Show Report: Autodesk University 2005

7 Dec, 2005 By: Jeffrey Rowe

3D is the future, but don't count out 2D yet

I just returned from Autodesk University (AU) 2005, Autodesk's 13th annual user conference, held this year at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. I was among the 5,000+ in attendance and came away with a good feel as to where the company is heading -- both in general terms and on the mechanical side of things. Although 5,000+ attendees sounds like a lot -- and it is -- keep in mind that these attendees represented many disciplines that use Autodesk's broad product spectrum: mechanical design and manufacturing, mapping, architecture, entertainment, architecture, civil engineering and so on.

The conference itself consisted of more than 400 educational courses, keynote speeches, an exhibit floor with almost 100 exhibitors, and of course, the opportunity for "mega-networking" with a multitude of fellow users and Autodesk employees.

One of the nice things about this AU compared with previous years was the fact that members of the media and industry analysts were not required to sign a nondisclosure agreement before attending. The downside to this is the fact that not a whole lot of specific future product information was discussed -- a disappointment to those of us who attend these events in hopes of obtaining information that will help with future product reviews. Suffice it to say that a load of mechanical design products will be shipped in the spring of 2006, including Inventor, AutoCAD Electrical, AutoCAD Mechanical and Mechanical Desktop. Good news for those of you who use AutoCAD Mechanical and Mechanical Desktop: Autodesk has committed to further development and support for these products because they still have a good customer base.

Emphasis on 3D

Ironically, the underlying theme and main message for the four-day conference was how essential 3D is, regardless of industry or discipline. Ironic because although Autodesk has diversified its product lines away from a strictly 2D mentality, its flagship product is the primarily 2D AutoCAD. Autodesk emphasizes 3D information vs. 2D representation, but the company is committed to its 2D customers, and 2D definitely has a future at Autodesk. The company estimates that of its around 2.2 million mechanical design and manufacturing customers, about 500,000 are using at least some degree of the 3D capabilities found in Inventor and to a lesser extent in AutoCAD and Mechanical Desktop.

During the conference, Autodesk announced that it had surpassed 500,000 seats of Inventor sold. Like its competition, though, Autodesk did not disclose how many of those seats were sold for commercial vs. educational use.

In her keynote speech, Autodesk's president and CEO, Carol Bartz, spent a lot of her time on the stage promoting the burgeoning influence of 3D technologies at Autodesk. She expects the benefits and impact of new 3D CAD tools in the near future will be bigger than the original transition from manual design and drafting methods to 2D CAD.

She also said that the importance and use of digital data will grow significantly in coming years. To emphasize her point, she noted that for every one of Autodesk's 7 million "legitimate" customers -- and she did stress legitimate -- there are potentially five to ten downstream users of that digital data. That's 35 million to 70 million users -- not exactly something easily ignored. All this sharing is possible, of course, using tools such as the relatively new DWF file format and services such as Streamline for manufacturing collaboration.

Free Data Exchange = DWF

Carl Bass, Autodesk COO, then took the stage and said that although the company's customers represent many disciplines, they face similar challenges. Because customers take such pains to create digital content, regardless of discipline, these same customers should put forth the effort to ensure that the content remains digital throughout its life, mainly for purposes of productivity. That is, minimize or eliminate the possibility of the digital information becoming analog, or paper. Bass took this opportunity to state that the best way to ensure that information remains digital is through standards that permit the free exchange of information, and the best means to do this is through Autodesk's DWF. All in all, I think DWF got as much exposure as just about any other technology at the conference.

Bass went on to say that model-based design will continue to be the thrust of Inventor -- creating digital models that will increasingly look and behave like entities in the real world. The heart of model-based design is something Bass termed functional design that goes beyond geometry and concerns itself with the true functional aspects of a product. He said Autodesk considers functional design to be the future of mechanical design. He also said the company will continue to merge model-based design with digital lifecycle management. In addition to software, Bass said that the enablers of the movement from 2D to 3D will be continually increasing computer capabilities, network bandwidth and connectivity.

Although we didn't hear as much about future products as I would have liked, the conference did offer a big-picture look into the future of the company and its diverse product lines.

Next year's AU will be held at the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas.

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