Autodesk + Alias = Good Deal

8 Nov, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Watching this acquisition with cautious optimism, you can see potential for mechanical design

In the last issue of MCAD Tech News (click here for archives), we discussed two of Autodesk's three recent acquisitions in the mechanical CAD world - Solid Dynamics for finite-element analysis and  Engineering Intent for producing engineered-to-order products. This time we'll discuss the third acquisition, Alias, for conceptual design, visualization and presentation. Of the three acquisitions, I feel that the Alias purchase will have the biggest impact because of its companywide implications -- in mechanical design and beyond.

Sensible Move

I'm not surprised that Alias was purchased, but I am a little surprised that Autodesk ended up doing the deal. I've thought for some time that an Autodesk competitor would acquire Alias, but when you look at the product lines and customer bases of these two companies, they actually appear to be a good fit -- both today and tomorrow. So the acquisition, at least at this stage, makes sense from the perspectives of the two companies and their customers.

Both Autodesk and Alias have considerable presence in broadly divergent industries --  manufacturing and entertainment production. The common link between the two industries is visualization for design creation or presentation, or both, and visualization will ultimately prove to be the real value of the acquisition.

Autodesk had the opportunity to acquire Alias in early 2004 but was in the midst of a major corporate restructuring, so passed on the opportunity. Alias was acquired by Accel-KKR and Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan , who together are selling Alias to Autodesk. Over time, Alias and its products will be integrated into Autodesk's manufacturing (Alias Studio Tools) and media/entertainment (Alias Maya) divisions.

With the acquisition, Autodesk obtains new opportunities -- namely, a strong inroad to automotive styling and design and computer-aided industrial design through Alias' Studio Tools line. This broadens Autodesk's appeal on the conceptual side of the product-development cycle, where previously it was lacking. Studio Tools has long been known for its ability to create outstanding surfaces, and this capability will come in handy for Autodesk's Inventor, an application that has never had surface creation as a strong suit.


Many software developers  realize that ID (industrial design) matters because it is increasingly becoming a product differentiator, especially for new technologies or those in crowded markets. The profession itself and its tools continue to evolve.

CAD packages are not the same as CAID (computer-aided industrial design) packages, and vice versa: Each product type addresses a specific need and serves a definite purpose. Historically, CAID has occupied the conceptual front-end of the product-development process (primarily surfaces), while CAD has been best suited for the design refinement portion of the process (primarily solids).

CAID packages are developed specifically with industrial designers in mind. In more of a graphical environment, they strive to stimulate creativity by providing a variety of design options. In essence, these tools are used to quickly create and alter the shape, form and surface qualities of 3D models. CAID tools also excel at presenting design concepts with photorealistic rendering and lighting effects. What they often lack is the degree of design precision found in most CAD tools.

Two weeks after the acquisition announcement, Alias launched a new version of its flagship product family, Studio Tools 13. It features a number of reverse-engineering tools useful for preparing large scan datasets, including surfacing tools for reversing normals on a mesh, mesh repair, hole filling, smoothing, stitching and mesh reduction.  The new version also offers a unique hybrid modeling workflow for automotive design -- one that combines the advantages of NURBS with polygon scan data. For example, to update with scan data, an existing NURBS car model can quickly reflect changes for a new release of the vehicle.

Cautious Optimism

I like this turn of events with regard to Autodesk's acquisition of Alias, but will watch cautiously until we see how it unfolds in the coming months and what comes of new software versions. Although this move certainly offers potential and opportunity, it almost as certainly brings challenges and potential pitfalls, especially with regard to integration and interoperability with Autodesk's existing mechanical design products.

I do envision some compatibility issues to be addressed between Studio Tools and Inventor. I doubt the current version of Inventor is able to manage and maintain the quality of surfaces coming in from Studio Tools because those designs are so mathematically complex. I foresee this issue requiring considerable effort to resolve.

Looking down the road, I'm also wondering if Autodesk will lock down a standard file format for complex 3D -- which is going to get a lot more complex with the surfaces generated by Studio Tools -- much as it has done with DWG and DWF for 2D. As an industrial designer myself, I'll be watching with interest to see what comes of this acquisition.

Autodesk is getting a lot of technology for the $182 million it's paying for Alias, and I believe this acquisition will prove mutually beneficial for both parties, near- and long-term. The move is significant because its implications are potentially so far-reaching.

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