Autodesk Accelerate – so much more than PLM
“Sometimes you have to wear a shirt” isn’t a typical theme at a PLMish conference, but it perfectly describes the ethos of this year’s Autodesk Accelerate. Morphing from a PDM-centric conference four years ago to something straddling Fusion 360 and PLM today, the event captured what it means to be small and agile, or big and trying something new or, as Hugo Fiennes, CEO and co-founder of Electric Imp, described it: a place where engineers and geeks may actually have to wear a (collared) shirt.
We’ll get to Mr. Fiennes again in a moment but, first: Yes, Autodesk still offers PLM solutions to its manufacturing customers in the cloud via Fusion Lifecycle and on the desktop via Vault. That seems to be a given today. But the company is working hard to blur the lines between PLM, which is often seen as benefiting people downstream but onerous for daily users, and routine design work. It wants to put PLM in the background as an enabling, enhancing tool that’s disrupting creative work. So this year, there weren’t as many “here’s how we implemented this workspace” sessions as in the past. These were replaced by “here’s how technology, oh let’s call it PLM, enables our business to …” Presenters and attendees reported being able to innovate faster, collaborate more effectively, address quality and other flaws earlier and, basically, serve their customers better by smart implementation of technology.
Interesting, too, that many of the technologies discussed weren’t Autodesk’s. Few of today’s manufacturing companies are completely homogeneous, using one vendor’s suite in all applicable areas. Acquisitions and partnerships lead to a few seats of this, some of that, data shared by file transfers and sneaker net. many of the customer presenters at Accelerate spoke about this reality but sought to simplify by carrying out at least part of a project on Autodesk’s Fusion 360 platform. For those not up on this stuff, Fusion is Autodesk’s platform for the manufacturing world. It today offers cloud-based CAD, CAM, and CAE apps that share data from concept creation to detailed design to renderings and animations — and, ultimately, to driving CNC machines or 3D printers. It’s underpinned by a collaboration and control layer that manages versioning, facilitates design reviews and other view and markup-like capabilities. Fusion is still new, with new capabilities rapidly coming to the platform but customer users see it as the tool that will, in time, underpin most of their workflow.
Coming quickly is Fusion’s IoT layer, based on the SeeControl acquisition. Fusion Connect is Autodesk’s Internet of Things (IoT) Cloud Service that will connect, analyze, and manage remote products. And this is where we come back to Mr. Fiennes. He seems like a typical, T-shirt wearing kind of guy. More accomplished than many, with street cred that goes from early MP3 players for automotive applications (became the wonderful Rio that I still have kicking around somewhere) to leading the team responsible for hardware of the first four generations of the Apple iPhone, to creating hardware for the Nest Thermostat. All along, he saw that his hardware expertise enabled his software, firmware and experience design colleagues to work their magic — but not everyone has a Mr. Fiennes on call. That might not have been a big deal a few years ago, but the IoT’s connectedness and analytic ability to change businesses means that many are struggling to figure out how they, too, can get involved. Many businesses get stuck trying to build technology that isn’t in any way natural for them. Enter Mr. Fiennes’ latest venture, Electric Imp.
Electric Imp’s platform connects devices in the field with cloud computing resources. The “Imp” is a piece of hardware that acts as the gateway to connect a machine, thermostat, sensor or other physical device to the Internet. Imps can be actual boxes, complete with WiFi, or a chip that’s integrated right into the product being monitored. The imp runs impOS, which connects each physical device to a unique virtual device in the cloud — creating a 1:1 correspondence that’s (they say) secure and difficult to hack. There are other pieces to the Electric Imp solution, but here’s the point: By taking care of the infrastructure and connection, the user can focus on which sensors, what data, and how it can be interpreted and harnessed for their unique situation.
Autodesk comes back into the picture once the data is collected, with Fusion Connect analyzing, creating reports and enabling users to figure out their next steps. This could be generate real-world performance data to improve future designs and lead to opportunities to improve service levels — for example, as Prairie Machine & Parts Manufacturing is doing with its electric mining vehicles. They feel that real, IoT-collected data will enable them to more readily diagnose problems and give customers more accurate and concrete operating information. Others see IoT as an opportunity to create new revenue streams. Pitney Bowes, the people who make the stamp machines that live in nearly every mailroom I’ve ver been, in started out with IoT as a way to better maintain their machines but had an unanticipated added benefit: Because it was now easier to ship using Pitney Bowes’ metering, more mail started going through their machines, which meant they bought more postage – and sent more revenue to Pitney Bowes.
Because IoT is complex and can be intimidating, Autodesk and Electric Imp have created a cool starter kit that they’re calling the IoT Discovery Toolkit. The kit includes a temperature and humidity sensor, an Imp to connect to the cloud and access to Electric Imp and Autodesk Fusion Connect accounts to set it all up and start analyzing (well, visualizing in this simple example) the data. I’m hoping to get my hands on a kit to give it a go but the demo I saw created a quick, easy and no-coding mechanism to get started with firmware development, connectivity, data management, analytics and business applications. The companies hope that this simple kit will lead to a “what have we got to loose” trial that causes companies to think more deeply about their data needs and business opportunities and less about the underlying tech.
But it wasn’t all IoT. There were so many interesting PLM presentations and conversations but without the angst of prior Accelerates. Autodesk customers seem more comfortable with the (former) PLM 360 idea of finding a single problem to solve, implementing workspaces to address this issue, then moving on to the next — while continuing to evolve and improve existing implementations. Most of these centered on traditional PLM workhorses: CAD data management, document management and BOM management. There were actually very few presentations by Autodeskers or partners; it seemed almost as if the company is taking a breather, watching and listening to how customers are doing with the technology –and as new CEO Andrew Anagnost begins to put his stamp on things– before moving ahead.
One last note: I don’t know how Autodesk does it, but they always bring AWESOME customers to this event. The first day keynote speaker was from Advanced Oncotherapy, which is using photon beam technology developed at CERN to create more targeted cancer therapies. I thought CERN was all about the Big Bang and origins of the universe; I had no idea there were practical applications, too. Or Piaggio Fast Forward, which is applying the design aesthetic of the iconic Italian Vespa to a baggage carrying droid that follows people around — a little stalker-y but ultimately, so cool. Or Coca-Cola which now makes the Freestyle machine that lets individual buyers mix flavors at the soda counter — Sprite soda and sparkling water, please. It’s interesting and inspiring to hear so many unusual use cases; it’s good to move a bit orthogonally to the usual automotive/aerospace dynamic.
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 a photo I took of Ink Factory visual notes from a customer panel.