Earlier this week, Autodesk announced the release of the Autodesk Plant Design Suite, 3 flavors of integrated apps that support multidisciplinary plant design. You can go here for the details of what is in the standard, premium and ultimate suites packages or to Autodesk’s Plant Youtube channel for quick demos, but I find four things significant about this release:

1. Pricing. The MSRP (manufacturer’s suggested retail price, not necessarily the price set by any individual reseller) ranges from $6,000 for the basic, standard version to $13,000 for the ultimate package. One can (and should) ask questions about specific features that may be required for a particular job, but this is a great value for small to moderately sized projects.

2. Isometrics. Autodesk also introduced AutoCAD Isometrics, a way to quickly create 2D production documents to assist manufacturing of complex pipes. An iso is typically not drawn to scale, may break a long pipe into sections and shows valves and other elements using symbols (rather than a complete representation) but must have accurate dimensions and parts lists. The most commonly used iso package is ISOGEN from Hexagon Intergraph, which Autodesk had licensed with great fanfare in 2009. According to company spokesman Brett Smith, Autodesk decided to develop its own iso product because customers “wanted a more improved, modern isometric tool. We developed AutoCAD Isometrics so that we could continue to enhance it into the future… To provide compatibility between AutoCAD Isometrics and ISOGEN, we added PCF Compatibility.  Not only do we generate PCF files that can be read by ISOGEN to create an ISOGEN isometric, we can also read in ISOGEN Isometric PCF files and create the iso’s in AutoCAD Isometrics.” It will be interesting to see how AutoCAD Isometrics is received — the quick demo I saw showed a highly-featured offering but only user experience will tell how it stacks up to ISOGEN. From Autodesk’s perspective, not relying on a competitor’s product as a core part of the offering makes a great deal of sense.

3. Clash detection. Finding and resolving interferences before starting any sort of construction has long been cited as THE reason to opt for a 3D plant design tool. When Autodesk said during the webinar announcing the 2012 Plant Design Suite that this would be available only in the ultimate (most expensive) version, I asked Mr. Smith for an explanation. He said that customer research showed that “while almost all disciplines and designers benefit from design review, not every designer needed clash detection. The Ultimate version provides these capabilities.” It would appear that Autodesk chose to go this route to keep down the price of the standard and premium suites — but perhaps also to drive users to the ultimate package.

4. Integration. The biggest problem in plant design is that it still happens in silos and across many different applications. In the ultimate package, Autodesk has grouped together AutoCAD P&ID and AutoCAD Plant 3D for pipe and equipment layout; and drawing production; AutoCAD Structural Detailing and/or Revit Structure for structural detailing; Navisworks for design review and clash detection; Inventor for equipment and skids; and Showcase and SketchBook Designer to present and illustrate the design. The company says this grouping (and those in the standard and premium packages) will simplify project installation, deployment and management since all tools come from one supplier. To be determined, from my perspective, is how easily data is moved between the products in the suite — during the demo I saw, it appeared seamless, but that’s a demo. If you’re trying out the new Plant suites, let me know: Are the products well integrated? Does the suite simplify your workflow? Was the learning curve reduced?

The bottom line: Autodesk’s Plant Design Suite offers significant value as well as the simplicity of dealing with one supplier for compatible tools in a single purchase. In an environment where engineering firms use dozens to hundreds of tools, that can be a significant savings in itself. But it comes down to functionality. I’ll be really interested to see how AutoCAD Isometrics stacks up to ISOGEN and how the suites sell: will more people opt for the ultimate flavor because it includes clash detection?

One thing is certain: Autodesk’s pricing (along with Bentley Systems’) is putting pressure on Intergraph and AVEVA to prove that their price tags are worth it. If one can get from place to place in a Honda, does one need a Maserati? And if a single answer doesn’t cover all projects, when is that Maserati the right choice?