A couple of weeks ago, Autodesk formally released Fusion 360, the not-at-all secret CAD product the company has worked on for the last couple of years. If you remember, the company showed off a pre-Beta version of the product at a Design Slam contest at AU about 6 months ago and invited Beta users to give it a go earlier this year. It was impressive in November, got better through the Beta — but what was it like at release?

Fusion 360 has a lot of implications for the CAD/PLM world as a whole, and I wanted to write about it only after I had a chance to play with it a bit. Autodesk has the opportunity to affect what users expect when they work with a CAD product, how Web-y design could or should be, how small design teams look at collaboration (and whether Vaulting is really necessary), and how playing with pricing can drive adoption. It all warrants a closer look.

It’s a long time since I actively used any CAD program — my last true expertise was in Computervision’s CADDS 5 (What, you say: More than a decade ago? Yup, but I could make that stuff sing.), so I started the Fusion 360 journey with a strong sense of curiosity and more than a little trepidation. I was expecting a fun, light, intuitive user experience; would it be? Autodesk promised users a free 90-day trial — what would I have to do to get that? And, the big question: what happens if I disconnect from the Internet?

It was incredibly easy to get started. I went to the main page for Fusion 360, clicked on “Try it now! It’s free!” and, without giving any information at all, a 9 MB file downloaded (I’m on Mac OS; YMMV). I launched the download, which installed a 26MB file locally and started up the Fusion 360 app. After a very short wait to load mysterious stuff, I was off and running.

Image courtesy Autodesk

A couple of comments: Who actually clicks on “Try it — it’s free” links? Most people who’ve been around the Internet for any length of time know that links like that lead to malware, phishing and all sorts of other bad things. But Autodesk is a trusted vendor and I typed in the URL for the site, so click I did. Autodesk: I’d suggest changing the wording. It’s what you mean and it’s true, but it doesn’t look good.

That 26MB file’s not too bad, but this clearly isn’t “CAD in the cloud” or “CAD in a browser”. Companies that don’t let their employees save downloads will have a problem with that install, but it seems perfectly reasonable to me.

Fusion 360 launches with a help/getting started pane that describes the home screen (where your stuff goes, how you can collaborate) and points out a couple of tutorials. The James Bond cocktail shaker from the Design Slam, a landing gear, a trailer hitch and other models can get you started. If you want a more structured approach, you can launch a video quick-start guide in your browser.

I was able to get going very quickly and thought the user interface was well-thought out and productive. You can work in Sculpt (aka conceptual design), Model and Patch (repairing imported models) modes, a combination of solid and surface direct modeling plus t-splines conceptual modeling. You move between mouse clicks and menus. I was able to quickly create a swept surface, push and pull it into a more complex shape, add in handles … I didn’t have time to play with simulation, but I want to try that next. Everything is version controlled, so I was easily able to back up to a prior rev — no checking anything in and out.

It was fun and creative — and completely painless to learn. Is it ready for the most demanding CAD jobs out there? Mega assemblies? Perhaps not yet, but it’s an intuitive way of interacting and doing the CAD task.

There’s a lot of back-and-forth between the Fusion app running locally and its mother ship (presumably Autodesk’s Amazon-based hosting). Want to preview one of the tutorial parts? In the browser. Want to get at Help? Check for a new version of a part/assembly? See what a team-member has said about a design? Not surprising: Fusion 360 need to be connected back to home base.

To see what happens when you’re in the middle of a design and loose your Internet connection (or are working disconnected, on purpose), I cut WiFi every so often during my session. The bad news: there’s no offline mode, so you can’t save work unless connected. The slightly-mitigating-news: I didn’t lose anything so long as I kept Fusion open until WiFi was back. There also seemed to be some level of caching going on, since edits weren’t completely lost (though comments were) when I purposefully closed Fusion without saving online.

Fusion 360 is CAD, but a major component is its collaborative environment. A lot of its features involve interacting with others: importing/exporting models, collaborating on versions of a particular design, assigning tasks, scheduling design reviews, uploading videos or images of concepts. I’m sure Autodesk has heard about the need for caching in case of disaster, but it’s an open question whether Fusion should work when completely disconnected; the collaboration and social aspects need a level of connectedness that more traditional work methods don’t.

(I had also been asked about how the Fusions 360’s near-constant “checking with home base” affected overall Internet access performance; I didn’t notice anything slowing down.)

Fusion 360 is free for now, and will cost $25 per user per month (with an annual contract*) starting in September. Autodesk put a stake in the ground by setting the price at $25 per user/month — I’m not aware of any other browser/cloud-y CAD tool that’s got a price tag attached to it today. Other vendors are, I’m sure, paying close attention to Fusion 360 uptake and will try to set their prices to match/beat/value-up based on Autodesk’s lead. Being the first is always a risk: if you get it wrong, you could leave a lot of potential revenue in your customers’ pockets. Get it right, however, and you control the market — at least until someone else figures out a twist that changes the game once again. Right now, Autodesk controls both the pricing and user expectation of value for money — an enviable position to be in.

One thing to understand about Fusion 360 is that the models/comments/wikis are stored with Autodesk. I don’t see this as a security issue, though others do. Between them, Autodesk and its cloud partners have more IT security smarts than any design/manufacturing firm is likely to ever see. Fusion’s cloud storage has so many advantages that people should soon get over their jitters: Your team can work on designs from anywhere in the world, as long as you have Internet access. Your team can, in theory, include as many people as you need, and members can be on as many projects as they need. They can use a Windows box or Mac OS. Access is tied to a login, not any particular machine. That’s an incredibly flexible way to work.

Fusion 360 isn’t Inventor running in the cloud. It’s a completely new product that creates real design data as part of the innovation process. It’s not a toy, demo, concept or vapor-wear. It’s also not perfect, yet, but what product in the PLMish universe is? I’ll keep on messing about with it and want to hear what you’re seeing — have you tried it? What did you think?

*$25 per user/month is based on an annual subscription. Autodesk says it will also have monthly and quarterly subscriptions when it becomes possible to buy Fusion 360 in August.