AU 2015 – something for everyone, even Star Wars fans

Dec 10, 2015 | Hot Topics

By any measure, Autodesk University is big. 800+ sessions. 10,000 attendees in Las Vegas and a lot more watching the web-streamed sessions from home, during and after the event. The Venetian and Palazzo complex filled to overflowing with design techies of all sorts, from small to multi-national companies, in AEC, manufacturing and research and education. We all come to hear both what Autodesk is doing now, with current products, and where it sees the PLMish world moving —and AU 2015 certainly delivered. More on that in a second, but I also think something was missing this year: a middle. I’ve been to maybe 15 AUs, and each has moved a bit further from its roots as a true user conference, with sessions by and for CAD jockeys. Those classes and certification sessions do still happen but are now overshadowed by a lot of visionary, though-leadership content that’s intended to inspire. Making the world a better place is a worthy goal, whether by removing the stigma of “handicapped” or using civil infrastructure to connect people and many in the audience at these talks are touched by the passion and commitment of the speakers. But, bottom line, people attend an event like AU to be better users of Autodesk technology, today and tomorrow, and get a sense of the direction of key products so that provider and user wind up in more or less the same place at the same time. To me, a lot of that near-term content was missing this year.

Autodesk’s keynotes were very much future-oriented, with generative design and internet-y topics taking center stage this year, while additive manufacturing wasn’t featured nearly as heavily as last year. It was almost assumed to be a given, that the Ember printer and Spark platform are out in the world, being used and expanded upon. CEO Carl Bass told us that Autodesk, the software company, finds itself in the same place as a lot of hardware startups: big orders for product with not much fulfillment capability. The difference: Autodesk see this as a wonderful problem to solve, since it has the resources to quickly scale up production; true hardware startups don’t typically have that kind of backstop.

Generative design, where math-based methods are used to create biological or other concept-based design alternatives, was again a featured topic. Autodesk acquired The Living a couple of years ago, a design studio that specializes in biological designs and construction material. Together with Airbus’ APWORKS, The Living designed a prototype bionic partition that was intended to prove that it is possible to lightweight using biomimicry, define a design space and select the best alternative from hundreds of options and then manufacture the resulting design using advanced materials and 3D printing. The result:

David Benjamin and Bastian Schaefer_Bionic Partition

We’re a couple of years away from being able to produce this partition quickly enough and in needed quantities for real production, but this was an important step to prove out the quantities.

Before AU began, I listed things I wanted to learn. Here’s my post-game wrap-up of what I discovered:

  1. Autodesk’s Q3 report showed that the number of added subscribers was lower than expected. Why might that be? Are users thinking about subscriptions? If they are, do they see this as good/bad/other? How are Autodesk and its channel partners explaining subs to users?

The customers I spoke with are happy/resigned/confused — pretty much what I expected from a cross-section of attendees, all of whom are current users. Happy or excited tended to be the vibe from those who do project work, and like ramping up and down their number of licenses. They also seemed to want to sell their services as masters of the latest technologies, such as the 360 products that are available only on subscriptions. Resigned customers seemed to be those who have large installations of products currently under maintenance —remember that maintenance customers keep going exactly as they are as long as they keep paying; nothing changes— and were kicking tires at AU to see what other products to buy before the perpetual/maintenance licensing goes away.

A few people are still confused about this whole changeover. Some were hearing about it for the first time at AU and needed to figure out what it means for their businesses. I had the opportunity to talk about the subs transition with Autodesk’s Jeff Wright, VP, Customer Retention and Engagement. Mr. Wright understands that this may be a tough change for some long-time users and acknowledges that some may use Autodesk products more sparingly than before, but believes that the benefits will ultimately win most over. He told me about one company, AutoCAD LT users for more than 10 years, who probably won’t be replacing all of their (very) old LT seats with newer subscriptions. They’re sporadic users, have a relatively unsophisticated use case, and don’t have a budget to replace the maintenance payment for all of their seats with subscription payments. And that’s OK with Mr. Wright. Every customer has to evaluate what they need and how they plan to use it; Autodesk may not be the right answer in all cases.

My favorite licensing mode is to offer customers the choice: perpetuals for a steady-use base and subscriptions for peak loads or sporadically-used software. Mr. Wright feels that Autodesk’s switch (which he likened to “ripping off the bandaid”) is necessary because of the sheer number of products and sales partners. A hybrid or piecemeal approach would be even more confusing, and would only drag out a transition Autodesk believes it must make in order to remain a viable and innovative company. His team is working hard to understand what customers need to know, how to best reach them, and how to make this transition as painless as possible, but there’s no doubtL it is coming.

