AU: Intersection of CAM, clouds and reality
Autodesk University 2013 was a huge, loud, in-your-face explosion of all things related to making stuff. In this context, “stuff” could be manufactured goods, buildings, bridges, movies or just about anything else you could imagine. I’ve written a bit about it here already, but a week to think on it leaves me with a couple of takeaways.
First, Autodesk hosted similar events around the world (though this is still the biggest in terms of number of attendees and exhibitors) which means that the number of international attendees was a bit lower than my impression from previous years. That said, I did chat with a number of people from outside the US and found, not at all surprising, that their concerns match those from within the US. Reliable bandwidth and access for cloud applications, finding trained users, figuring out how to change/improve workflows and grow business … The concerns are more similar than they are different.
Next, the cloud was a huge topic, and one that users are buying into with varying degrees of interest and excitement. Autodesk’s approach is to make parts of their offering (simulation, rendering and other calculation-heavy apps) available on the cloud with the premise that the cloud offloads desktop and in-house compute resources for other tasks. The users I spoke with like the “keep working on your desktop while your CAE job crunches in the sky” message — but those who do not do simulation/complex rendering/etc. are a bit confused by it all. But they’re definitely listening and when Autodesk gets to something that resonates with them, they’ll be more inclined than not to give it a whirl.
But much as Autodesk talks up its cloud offerings, they’re not yet affecting the bottom line. The 360 products are just starting to generate revenue and Autodesk’s aggressive pricing will keep that contribution small for the near future. But some users are quickly ramping up their use of the cloud offerings — as just one example, VPs Andrew Anagnost and Brenda Discher said that 142,000 Simulate 360 jobs have been run since the product was introduced, with the average user running 10 jobs per week. Simple division shows that this doesn’t equate to a lot of unique users at this point but it does show that people will quickly burn through the cloud credits that come with their license or subscription and will need to buy more. A suite including Sim 360 comes with 1800 credits, so 10 jobs/week at 10 credits/job means … new credits being purchased sooner rather than later. [The number of credits/job varies with the job. Moldflow is 20 and up while a Revit structural analysis is 2 credits. CFD and Mechanical use 15 credits/job.]
Autodesk is absolutely serious about CAM, snapping up HSM and likely to close on Delcam in the new year. The focus right now is on subtractive manufacturing (traditional CAM) but one can see additive technologies (3D printing) on the horizon. CAM 360 is a cloud-enabled version of HSM that enables users to create and simulate machine tool paths. Autodesk’s vision is to bring modern PLM (and all that implies for collaboration, data management and access) to machine shops that have typically invested heavily in machines but not necessarily in software. The idea is to, as VP Buzz Kross said, let designers “go from modeling to creating tool paths in 30 seconds”. The Delcam team was in the room but not much was said about how FeatureCAM, PowerMill and the other products would be integrated into the overall offering since the deal hasn’t closed yet. Going after CAM puts Autodesk in a new league, delivering design through to manufacturing; today Dassault Systemes, PTC and Siemens do this (and to varying degrees) but only for traditional manufacturing. Autodesk likely will deliver CAM-style workflows to its building and civil customers as well, helping to shift those industries from old-fashioned custom fabrication mindsets to a more modern production-oriented approach. That’s big since construction efficiency is a huge focus in those industries, and one where companies will invest modestly in IT solutions that can save serious money on the job site.
Finally, AU is so huge that I decided years ago that I need a focus for each event, or I would drown under the barrage of unrelated (but cool) presentations and experiences. This year, my focus was on what Autodesk is calling Reality Computing — taking reality capture technology to the next logical step, and using the point clouds created from laser scans, metrology devices and photogrammetry as the basis for future work.
I went to one session where we learned how to use the new Kinect to scan objects and import the resulting point cloud into AutoCAD. After another how-to session, I took a bunch of pictures with my iPhone camera and Autodesk’s 123D Catch app, uploaded them to Autodesk’s processing cloud and, in a few minutes, could manipulate the resulting capture of a chair in my hotel room. We very rarely start designs truly from scratch; usually, we’re modifying something that already exists. How quickly could we explore design iterations if we can just capture that chair, without needing a CAD model as a starting point?
We’re still at the very early stages of building out this technology. Currently, we capture surfaces. Devices that can scan through surfaces, like CT scanning in a medical application, can be used to create captures of the structures inside the body (bones, tendons, organs, etc.) for medical training, research and much more. What if we can scan through walls to see the building systems behind them, or through road surfaced to find buried electrical and gas lines? Through a housing to see the components inside?
Once we’ve got data, we need to do something with it — to postprocess it. Autodesk’s ReCap can register (align) scans and the company’s photogrammetry technology can figure out how to knit together images to create captures with much less work. This enables preservationists to, for example, crowd-source a digital recreation of objects that are gone, like the famous Buddhas destroyed by the Taliban. (I think Carl Bass showed this off last year, too. Google it — so cool.) The implications here are huge, with use cases ranging from more quickly identifying evil-doers from bystanders’ cellphone images to stitching together images of a broken widget for 3D printing at Staples. Our world is changing. Fast.
Users may dream about these emerging technologies but showed off their current projects. In one session, a team explained how NASA scans its buildings and other assets to keep track of what’s where; in another, we learned how to scan a refinery (and scope/plan the project). I couldn’t get to as many of these presentations as I wanted to, but the applications ran the gamut from infrastructure to education to entertainment. Right now, Autodesk is leading its customers with Reality Computing, but users are going to quickly catch up and point the company at new use cases. You could hear the wheels turning as people thought through what they could do with the next version of ReCap, 123D and Labs technologies.
Bottom line? Autodesk gets it customers, and the customers (mostly) get Autodesk. Some still think of the company as “the people who do computer drawings” (and it does) but most become aware at AU of the huge portfolio Autodesk offers. Somehow, it works.
Check out the recordings available here: http://au.autodesk.com/au-online.
Note: Autodesk graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation at the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The image is from an Autodesk Picasa account.