Autodesk Takes a Shot at Plastics Market

14 May, 2008 By: Jeffrey Rowe

Acquisition of Moldflow will strengthen product offerings for plastic part and tool design.

"I want to say one word to you. Just one word."
"Yes, sir."
"Are you listening?"
"Yes, I am."

Of course, "plastics" was the career advice that Mr. McGuire gave to Benjamin in the 1967 movie The Graduate. Plastics are also one reason behind Autodesk's newest acquisition, Moldflow.

Plastic parts and their tooling came on the scene more than a half-century ago, but their design is still among the most challenging in the mechanical arena. In earlier days, practically everyone involved in designing plastic parts and tooling -- myself included -- held their breath and hoped for the best until the first shot produced a successful first part. As is true for several other areas of mechanical design and engineering, using software to simulate plastic parts and processes has dramatically decreased the associated anxiety. Of the vendors that developed software for plastic part and tooling design, Moldflow rose to the top tier.

Founded in 1978, Moldflow has always been at the forefront of developing technologies that predict and optimize plastic parts and molds during all phases of the design and manufacturing processes. The company's most popular products are the Moldflow Plastics Advisers for simulating parts and molds. The Moldflow Part Adviser analyzes the manufacturability of plastic parts and offers specific recommendations for optimizing part design, identifying plastics material candidates, and maximizing physical performance. Similarly, the Moldflow Mold Adviser optimizes a mold's core and cavity design and the runner system, which is used to fill the mold with plastic. Used in tandem, the Part and Mold Advisers can estimate material and manufacturing costs for each part.

Autodesk's Intentions
This is all well and good, but why would Autodesk want to acquire Moldflow, and what are the company's plans for it moving forward? It seems the primary motivation is to extend Autodesk's digital prototyping initiative, which promotes creating and communicating more information about a product digitally before it's physically prototyped or produced.

I spoke about the pending acquisition with Brenda Discher, senior director of marketing, Autodesk Manufacturing. Discher indicated up front that she was somewhat limited in what she could discuss because both companies are publicly traded, and the deal is still pending. She did say that the acquisition would close in Autodesk's customary standard window of 60-90 days after an announcement, which in this case was May 1.

Discher admitted that the Moldflow acquisition was, in fact, part of Autodesk's plan to build and buy complementary products and technologies that put more information into a digital prototype that can be communicated upstream and downstream. She also said that Moldflow is a key component of Autodesk's digital prototyping strategy and its newest business unit, computer integrated manufacturing (CIM), which aims to take a digital model and prepare it for manufacturing.

Moldflow technologies are on the downstream side of CIM, ensuring through simulation, analysis, and validation that a part and its associated tooling can be created successfully.

Moldflow Customers — and Autodesk Competitors
Discher said that the Moldflow acquisition is further proof that Autodesk does not necessarily want to get into the process-centric world of product lifecycle management (PLM), words that have been echoed for some time by Autodesk CEO Carl Bass. Instead, she said, Autodesk would continue to be more product-centric, acquiring technologies that optimize a product's design and better serve the typical Autodesk mechanical design customer, who believes the product itself is of utmost importance. "Autodesk sees a more promising market here," she said.

"Moldflow is also complementary to Autodesk's historical strength in industrial machinery," she said. "Moving forward, the Moldflow acquisition will help Autodesk and our customers become stronger with plastic consumer product design." Autodesk's complementary upstream product line, AliasStudio, is all about conceptual and industrial design, and consumer products are a big portion of that market segment.

When asked about the future for current Moldflow customers, Discher said, "Moldflow customers will be fully supported, once the acquisition transaction is closed, by bringing them into the Autodesk manufacturing community." Exactly how this plays out remains to be seen, because bits and pieces of Moldflow technologies exist in products from Autodesk competitors such as Siemens PLM Software, PTC, and Dassault Systemes. The Xpress version of Moldflow software is part of SolidWorks -- the most direct competitor of Autodesk Inventor -- through the 2007 release. Historically, Autodesk has shut out competitors from technologies it has acquired; however, licensed technology can be a nice source of revenue. Buzz Kross, senior vice-president of Autodesk Manufacturing, said, "We are not planning any changes. We intend to keep the solutions open and will continue to work with everyone."

So, with the acquisition of Moldflow, it appears that plastics have a prominent position in the future of Autodesk technologies as the company continues to evolve and remold itself.

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