Autodesk University 2011

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Late 2011, Las Vegas; time for the annual migration of Autodesk fans to attend the CAD industry’s biggest conference. AEC Magazine looks at how the company’s technology has raised the stakes.

Throughout the week-long CAD love-fest that is Autodesk University (AU), the one word not mentioned was AutoCAD. For an IT company that was seen as the 2D specialist, this was probably the first Autodesk event that demonstrated how far its product suite has diversified.

Under the leadership of Carol Bartz, Autodesk went from being a teenager to a corporate giant with one product and an attitude problem. With technologist CEO Carl Bass and team it has more customers using new products on mobile devices than it does using traditional CAD. Autodesk is now a company of experimentation, rapid development and broad ambitions.

1: Autodesk experiments with 3D printers in zero-G ‘Prints in save’

This year’s AU concentrated on how innovation, technology trends and an uncertain global economy are impacting lives. There was also a gaggle of inspirational thinkers devising different approaches to design, engineering, education and sustainability.

The benefits of cloud computing was a big theme, which took the shape of calming fears over software vanishing from CAD workstations. The expanded processing and collaboration benefits of using cloud tools will mean not only near instant results for building or structural analysis and data, but will also unburden workstations for design work.

Autodesk envisages a cloud system with smart super computer systems in the background that are constantly processing designs, providing analysis and photorealistic renderings on demand. Autodesk is already developing analysis tools that will offer multiple solutions instead of a single solitary result.

Documents in the cloud

In 2007 Carl Bass went on record denouncing the manufacturing / engineering product lifecycle management (PLM) industry as “a solution in search of an industry”. At AU 2011, Autodesk joined in that search, with Mr Bass backtracking and saying that he did not want Autodesk in PLM until it could be done right. A fair point given that the company has gone through a torrid time trying and failing to develop document management systems.

2: Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO holds up his slide rule wondering if this got us to the moon what can computing do?

While PLM is seen as an engineering process the same underlying technology is going to be rolled out for Architecture, Engineering and Construction customers.

The forthcoming cloud product, Autodesk 360 Nexus, expands Autodesk’s portfolio of document management solutions, Autodesk Vault and Buzzsaw. While Buzzsaw simply shares and distributes drawings, Nexus is a service that offers easy configuration of powerful workflow automation and hooks into document management systems running on the inside of customer’s firewalls.

At the show, Autodesk Manufacturing took Nexus central stage but the AEC team talked about its future use as part of its slightly confusing ‘BIM 360’ suite of products.

Jim Lynch, vice-president, architecture, engineering and construction solutions, explained. “Today’s AEC projects are often hindered by widely dispersed teams relying on inefficient communications and collaboration services. Autodesk 360 for BIM can have project teams up and running with collaboration and data management in a matter of days. It represents a significant step toward enabling a BIM workflow from design through to construction.”

Autodesk’s 360 document management suite includes the following products: Autodesk Vault Collaboration, an on-premise data management solution that lets project teams manage and track digital models without leaving their BIM design tools, including Revit Architecture, MEP & Structure, AutoCAD Civil 3D and Navisworks. Documents and content are centrally managed and integrated with enterprise systems like Outlook and SharePoint. Integration with Autodesk’s Buzzsaw cloud service provides more external collaboration and mobile access.

3: Autodesk is multi-platform

Buzzsaw is cloud-based project collaboration for exchanging designs and documents with distributed partners and teams. Through Buzzsaw Mobile on an iPad or Android tablet, users can access the most up to date information while working remotely.

Autodesk 360 Nexus is planned to support configurable AEC workflows and business process management. No release date as yet.

AEC content

4: Jeff Kowalski Autodesk CTO explained the benefit of the cloud to designers

AEC-related presentations were thin on the ground. The biggest news release was that the former head of the division, Jay Bhatt, had left the company at what seemed short notice. In the summer the marketing director had also left and not been replaced. These moves would have had considerable impact on the potential for the production of content at AU this year.

There were three strong product take-aways, the first being that Project Spark — a potential Revit LT — is doing well on Autodesk Labs and Autodesk is experimenting to find the right level of Revit sub-functionality to attract architects to get into BIM.

Second, the excellent Project Storm had just been launched and allows structural analysis of members using a tablet device (available through iTunes).

Third, Navisworks will get a port to tablets. Autodesk products and data are going to be available everywhere it seems.

Design computation symposium

Autodesk director of software development Robert Aish holds a regular AU day for experimental architectural forums and designs. Computational design states that the computer does not simply record designs. Using scripting and applying parametrics and associations, it assists in generating the complex forms or conditions that are required. Edits do not involve redrawing but are computed and regenerated by the program.

5: Computing has moved from the mainframe to the mobile

Dr Aish demonstrated the power of his new programming language for AutoCAD, DesignScript, which could rival Bentley’s Generative Components and Rhino Grasshopper when launched. AEC will have an in-depth look at this in the next edition.

The rest of the presentations mainly followed an ecological theme covering experimental green strategies covering: adaptive design, feedback systems, bio-mimicry, designs made from recycled materials, research, sustainable living, simulation, faade cooling and performance-based consumption.

The final session concluded with a presentation of a project with NASA to trial 3D printing machines in space. Autodesk tested various 3D printing machines on the so-called ‘vomit comet’, a plane which achieves zero-G by flying parabolas. Positive results mean that 3D printers are on thier way to the space station in the not too distant future.

6: Jim Lynch, vice president, Autodesk Building, explains Project Red Spark

Other forward-looking discussions included the splicing of genes to create “useful living things”. One suggestion was to design a tree that would grow into the shape of a house.

Autodesk ‘innovation forums’ were new this year. There was a short presentation from Sir Ken Robinson explaining how the education system kills creativity. Saul Griffith of Otherlab shared some of the designs he has created (including ‘soft robots’, electric vehicles, a fast dinghy, bicycles).


Gone are the days when Autodesk was a one-product company, supporting one operating system and one platform. Its tools are now liberated and run on many operating systems and hardware platforms.

While Autodesk’s AEC team kept a low profile this year, Autodesk is clearly developing a strategy where there will be more services included in its subscription portfolio. Where once subscription was literally paying ahead for the next release, it will be a key to new productivity enhancing capabilities.

Autodesk University is now less about product and more about ideas. In that respect, AU felt more like TED than it did an Autodesk product platform. For content it was one of the best conferences of 2011 and demonstrated that computers and engineering software combined with humans can do so much more than draw.


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