Autodesk DynamoHave you ever sat though a 4+ hour meeting? You get kinda dozey, right? That happened to me a few weeks ago as I was listening to Autodesk’s investor day presentations. It was long, there were interesting bits, but …. Then SVP Amar Hanspal showed a little video of Autodesk’s Dynamo product and my jaw dropped. The video (which I think was similar to this YouTube video) showed a designer manipulate a widget slider that changed the curvature of the roof of a sports stadium. The whole design changed in response to a little slide. Mr. Hanspal didn’t really talk about it so I asked Autodesk for a demo and, I’ve got to say, it’s seriously cool stuff.

Dynamo is a visual programming interface that currently sits on top of Revit (Autodesk’s BIM) and Vasari (Autodesk’s building concept modeling) solutions — but, as Autodesk’s Zach Kron showed, it could relatively easily be extended to many other domains. At its simplest, Dynamo lets users create computation-driven workflows to automate some of their modeling tasks.

Matt Jezyk, Product Line Manager for Conceptual Design Products, says that Dynamo lets users create easy-to-use ways of manipulating key aspects of their designs by building workflows of connected computational nodes. Users create relationships between nodes that may be variable-driven (“put a beam every x feet”) and specific to the project, to the type of construction or to extract data for a cost or energy analysis. Since it’s a tool, it’s up to the imagination of the designer to determine what inputs make sense in a context to drive the desired outputs.

In the sports stadium case, for example, the designer might manipulate the roof curvature to examine sunlight and shade, add and subtract rows of seats, adjust the angle of the seating bowl, and any number of other factors to look at and perfect the design.

It’s also possible that these workflows will serve to standardize processes across project participants — there are so many potential use cases that it’s hard to even start a list. Too, Autodesk sees users exchanging workflows to automate common tasks (or show off specialist knowledge).

I asked if scripting like this was part of a normal designer’s tool kit or if Autodesk was aiming for a new demographic; Mr. Jezyk said that many younger designers think in terms of workflows and are comfortable with the relatively small level of programming (really, diagramming) that this type of interface requires — and that the benefits outweigh any additional skill development required. For some kinds of processes, it might actually be easier to script using Python or Autodesk’s DesignScript language; Dynamo supports both of these, too.

Mr. Kron pointed me to a user’s blog to highlight how Dynamo can be used in many different ways. Here, Daniel Gijsbers uses an Excel spreadsheet to work out the design of a bridge. It’s worth a look, both for the bridge and for some customer experience commentary about BIM, Dynamo and the world in general. I’ll be at Autodesk University next month and plan to look for more user experiences.

One important point: Dynamo works in Revit and Vasari right now, so all results are native Revit files. When a design leaves the conceptual stage, anything created can be promoted forward to the detail design process.

BTW, Autodesk isn’t the only vendor exploring this type of workflow. Bentley’s Generative Components and Rhino’s Grasshopper also play in generative design. [If you know of others, please leave a comment. — Ed.]

What fascinates me about generative design is that, in some ways, it harkens back to the old days of trying to automate the design process. Remember when we were all panicking because we were going to be replaced by artificial intelligences that would follow rules and do our jobs better than we (inconsistent humans) could? That didn’t work because the rules were usually too complex. These generative design solutions apply rules that foster imagination, help create unique and interesting design alternatives for humans to make decisions about — based on analyses that theses structures are safe, efficient, economical and buildable.

It’s exciting technology but a very new approach. Talk back: is generative design something you use? Could use? Is it in your skill set to try to design something from an Excel file, as Mr. Gijsberg did? Would you use this type of process to automate your job, even if it is created by an outside party?

Image courtesy of Autodesk.