Autodesk’s Forge DevCon opens a world of possibility

Jun 28, 2016 | Hot Topics

Have you ever been to a DevCon? I hadn’t been to one until a few weeks ago, when I was lucky enough to attend Autodesk’s Forge DevCon in San Francisco. It’s very, very cool. Hacker meets maker, lots of laptops and not a suit in sight.

A dev con is a developer conference, usually around a given topic, platform or technology. In this case, it was to celebrate the community that’s building around Autodesk’s Forge platform and help interested players get started on offerings that will have, at their core, Forge. There was a lot of technobabble about APIs, SDKs and code snippets but also a lot of content aimed at helping these developers with their business models. Is your app better priced as a subscription, with no volume restrictions, or by the drawing/model/upload or something else? To help you understand why this matters, it makes sense to explain Forge.

Forge is Autodesk’s next-generation platform, announced at last year’s Autodesk University along with a $100 million fund to encourage outside developers to get busy. Forge is the underpinning for the company’s own 360 line of products; by opening it up to partners, Autodesk wants to grow its ecosystem to include a lot of apps that will make Forge a central go-to for engineering and design data and users. Forge uses a Platform as a Service (PaaS) model, where Autodesk builds tools that enable partners to create apps and services that Autodesk might not want to or be able to create on its own. The vision is to add new businesses to its partner ecosystem and, with them, create new ways of doing design, manufacturing and operations. Many of these partners are new to Autodesk and new to the world of design and engineering; these developers bring a new perspective to traditional processes that may not now be well connected. (Autodesk’s Forge website is here, for more details on the platform and how to join the partner program.)

That sounds kind of dry and doesn’t at all represent the energy at DevCon. Picture a big, open space that’s been subdivided into smaller areas by hanging curtains. Big tables and chairs everywhere, with lots and lots of people on laptops showing off their code, asking questions, trying to connect with one another and with their customers’ (or prospects’) work processes. Exhibitors showed off 3D printing, AR/VR goggles, GPS, drones, and other current tech trends. It was a combo of coder/hacker and designer/maker that embodies the collaborative environment Autodesk is trying to encourage in its customers.

The third-party developers I spoke with were all looking for business opportunities to write code that gives them access to Autodesk’s huge customer base. At the most traditional level, one partner is exploring how to automate making Revit drawings that are compatible with varying international standards. Not something one necessarily needs the cloud for, but perhaps easier with Forge’s APIs and SDKs. Also a good way for a new Autodesk partner to get to know the company and how to work with it.

More ambitiously, people I spoke with were looking for ways to add new technology and data types into traditional workflows. Virtual and augmented reality for building inspections, for example (is that light switch where it should be?), could revolutionize a lot of the construction trades. Laser scan or photogrammetry data (with all of the heavy processing done in the cloud) integrated into a building or civil model could make community discussions significantly easier for controversial projects. Capturing and managing sensor data for IoT-enabled machinery could help turn a lot of traditional enterprises into service organizations. Theoretically, the potential of the platform is limited only by the imagination of the app developers to see points of connection that they can profitably exploit — that’s what created all the buzz.

A lot of the sessions were informal, aimed at helping developers understand what a given API does, via discussions of sample code. Not really my thing any more, but completely riveting for the developers — and, as I understand it, typical of devcons. Autodesk had dozens of people on hand to help, answer questions and steer developers towards the appropriate resources. Autodesk also hosts Accelerators, local events designed to get developers up to speed quickly and connected to one another, where I’m sure a lot of these discussions will continue.

One of the things we all have to remember is that Forge is a work in progress, and that’s sometimes frustrating to third party developers who have little control over its direction. Just before DevCon, Autodesk updated the platform with new APIs — a good thing, in that the new Data Management API, which gives access to Autodesk 360 and Fusion 360, makes it easier to get at design data. But Autodesk is also changing APIs, which can be more problematic, in that current users of the View & Data API have to rename stuff to Forge Viewer, and AutoCAD I/O is was rebadged as Design Automation API. But these are growing pains and no one seemed too chuffed about them at this point. That will change once there’s a significant ecosystem in place.

Autodesk chose DevCon to announce the first three companies that are funded as part of the $100 million Forge Fund. Amounts and terms weren’t announced. First to be funded are 3DR, maker of a quadcopter drone; MakeTime, which connects people who want to make with machines that are idle (or have time); and Seebo, which makes a platform that helps creators transform unconnected objects into IoT “smart” products. All three companies have bet on Forge as a core piece of their offering. Not sure if this is cautionary or not, but all had raised significant money before the Autodesk Forge investment (over $10 million for the latter two; over $100 million for 3DR).

The success of this or any platform comes down to economics, and that came up often for the app developers I spoke with. Pricing for Forge seems to vary from free for developers interested in exploring the platform to $400 per month and up for those releasing products. There also appear to be price points based on the number of APIs accessed per month, which would make sense in a PaaS world. Several prospective partners pointed out that the pricing shown at DevCon would be an economic disincentive for their particular app concept, and Autodesk listened. It seems as though pricing is still under discussion.

Forge DevCon was a great first step to building a community around Forge, and encouraging outside developers to think big. About the technologies that have gotten us to this point and emerging tools that can leapfrog us into the 22nd century. About changing workflows to take advantage of those tools, something possible only for people who haven’t been overexposed to “the way things have always been” and can be creative about how things could be, now. Drones, VR, IoT, 3D printing, APIs, SDKs, snippets — all the cool kids were there, ready to go.

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 of Autodesk’s Thiago da Costa on stage at DevCon; image is courtesy of Autodesk.