In November Autodesk held its annual User event, Autodesk University. With many of its customers now on subscription, the company was more forthcoming about its future plans than usual.
Autodesk University is the annual US event where Autodesk gives its customers the heads up on what it’s developing, together with offering hundreds of sessions aimed at improving knowledge of its many design products, covering AEC, MCAD, GIS, Civils and Visualisation. The event, held in Las Vegas, also provides a two-way communication between customers and Autodesk’s executives and product managers.
I wasn’t too sure what to expect from Las Vegas, having never been but I had visited another ‘casino city’ in America, Atlantic City, which all I can say was a dire place. Vegas is built along its airstrip for easy access and has one of the most unusual skylines of any place I’ve seen. This all changes at night of course, where the place is lit up like a Christmas tree but you still have replicas of the Eiffel Tower, Venetian palaces, pyramids, Hispanic citadels and a range of 1970/80s rectilinear boxes. It’s a bit like Disney land but for Adults – it’s repulsive yet intriguing! Autodesk hosts its AU event at the MGM Grand, a huge green complex, which is hotel, casino and conference centre all in one. On the casino floor, through which you access everywhere, there is no natural light, and it’s kept in a perpetual state of ‘evening’, which is a tad disconcerting but with a heavy schedule of meetings and keynotes to attend, I knew I wasn’t going to waste anytime gambling.
Over the years, my experience of Autodesk has lead me to think that the company has developed a culture which doesn’t lend itself to being open about new products, new features or future strategy. As a journalist, this has been like getting blood out of a stone. This trip to Autodesk University in Las Vegas gave mixed messages on this issue but also demonstrated that the company is trying to open up a bit more.
On the day prior to the main event, the press gathered, signed their NDAs (Non Disclosure Agreements) promising not to reveal what we saw until March 2005 and then had a day’s worth of presentations on everything that was coming down the line. However, the following day, company Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Scott Borduin presented 60% of what we had seen during his main stage keynote, to the audience of well over 4,000 Autodesk customers, so that information at least was now in the public domain and was reportable, much to the surprise of the company’s PR executives.
As Autodesk moves from an upgrade- to a subscriptions-based model you can see the company embracing the concept of disclosure, as customers have already paid for the next release, although some departments within the company maintain reticence.
The first mainstage presentation came from company CEO, Carol Bartz. Bartz is a renowned speaker, delivering her messages with both passion and force, gesticulating as she goes. Autodesk is at an all time high on the stock market and seems to continually outperform its predictions. It looks like Bartz will see Autodesk’s revenue shoot through the all important $1billion barrier his year and finally deliver on her original objective when she joined. With the company doing better than well, product development undergoing a renaissance and no real threats on the horizon, Bartz covered the expanded scope of Autodesk’s growing product range, about the implications and benefits of the digital lifecycle – what Autodesk breaks down to being ‘Create, Manage, Share’.
Bartz gave an impassioned appeal to the audience to keep all the data digital with products like DWF and to embrace change and switch to some of the new generation of 3D products, like Revit, Inventor and Civils 3D and reap the rewards of model-based design.
There are some rumours that Carol is preparing to leave Autodesk and take a more active role in US Government. Having almost certainly hit her target by growing the company to over $1billion, these rumours could well prove true. However, the company is set to have another record year in 2005 and Bartz is obviously relishing the shape and position the company is now in. It will be interesting to see what will happen over the coming months, with the former CTO and now COO, Carl Bass, being the driving force behind Autodesk’s product development renaissance and has been widely tipped to be Bartz’s chosen successor.
Next up was CTO Scott Borduin, who played straight for the soft spot of the audience by running through some rapid-fire technology demonstrations from across the Autodesk product range. There were very few actual new product announcements at AU and so the technologies displayed were not in shipping products but ‘in the pipeline’. It’s worth saying here that Autodesk is on a yearly release cycle and the last release was delivered in March 04. ErrrmÍ it’s not rocket science is it?
The most breathtaking demonstration was the new technology that’s being added to Inventor. Autodesk has always tried to add technology to Inventor without complicating the product and by and large has managed a good job. The new technology looked very similar to the featureless editing and creation of parts that was pioneered in CoCreate’s SolidDesigner and Trispectives’ IronCAD. There’s ‘treeless’grip editing of features and ‘material’ could be dropped in and shaped using existing geometry.
Inventor looks to be breaking the boundaries that most modelling systems adhere to. The net result is that Inventor will get even easier to use and promises better productivity using, what Autodesk is terming, ‘Functional Design’.
