Tech Trends - Autodesk Gets Digital

30 Nov, 2007 By: Kenneth Wong Cadalyst

Examining Autodesk's philosophy of digital prototyping.

I sat down with Richard Jones, vice-president of Autodesk's manufacturing solutions division, Alias, for a tête-à-tête in a Rococo-styled conference room inside Paris' Intercontinental Le Grand Hotel. It was October 3, and the Autodesk Manufacturing Summit was drawing to a close. Jones and several Autodesk executives were sticking around, availing themselves for some meetings before the guests and the reporters disappeared into the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, and the Latin Quarter for sightseeing.

Earlier, Carl Bass, Autodesk's president and CEO and Jones' boss, was lauding the concept of sustainable design, something that has become a catchphrase in architecture but still a novelty in manufacturing. He also extolled the benefits of digital prototyping. So I asked Jones: Is there a link between the former and the latter? In response, he repeated to me what one of his clients, a world-renowned automaker, had revealed (as the company hasn't given explicit permission, Jones requested the client be kept anonymous).

In this article
In this article

"All their cars are designed in London, Paris, and elsewhere," said Jones, "but they have to send them to Tokyo for approval. So they put them [the clay mockup of the new vehicle models] into the hull of a 747 and fly them across the world. Whenever they do that, they have to send three clay modelers to go along with the models, because the clay is bound to crack inside the pressurized hull. Can you imagine the cost involved in transporting those models?"

The alternative, which costs less money, less fuel, and certainly less clay, is digital prototyping, Jones proposed.

Mechanical Behavior Modeling

The seed for digital prototyping was sown when CAD vendors began providing dynamic, or physical, simulation. Suddenly, it became possible for an engineer to simulate and study on a computer monitor how the crankshafts, the camshafts, the cogwheels, the bearings, and the pistons in an assembly interact with one another. A CAD model was no longer just a 3D representation. It became a digital incarnation, capable of behaving and reacting according to the laws of physics (figure 1).

Figure 1. The advances in simulation algorithms and computing power turn CAD models (like the one created in Autodesk Inventor shown here) into digital incarnations of real products that can display realistic reactions to load and stress input under computational analysis.
Figure 1. The advances in simulation algorithms and computing power turn CAD models (like the one created in Autodesk Inventor shown here) into digital incarnations of real products that can display realistic reactions to load and stress input under computational analysis.

Over the years, increased computing power and the refinement of simulation algorithms have advanced the art of digital mimicry so much that some manufacturers (such as automakers) have come to rely on the digital model for the type of tasks — concept validation, decision making, and presentation, to name but a few — previously accomplished with full-size clay mockups (figure 2). We now enter the next stage in simulation: digital verification of the production process itself.

Figure 2. Autodesk predicts that photorealistic renderings similar to the ones shown here, created in Autodesk Showcase, will soon replace the clay models in the automakers' decision-making and design-review processes.
Figure 2. Autodesk predicts that photorealistic renderings similar to the ones shown here, created in Autodesk Showcase, will soon replace the clay models in the automakers' decision-making and design-review processes.


In Autodesk's own words (from the Autodesk brochure "Digital Prototyping: Questions and Answers"), digital prototyping is the ability "to virtually explore a complete product before it is built — so [engineers and manufacturers] can create, validate, optimize, and manage designs from the conceptual design phase through the manufacturing process."

Currently, the leading product lifecycle management (PLM) software vendors offer some type of digital prototyping capability, although they call it something else. Dassault Systemes, based in France, offers DELMIA, a product for software-based production system simulation, which "provides dynamic simulation-based evaluation and improvement of manufacturing process and material flow." Dassault's German competitor, Siemens PLM Software (formerly UGS), offers NX for digital lifecycle simulation, a CAE (computer-aided engineering) software suite. PTC promises "complete virtual simulation capabilities . . . to improve product performance and exceed product quality goals" with its Pro/ENGINEER package.

So what distinguishes Autodesk's approach? In a few words, it's "attainable, cost effective, and scalable. Digital prototyping solutions are usually expensive, customized installations for large enterprises. Most out-of-the-box 3D modeling applications provide only part of the functionality needed to create a complete digital prototype."

