At AU 2019, AEC continued to rule

Jan 9, 2020 | Hot Topics

Did I go to AU in 2019? Why, yes, I did. But I had the flu so only participated in a fraction of what was going on and only now have the time to share what I learned. 13,000 people, 13,000 stories and I only got a tiny bit, sigh. Since I had to narrow down, I focused on AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) — which makes sense since that’s where Autodesk’s 2019 acquisitions took place.

Here, in no particular order, are my key discoveries:

  • The theme for the event was “Better Starts Here”. Not an awesome tagline — I want to be more than better. I want to be awesome — but “better” is a goal that’s more readily achievable, especially for a business with a lot of intractable parts. It’s also a good tagline for users looking to up-skill or achieve a certification, something very important to their career paths. So Better it was.
  • CEO Andrew Anagnost used his keynote to home in on what he sees as “better”: reducing waste by building modularly and perhaps off the construction site. Digitally, better might mean applying that modular approach to creating libraries of proven design elements that are combined in new and intriguing ways. For Autodesk, better clearly means moving beyond the transition to subscriptions and on to improving the portfolio.
  • Also during the keynote, we got an entirely different look at “better”. Elizabeth Hausler, founder of BuildChange, explained that many people worldwide live in substandard housing in areas that are at risk of mudslides and earthquakes. Event, disaster, displacement or harm. Not a good outcome. Some suggest relocating those residents; others believe that the best approach is to leave people in their communities and update the structures to have greater resilience. Enter BuildChange. Using Revit and Autodesk Dynamo Studio, BuildChange can create a modified design in a few hours, down from a few weeks, and work with the family to ensure that it meets their needs (not those of a well-meaning foreigner) while improving safety. It’s an awesome use of technology to make things “better”. I’m thinking we might even be verging on “awesome” here …
  • Before the main AU kicked off, the company ran a couple of pre-events, including the Connect & Construct Summit that I attended. During the pre-con, we heard from designers, engineers, constructors and others about how they use Autodesk’s AEC portfolio, and from Autodesk about the Assemble, BuildingConnected and PlanGrid acquisitions and how they are being integrated with BIM 360.
  • One C&C panel session was particularly fascinating. Four executives (one owner, one prime contractor and two trade contractors) spoke about how they typically work and the tools they use. The main lesson: everyone wants to work smarter, which requires technology and process change. But not tech for its own sake; it has to prove business benefit. What benefit? Safer work conditions, for sure. More efficient, definitely — and that’s interesting in a world where many job functions are billed by the hour. One would think fewer hours equal less revenue, which is not desirable. That might be true in some cases, but labor shortages change those economics right now.
  • Surprising, the owner and at least one of the primes welcome apps that project teams find useful and uses the teams as a way of keeping current with the thousands of apps on the market. Collaboration, back-office, chunking a BIM model for a particular trade — apps keep coming and can make a real difference to productivity. One contractor, however, urged caution: the 2103 Target data breach that exposed 40 million users’ data came about because hackers stole credentials from an HVAC contractor and used them to, well, hack. Be careful what you let onto your platform!
  • Everyone kept mentioning that shortage of skilled labor, both in the office and on the job site. Again, tech can help but the panel urged rethinking traditional processes and how people collaborate. The owner was clear: she was interested in anything that lets her complete projects accurately, on time and on budget, and is willing to work with contractors to make that happen. It was a terrific panel and the openness of all of the participants was very encouraging.
  • I also attended sessions on each of the acquired AEC products (Assemble, BuildingConnected and PlanGrid). It was clear that many attendees were new to one or more of the acquisitions. Said another way, there’s a lot of scope in Autodesk’s customer base for cross-selling. Some of the early integrations are truly impressive: PlanGrid can open Revit models — meaning that I can be on a job site, looking at my day’s tasks and work backwards to figure out when and who ordered those sinks to be moved so that one cannot now open the bathroom door. Attendees were agog.
  • Back, quickly, to the exec panel: Integration is good but they cautioned Autodesk to keep open the pathways that integrate competitor products into that family. Not all projects warrant all of Autodesk’s firepower and some teams prefer competitor products. Autodesk seemed to listen, though we’ll have to check back next year to see how it’s going.
  • Also at the C&C, Autodesk announced its Construction Cloud offering, which brings together the AEC portfolio to “connect headquarters, office, and field teams to increase collaboration and productivity.” I’ve found out since AU that Construction Cloud aims to combine technologies to deliver on three value propositions: simple to use but powerful tools specific to construction workflows; a Builders Network (the BuildingConnected acquisition) to connect owners and builders to trade partners; and Predictive Insights (now Construction IQ but ultimately more), which applies machine learning to project data. It’s early days for Construction Cloud so we’ll have to see how it plays out, but it heads in the right direction. AEC projects, more than most industries, happen in dispersed locations and with varying levels of IT skill. Targeted solutions will make it far easier for this industry to adopt.
  • I did make it to the Manufacturing Keynote, where Autodesk and ANSYS announced interoperability between Autodesk Fusion 360 and ANSYS Mechanical. A bit confusing, since Autodesk has spent so much on building out its own CAE capability, but a recognition of how much of a standard ANSYS Mechanical is in some industries.
  • Autodesk also announced that it is partnering with aPriori to integrate its costing solution with Fusion 360‘s generative design capabilities. Makes so much sense: there’s no point designing something you can’t economically make. Not unique, but very important.
  • Last and also on the Manufacturing side, Autodesk is finally integrating the technology behind Delcam PowerMILL (on the desktop) into Fusion 360. The users I was sitting with saw this as hugely important in their move to Fusion 360 — and hope that more Delcam functionality follows. Quickly.
  • Notice something in those last three bullets? Fusion 360, not Inventor. The Manufacturing keynote did cover enhancements to Inventor but the majority of new stuff is heading for Fusion. I talked to one Inventor user who feels like he’s missing out; he wants to move to Fusion 360 but there’s no way his IT department will allow (today) a browser based, connected app. I’m sure others agree …
  • While I was at the C&C pre-con, the ballroom next door hosted Forge DevCon, the event dedicated to Autodesk’s Forge platform ecosystem. A quick chat by the coffee station confirmed what I learned when I last attended DevCon: Forge is incredibly exciting for partners and customers who see themselves able to develop applications on top of Autodesk data and processes. Autodesk continues to tweak the platform, improving interoperability, for example, between Inventor and Revit. That’s important for the many cases where mechanical CAD and architectural BIM have to work together (think a highly stylized front desk in a hotel or the modular furniture in the hotel room). The folks I spoke to appreciate Autodesk’s efforts but wish it would all go a bit faster — a good sign that people are excited by the opportunity in front of them.

My AU in 2019 was a bit limited –I didn’t get to nearly as many sessions as I wanted and had only one quick lap around the massive show floor– but even so it’s clear that Autodesk wants to help customers create and leverage useful data. Not just drawings. In the past, I’d ride from the airport to the hotel with AutoCAD users who didn’t even know what else Autodesk offers; those days are probably gone. Whether it’s generative design, Construction IQ or something else, the quest now is to find that data nugget that will move a business in a new direction.

The title image is of BuildChange’s Dr. Hausler during the keynote.

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.