New AutoCAD features were also demonstrated, offering an intuitive new dynamic input display, placing the command line right on each object in the AutoCAD window, with automatic co-ordinate feedback. This was really cool and obviously useful. AutoCAD will be able to quickly generate tables from attribute data in drawings and new Dynamic blocks provide almost parametric-like capabilities to static blocks – as a table block is stretched, the block will automatically add chair symbols along the table to a pre-defined size.
Borduin also gave a demonstration of the new Civil 3D package that will replace Land Development Desktop and AutoCAD Civils at some point in the future. Here, a 3D road was moved and all the cuttings automatically updated, saving hours and hours of work, as all the views were automatically updated.
The final keynote was given by Dean Kamen, CEO of DEKA and creator of the Segway, a two wheeled thingamajig that caused such a stir last year. Kamen is a visionary and an inventor. His work with gyroscopes has lead to wheelchairs that can traverse kerbs (called the ibot), balance on two wheels (which lead to the Segway) and has worked on many medical devices which improve peoples daily lives. In true fashion, Kamen zoomed up the isle onto the podium on a Segway and then proceeded to give his talk, slowly wheeling about the stage.
I’ve been to a lot of these type of events and I have to say that Kamen’s speech was probably the best I’ve heard. He has a passion for solving problems, for understanding how things work, with a wit to match and had the audience in the palm of his hand. There was a lot of observation linked to real world projects his company had worked on and he used historical examples too – such as a Chinese cart which had an arm that always pointed North – this was to allow the army to cross huge natural obstacles at night, such as the Gobi Desert. Kamen pointed out that for all the engineering innovation that went into the cart, the Chinese had a simple technology that they could have used hundreds of years earlier – loadstone (naturally magnetic) but they failed to develop the compass.
Towards the end Kamen talked about his concern for young people today, their aspirations and how engineering was not even a consideration for kids today, it lacked respect. Kamen got a well-deserved standing ovation from the audience.
For the rest of the time, there are literally hundreds of hands-on and high-level sessions which you can attend. There’s also an extensive exhibition, featuring Autodesk product demonstration booths together with hundreds of developer stands. Most were quite US-centric but there were UK developers present, as well as global partners like Cyco and SketchUp. However, I seemed to spend most of my time in interviews and walking between the hotel and the conference hall! As each day winds up, there’s usually some get together happening for users and it’s a great time for everyone to have a beer and talk about what information they have picked up that day. If you are a serious AutoCAD user or customer, these kind of events can be exceptionally useful. Also, as Autodesk is fairly US-centric at the moment, it would be good if more European customers attended to give their input and feedback directly to the Autodesk employees- and there are hundreds on-hand.
The AEC sector
From an architectural perspective, Revit appeared to be the product of the moment. On Autodesk’s exhibition booth, the AEC portion seemed to just be running Revit demonstrations. I asked if this was an intended move but it seems that all the machines had Revit, ADT and the Civils products on them and it was totally dependent on what the booth visitor wanted to see. From the visible scarcity of ADT, it was clear that customers were taking the University as an opportunity to scope out Revit.
One of the evening sessions was for Revit customers and featured a ‘Stump the chump’ competition, where a panel of Revit experts were assembled to model tricky geometry requested by the audience. It was actually quite impressive to see some complex forms being generated in the latest release of Revit. When the chump was eventually stumped, I think one of the customers was getting prompts from a QA tester, who obviously had inside information!
The big news from the event was the launch of Revit 7, together with the fact that SOM were using Revit on the Freedom Tower project in New York. The story is that SOM decided to try out Revit’s modelling capabilities on the underground section of the building, which was exceptionally complicated due to the network of underground subways that had to be taken into consideration. The team that used Revit picked up the tool and started running with it. While the original plan was to just evaluate Revit and then revert to traditional CAD for the rest of the Tower, the design team carried on modelling and eventually completed the whole building. For America the Freedom Tower, replacing the towers lost on 9/11, is a project of great cultural significance, and it’s probably fitting that the pioneering spirit was used in the way the tower was designed. Revit has not been used to model such a prestigious, or large building before and the product was still new to the team when they started. I am sure we will be hearing more about this as the project progresses.
While on the topic of Revit, the new version offers some major improvements:
Structural Design – Revit could always display structural members but these were mere dumb’ positionals’. The new release comes with joist systems, beam setback controls, brace controls and column-grid capability. The beam data is held within the Revit structural model, allowing external applications to access the structural information for analysis. To do this, Autodesk has implemented the first stage of an API (Application Programming Interface), a concept always appeared to be shunned by the Revit developers. This is an admission that Autodesk realises that it can’t do all the development it needs to do and so will work with specialist partners.