Soon after taking the helm at Autodesk, Bass publicly dismissed PLM as a catchphrase invented by the vendors. His famous words, uttered earlier this year during Autodesk World Press Day in San Francisco but still reverberating in Paris recently, were "There're only three companies that have PLM problems, and you know who they are [Dassault, PTC, and UGS]." Stripped of the semantics, what Autodesk calls digital prototyping and what Dassault calls product system simulation may well be quite similar, but Autodesk isn't about to use its competitors' language to advocate its products.

Bits and Bytes Replace Clay

"Every car is designed using our software," Bass asserted during his presentation in Paris. Known for its ability to create Class A surfaces with a high degree of curvature continuity, Alias-Studio has become the standard 3D modeling tool in automotive design.

The Autodesk Digital Workflow
The Autodesk Digital Workflow

At Renault, for example, moviemaking has become an integral part of the automotive design workflow. For design proposals and project presentations, Renault uses a combination of AliasStudio (for modeling), Maya (for animation), and Mental Ray (for rendering) to produce high-quality cinematic sequences that show new car models racing across photographic backgrounds or virtual environments. These movies are the basis for Renault executives' decision-making process.

In fact, the footage is so realistic that Renault sometimes has to screen a sequence showing something physically impossible — a car with deflated tires spinning at an odd angle, for example — to convince the skeptics that what they're looking at is a virtual vehicle, not a finished model.

"Last year alone, we produced more than 3,000 movies," Denis Visconte, Renault's general manager of digital desing development process, verified. Those movies also save Renault a significant number of physical models it would have had to produce and present to the decision makers.

Christopher Dupont, Renault's director of design development process, estimated, "Producing a physical, scale-one model in clay requires from two to three months for a team of five, whereas a digital model requires the same time but can be produced by a single person" ("Renault Design Combines Alias Tools and Physical Models to Create the Optimum Design Process," July 12, 2004, Each clay model could cost $1 million or more, estimated Autodesk's Jones.

Design's Ecological Footprint

Can Autodesk products — or any CAD software packages, for that matter — play a role in spawning green design? Robert Kross, Autodesk's senior vice-president of manufacturing solutions division, believes letting the designers feel the burden of their own designs might be a good start.

"Something as simple as a mass meter," he proposed. "Say, in the corner of your Inventor screen, you have a constant mass meter that shows the mass of the product you're designing, and you can see [the effect] of every change you make instantly reflected, it will certainly change your point of view."

Bass remarked, "Just imagine. If you're designing [the cover for] an MP3 player and you knew [the manufacturer] will be making two million of them, what material might you choose? Paper or plastic?"

Following the example of energy-analysis software such as Green Building Studio (for architecture), Bass and Kross imagined CAD modeling packages with carbon-output calculating features. The truth is, this territory is new for Autodesk. The company hasn't figured out where or how to obtained this data.

"There's no source today," admitted Kross. "We're looking at ways to develop it." Bass identified industry consortiums and national standards groups as possible resources. Another idea, proposed by Kross, was to follow the Wikipedia model and build a database using community input.

The Tangible Mockup

The rise of digital prototyping, however, doesn't mean the death of physical prototypes. Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk's vice-president of CAD/CAE manufacturing solutions and one of the most vocal advocates of digital prototyping, acknowledged, "No one is going to take the number of physical prototypes down to zero. No one would want to fly in an airplane that has never been fly-tested before in real life. Our contention is that, the more you can iterate digitally, the less iterations happen on the shop floor. The shop floor is not a good place to innovate. It's for solving problems."

Jones pointed out, "Until now, you'd always have to make a physical model to study lighting, because you could never model it properly. But the real-time ray-tracing features that are becoming available now let you create a fully functioning digital model with realistic light bounces and reflections."

In August, Autodesk acquired Opticore, which provides real-time ray-tracing though its Opticore Opus Realizer and Opus Studio products. Currently, AliasStudio offers ray tracing through software rendering features.

The one place where the digital prototype falls short, Jones admitted, "is the sense of scale." The Eiffel Tower may be the best argument for that. You cannot take a walk around the base of a digital Eiffel, as you can with the real one, to marvel at its enormous scope and breadth. On the other hand, if you're building something as monumental as the Eiffel, creating a life-size functional physical mockup probably is a ludicrous proposition.

For more information on digital prototyping, see "Virtual Reality" by Jeffrey Rowe, published in the MCAD Tech News newsletter on March 2, 2006.

Cadalyst contributing editor Kenneth Wong explores the innovative use of technology and its implications. E-mail him at Kenneth.Wong at

About the Author: Kenneth Wong