AU 2022: a joyous in-person extravaganza
Last month, Autodesk held its first Autodesk University (AU) in person since the whole COVID drama began. It was both a very familiar event and completely new. New: New Orleans instead of Las Vegas! Being handed a COVID test kit at registration! A NOLA brass band! Chatty (but still tightly scripted) keynotes! Familiar: way too many sessions, thousands of people, long lines for coffee, and a rocking DJ to kick off all of the keynotes. It was great to be back.
I’ve been trying in the weeks since the event to come up with a single narrative to make sense of it all — and, TBH, there’s too much, and I couldn’t do it. Here, some of the things I found most interesting at the event:
AU (and Autodesk itself) is a 3-parts-that-don’t-necessarily-make-a-whole story. The parts are AEC, manufacturing, and media and entertainment (M&E). The media business appeared on the AU playbill at the same level as manufacturing, but AEC is very much the star of the show. Former CEO Carl Bass was a maker and infused the company and event with his manufacturing slant. Current CEO Andrew Anagnost is an aeronautical engineer but not as focused on the maker economy. He seems to be following the money — which, right now, leads to AEC, construction, and building operations. That’s fine — unless you’re an Inventor customer who has to sit through a lot of keynote content that’s not relevant to you. And that’s the problem: not much ties together the three pieces of Autodesk these days, and it’s hard for manufacturing or M&E customers to buy into how much Autodesk spent on its construction acquisitions.
When manufacturing did come up, it was often about Fusion 360, Autodesk’s manufacturing platform of the future. The folks I sat with at that keynote wondered how long Inventor would be supported (there are no plans to sunset the product) and what would happen to them if they can’t/don’t transition to a cloud app — an excellent question and not just to Autodesk.
Fusion 360 seems to be doing very well. I chatted with Stephen Hooper, the boss of all things Fusion 360, who told me that he sees competitive displacements among SolidWorks + Mastercam users who prefer Fusion’s modern UI and usability, and its integrated CAM capability. I looked for but didn’t find any such users at AU — I didn’t speak with all 9,000 in-person attendees — but it would be interesting to understand more about the reasons for the switch.
Clouds. Platforms. Clouds. The success of Fusion 360 and the opportunity to reinvent many traditional products and processes has led Autodesk to announce similar offerings for its AEC and M&E clients: Forma for AEC and Flow for M&E will join Fusion for manufacturing, all underpinned by Autodesk Platform Services, APS, which (I think) is a rebranded Forge. Autodesk says it recognizes that there is some confusion around Fusion versus Inventor and pledges to learn from those lessons with the new platforms. A lot is still TBD, but it seems logical to expect the cloud, connectivity between in-house and third-party apps, and role-specific workflows to feature in Forma and Flow, as they do in Fusion. (Too many Fs for me …) My take? At this point, the 2 new Fs are more an internal Autodesk thing than customer offerings. The APS team is working on enabling technology which will be made specific by the AEC, manufacturing, and M&E teams. In time, this will turn into products.
Open letters drove the AEC conversation for some attendees. The backstory: last year, European Revit users wrote an open letter detailing how Autodesk was unresponsive to their Revit enhancement requests, used harsh business practices, and refused to interact with them about the path forward for the architecture products. Many of these letter writers built their businesses around Revit and need to know if/how/when Autodesk would address what they saw as glaring deficiencies. Just before AU 2022, another letter hit the Interwebs, restating many of the same points. The problem: Revit is 20 years old and needs serious re-plumbing to become more modern. Many users would like Autodesk to start from scratch or acquire a new building information modeling solution. And they need clarity on what, if anything, Forma will do to address their needs. Their perspective: is Autodesk investing in something we need or yet another thing we don’t want? And will Forma eventually replace Revit? (No one is saying that it will — and it would be years away if Forma does turn into a BIM solution.) In NOLA, I met some Revit power users who told me that they agreed with the functional points raised by the letter writers but that they see incremental improvement in Revit 2023 and that signals from the roadmap session give them hope that Autodesk is at least listening.
Generative design is going mainstream — and not just in manufacturing. In 2020, Autodesk acquired Spacemaker, which uses machine learning to help architects define criteria and generate design alternatives in the early stages of a project. It’s like physics-based topology optimization but broadened and applied to AEC design projects. It can use site data to optimize space utilization or analyze energy usage to create a more sustainable concept. One user I spoke with says this revolutionizes what he can do for clients and is, he believes, a competitive advantage because he can offer clients innovative options they might not otherwise have considered.
There were some big Inventor announcements, too. During the manufacturing keynote, EVP for manufacturing solutions Jeff Kinder said something like 200 new features are being rolled out to users this year, including integration with Revit and improved Vault features. He also noted that some functions in Inventor are 80% faster than they used to be, including drawing generation. The crowd around me loved it. Skeptical but very, very interested.
As I wrote years ago, AU is thousands of people with thousands of stories to tell. Some of them are what you’d expect: AutoCAD users looking to become certified for that next, better job. Those users buy a tool and expect it to be performant. But as Autodesk moves up the pyramid to bigger installations and more strategic engagement with its customers, the conversation changes —as you can see from the Open Letter foofaraw about Revit— to “I’ve invested in you and your products. Be a partner rather than a supplier, and let’s move forward together.” And then we throw in the resellers who want Autodesk to stop changing everything all the time … From my conversations, many users and resellers want Autodesk to stop fiddling with the pricing model and packaging and return the discussion to technology and what it can do. And invest in moving current technology forward rather than branching out into new areas.
Last thing: I do love New Orleans, partly because of its remarkable story of survival and reinvention. On a prior visit, I took a tour around the Ninth Ward, where many buildings are still abandoned since Hurricane Katrina. It brings home how the city struggled in the aftermath of the storm. One of the main stage keynote speakers at AU 2022 was Meagan Williams, a civil engineer and stormwater manager for New Orleans. Ms. Williams is a local and describes her job as figuring out how to live with the water that’s all around the city — fascinating. You can see her presentation here, at about the 7-minute mark. Worth a watch. (And if you click ahead to the 1-hour mark in that video, you can see Mr. Anagnost in a wizard outfit. Not kidding.)
AU is always a treat. I get to talk with users from all over the world, some working in jobs I’ve never even heard of. They work in big companies, small companies, or themselves. They’re proud of their mastery of Inventor, Fusion, Revit, AutoCAD, Maya, or whatever. And there was something for everyone at this year’s AU, even if I found it all a bit disjointed. But the joy of being back together was real.
Note: Autodesk graciously covered some of the expenses associated with my participation in this event but did not in any way influence the content of this post.
The title image is of Mr. Anagnost on stage during his keynote, taken by an Autodesk photographer.