Autodesk’s Manufacturing group, headed by Buzz Kross, hosted an industry analyst day in
Lake Oswego, Oregon this week. Kross and his staff presented Autodesk’s “democratizing”
vision for the manufacturing space, tying together industrial design, engineering, detailed
design, analysis and manufacturing in a single unified vision under the heading of “Digital
Prototyping.” It makes sense: Autodesk has so many technologies in its portfolio that
judicious combining and packaging will enable the typical manufacturing company to
streamline product innovation.

A lot of what was presented at the event is under NDA until the company formally announces
“stuff”. Since I think teasing is mean, here are a couple of observations about what Autodesk
has said publicly and reinforced at the event:

– My interest in CAE had caused me to be concerned about Autodesk’s integration of
high-end Moldflow and 3G products into a toolset aimed at the mid-market. While I have
more to learn about Autodesk’s plans for these acquisitions, it does appear that Inventor
Professional will grow to encompass subsets of the overall functionality of each. Not a
dumbing-down, but a selective cherry-picking of the advanced capabilities for a user base
with minimal skill or training in these types of products.

– Autodesk is very sensitive to setting prices that maintain a product’s perceived worth while
making it affordable even for those just “getting their feet wet”, topping out at somewhere
around $10,000 per user. Note the “per user” – it’s important. I believe that Autodesk (at least
in Manufacturing) sees its potential as unlimited at that price level, perhaps because that’s
within the signature authority of most departmental managers. So rather than looking at
pricing on a per product basis, the focus seems to be to price on a user’s “role”: what does it
take for an industrial designer to do his job? How can we (Autodesk) bring that to her for
around $10,000? What may have started as several disparate acquired and home-grown
products is integrated, cherry-picked and transformed into a useful toolset at a great price
point. There will always be “expert” tools at a significantly higher price, but that’s OK – it’s a
different type of user.

– Autodesk is incorrectly perceived as selling only to small and midsized companies. While
that accounts for the majority of revenue, the company does boast some very impressive
global accounts in its customer base. I think it’s often true that the PLM biggies fight to
announce a win at a Fortune 500 company in a press release, but it’s likely that an Autodesk
product is already in use there. Autodesk hasn’t made a big deal about this in the past, but
its expanding product set and increased integration with products like Windchill and
Teamcenter will continue to bring this to the fore.

– The word “democratizing” makes me crazy. It politicizes the use of technology, which I
believe is inappropriate in a commercial setting. China is a huge IT market, yet no one can
claim that technology is in any way democratizing it. Anyhow, Autodesk uses the term to
mean “bringing sophisticated tools to a much broader market” through its pricing, packaging,
channel reach and VAR strategies. That’s good – I just wish they used a different word.

– Is “Digital Prototyping” another term for PLM? I don’t believe it is. PLM, as I understand it, is
still a very complicated technology designed to capture and guide a company’s product
innovation process from early design to product retirement. After all, one still can’t swap out
one PLM system for another with any degree of ease. Autodesk’s “Digital Prototyping”
seems to be more about data creation and flow than data control. One thing that I don’t think
"Digital Prototyping" is. is a buzzterm, created purely for market hype. Autodesk truly sees
benefit in the creation of digital models of all sorts throughout the design process, created in
a way that is intuitive to most users, without a great deal of overhead. But I’ll be at Autodesk
University in early December, and we’ll see what users think.

– One problem I do see for the “Digital Prototyping” definition as promoted by Autodesk is
that the term was used to define and broaden the older CAE moniker. CAE used to mean
finite element analysis, but we needed a new term that also includes motion analysis, fluid
flows,electromagnetics and other, newer forms of analysis. Hence, “digital prototyping”.
Autodesk’s definition includes that but so much more. The old, narrow definition could cause
problems in accounts that already do CAE but think they do digital prototyping.

– Autodesk usually reports that about 20-30% of sales each quarter are of 3D products.
Assume for a moment that this holds true for Manufacturing, and that the people who buy
bundled 2D and 3D are using 3D. That still leaves 70% of users who don’t work in 3D and
therefore can’t partake of the Digital Prototyping vision. So, clearly, one benefit of this
strategy is to make 3D use so attractive, and the benefits so great, that these users will be
dragged forward. Another is that the 3D technology is more likely to appeal to younger
workers who grew up with digital gaming. But I can’t help wonder if the 2D users who like 2D
and feel it is sufficient for their needs won’t feel disenfranchised.

Readers of this blog seem to like the asides I include in these write-ups about the “feel” of an
event. So: this one can best be described as having serious laid-back energy. The event was
held on the 5th floor of the Autodesk Manufacturing headquarters in Lake Oswego, Oregon,
in the customer demonstration area (“There’s a sea of cubicles downstairs where the
programmers are – you can look if you want to,” said Buzz Kross at the opening reception. I
don’t think anyone took him up on it.). Gorgeous, glitzy setting, with giant monitors,
interactive displays, products designed using Inventor … the works. The Autodesk team was
firmly on-message, but accepted and welcomed challenges from the analysts in attendance.
The energy surrounding the event was electric – the employees were passionate, their
message was well-articulated and thought-out.

Some software companies’ employees all use similar words to describe their company’s
vision, almost like a memorized script of talking points. Not here. The “message” was
articulated in many ways as individual Autodesk employees used their own words to convey
their thoughts.

I was impressed, but the real test is with users – and I’ll ask them in two weeks at AU.