically aware, yet focused on business enough to make sure that technology is applied to achieve productivity gains.

Economic Forecast: Very Sunny

In all three CAD management classes I taught, I asked how many companies were laying off workers and how many would love to hire qualified people if they could find them. I got five responses out of roughly 700 attendees that reported layoffs, while at least 600 reported wanting to hire good staff. No matter what any other economic indicator may say, this looks like good news to me. And when companies are having trouble meeting needs and hiring, their CAD managers become even more important!

I also observed a general trend against outsourcing in favor of making in-house employees smarter and faster to gain productivity. The CAD managers I spoke with seemed far less worried about outsourcing than those attending the last two years of AU, and I find that to be a positive indicator for industries in North America and the European Union nations.

I came away from AU much more bullish regarding economic trends in North American markets, and much less worried about outsourcing trends than I was last year. 

Is AU Worth It?

I ask attendees (and myself) this question every year and I keep coming to the conclusion that AU is not only worth it, but is a bargain. Here's my reasoning:

  • There's a lot of advanced training that CAD managers can get at AU that they just can't get elsewhere. The Visual Basic, VBA and AutoLISP training opportunities surpass anything I've seen from any reseller, as an example.
  • The peer group is unmatched anywhere else. Want to spend a week immersed in discussions with a thousand other CAD managers sharing solutions, getting tips and cross-educating each other? AU delivers.
  • You can pick from so many different information tracks, mixing and matching as you go, that it is like a training smorgasbord.
  • If you go to AU with a list of questions, problems or action items you're very likely to find the answers. No matter how good Google is, it just doesn't compare to speaking with people and sharing experiences.

We know that our management will always want a cost justification for any conference we go to, right? Well, what would it be worth if you could solve a few nasty problems pestering your office while you made yourself smarter at the same time? AU combines the ability to map out solutions, thus paying for the trip, while invigorating your brain.

Wrapping Up

This year's trip to Autodesk University has me convinced that 2007 will be a year of actually implementing the software technologies that we've seen developed over the past year. It seems that the period of exploring and investigating new technology will now give way to getting the job done and making the organizational and technology changes that will facilitate adoption. It's going to be a challenging year, but ultimately a satisfying one, as CAD managers will have some concrete accomplishments to look back on.

I'd like to thank the 1,100 attendees who took my classes and labs at AU this year, as well as all of you newsletter readers who introduced yourselves. I feel very fortunate to work with so many smart people who are so willing to share their expertise and feedback.

About the Author: Robert Green

Robert Green

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