Concept Modelling Tools – One of the key new features of Revit 7, is the conceptual modelling tools, called Building Maker. This capability allows architects to mass model in a fluid manner and maps these conceptual elements to building model elements, walls can be created from any vertical face, curtain walls ca be generated from any massing face, rooves can be created from sloping or horizontal faces and floors can be generated from floor area faces. The conceptual model is linked to the Revit model and remain associated and can be updated as the conceptual model changes.
Stacked Walls – It’s now possible to create walls where there are changes in thickness, at different heights. These sub walls can also be scheduled for quantity take-offs.
Sub Region tools – These are new sketch defined areas hosted on toposurfaces. They can be moved and edited, have names, materials and areas and appear in toposurface schedules.
Nudge Tool – Placement of elements is critical in any modelling system and Revit 7 now enables the arrow keys to move elements by 1 snap unit – if you hold the shift key at the same time, it will move 10 times the current snap unit.
Revision Tables – Revit 7 supports revision numbering by project or by sheet. Revision clouds, which can be tagged, displaying a revision number, which can be added to a new global Revision Table, listing all revisions in the current project. New revisions can be created or merged with existing ones.
Viz Support – There’s a new plug-in to allow Revit models to be easily imported in to Autodesk Viz 2005, complete with the Revit materials to create great rendered images. This is great news, especially as the AccuRender component in Revit, is starting to show its age.
Presentation Views – Building on the presentation theme, Revit can now easily create presentation graphics without using a rendering engine: 2D and 3D vectoral shadows, within OpenGL views, silhouette edges, sectional perspectives and linework support in perspective views.
3D ACIS Solid Support – While this may seem an odd addition, Revit now has the ability to bring in ACIS 3D solid data (this may be Autodesk’s interpretation of ACIS created by their ShapeManager variant, as opposed to true ACIS solids). It means that elements like Mechanical parts (boilers etc.) can be brought into and displayed within Revit models.
ADT and Revit
One of the confusing parts of Autodesk’s AEC strategy is the difference between Architectural Desktop and Revit. ADT is AutoCAD-based, Revit is a new code base. ADT is portrayed as the AEC flavour of AutoCAD, while Revit is the parametric modelling tool for those that want to improve their business process. I think the differential is becoming clearer, although the one thing that is confusing is the building verticals that are being added to both product lines.
One of the key tenets of both ADT and Revit is that there is a single model in which all the data can be held. To complete on the deal, Autodesk has to provide intelligent elements, such as building services and structural elements. Autodesk has already released a building services add-on for ADT, the well named, Autodesk Building Services but has no structural package. However, Revit now has the structural elements but no building services! It’s not yet possible to completely model all the key elements in either, yet each of the missing parts is available in the other.
The reason for this appears to lie in the fact that when Autodesk bought American developer Softdesk, the AutoCAD building services application came as part of the deal. Revit is following the more logical architectural- structural- building services route to development. It also makes me consider the huge efforts that Autodesk is having to put into development of not one but two AEC modelling tools. An Autodesker admitted that originally, when Revit was purchased, development of ADT was scaled back. However with the on-going success of ADT and the challenge of introducing a new product and a different way of working, the two teams are now balanced.
In a big change to stated policy, Revit now features an API (Application Programming Interface). This will allow third party application to plug into Revit and offer additional functionality. I think this will seriously help speed Revit’s development and capability. The API approach worked for AutoCAD, so I see no reason why I should be any different for Revit.
Since the development of AutoCAD 2004 to the technology keynotes at this year’s AU, Autodesk development has undergone a bit of a renaissance, with all the products starting to look great, across a massive range of vertical markets. I thought AutoCAD was pretty much at the end of its life. I mean, what else could be added to a 2D CAD system to make it do any more after over 20 years of development? Autodesk’s roadmap is now proving that there’s plenty to be added to seemingly an old product.
Unfortunately I can’t tell you too much about what’s coming down the line but the ‘tasters’ given by CTO Scott Borduin were really impressive and they will all be useful when they come out. Autodesk is on a yearly cycle and the last release was in March 04. There doesn’t seem to be any reason to suspect that the company is behind schedule.
For those on AutoCAD 2002, the product will get its obit in January 2006, less than a year away. The upgrade this year will be the best opportunity to get onto Autodesk’s Subscription service. While some may not really require on-line support, or training, the new pricing makes Subscription the best value over the short, medium and long-terms as upgrades have seen some steep rises.