  1. Cloud cloud cloud. My questions, it turns out, weren’t the right ones, even though cloud remains a huge big deal. The cloud questions around security, connectedness and CPU capacity that we heard about at prior AUs (for example, when the Suites with cloud units were first introduced, to get people to use CAE in the cloud) didn’t come up in any session I attended. The benefits of compute-in-the-cloud-and-view-anywhere seem to be understood; the questions now are more around budgets and anticipating costs. If an IT department buys hardware and makes it available to CAE users, it’s a known cost and capacity. If engineers continually kick simulations into the cloud, who manages that cost? How is it controlled? What budget does it come out of? These are all solvable but indicate that we’ve shifted beyond “If” to “How”.

There is still a bit of confusion about Fusion 360 versus Inventor, but Autodesk pitches the products as fundamentally different, with the cloud enabling those differences. Inventor is still the heavy-duty mechanical design solution, with hooks into serious CAE, CAM and PLM. Fusion, on the other hand, is a platform for mechanical design that brings these capabilities into one user experience..

  1. Autodesk’s sessions for the media and analysts tend to be very of-the-moment. They rarely revisit last year’s big topics or themes, and hardly ever reach back further. So I was on a bit of a quest to find out what’s happened to recent acquisitions and hot buttons, like Ember. As I noted above, Ember is doing well, said Mr. Bass, and the Spark platform is seeing a lot of action — all is going as expected, said CTO Jeff Kowalski. I also caught up with Carl White and Peter Dickin about Delcam, and the news is good. Delcam’s R&D is on track, an outlier businesses (dental CAD/CAM) was sold, and Delcam’s R&D is working more concertedly with Autodesk’s other R&D units on additive/subtractive manufacturing combos. I’m still tracking down more on old news, and will update as I can.

  2. What’s Autodesk doing about being seen as “the AutoCAD company“? This continues to be a thing, and amazes me every year. Planeloads of people heading to Las Vegas the week after Thanksgiving don’t tend to be gamblers or vacationers; they’re conference attendees just like me. This year I sat next to a techie who was heading to Vegas for an event on Internet security; he had heard of Autodesk, but assumed the primary product was AutoCAD. I spoke with a couple of journalists and investors about Autodesk’s new Forge initiative; they also still think of Autodesk as AutoCAD. Autodesk is fighting hard against this perception, but it’s an uphill battle since AutoCAD is still the most widely used product in its portfolio and the naming similarity naturally leads people there.

Forge is Autodesk’s next evolution of its developer networks, this one targeted at partners who want to piggy-back their applications on top of Autodesk’s A 360/Fusion 360/PLM 360/etc. offering. The idea is that companies that want to use some component of Fusion 360 design, for example to create a quoting app to connect contract manufacturers, can use the platform’s APIs to do so. Forge includes the platform, developer tools and conferences and a $100 million investment fund for companies that might need a little assistance in bringing their idea to reality.

There were a bunch of announcements made at AU 2015 and I urge you to take a look here since I can’t cover them all. One I do want to touch on is the unveiling of BIM 360 Docs (fka Project Alexandria) — Autodesk’s cloud-based service for sharing documents/plans/models for the construction industry. I’ve written before about inefficiencies in construction and how forward-looking EPCs are working to move information out to the job site — BIM 360 Docs is a virtual workspace for real-time collaborative access to project files on any device, which is key for the tasks that have to take place outside the office.

Not to be left out: The Internet of Things (IoT) and what Autodesk intends to do with its recent SeeControl acquisition, was everywhere. The falling price of sensors, and re-imagining how these disposable sensors could be retro-fitted onto existing devices, opens up whole new areas of IoT enablement — which, in turn, massively explodes the amount of data that must be managed and processed. How to design products in an IoT age, and how to manage the business opportunities that arise from the data, are just beginning to be discovered. Check out some of the AU 2015 content here — more is being added every day.

IoT. Cloud. Subs. AEC. MFG. AR/VR (Augmented snd Virtual Reality). 3D printing. Buzzwords aplenty. Bottom line: AU 2015 had something for everyone: menu-pick classes, certification exams, visionary presentations. Autodesk is starting to talk about the experiences it hopes to help its customers create for their customers (yes, a bit like Dassault Systemes’ 3D Experience messaging) –how a car door sounds when it closes, what it feels like to walk through a building, how a mechanic can find and deal with a dent on your car– by combining current and emerging technologies. It was a balancing act of current and future that, overall, worked well.

One last, totally OT thing: Autodesk has a sense of humor. The Star Wars Storm Troopers escorted Technology Evangelist Lynn Allen into the first keynote session, marched into the media room at one point and generally stomped around the venue. They were a fun addition and, quite honestly, intimidating — they clank, have no face and are big. But it appears they drink.


Note: Autodesk graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in the event but did not in any way influence the content of this post. The title image is of CTO Jeff Kowalski and the Airbus partition — cool, no? — while the robot bar tenders and Storm Troopers provided comedic relief. Both images are courtesy of Autodesk.

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