AU 2023: Focus on platforms, granularity and AI
Ah, Autodesk University. Thousands of people and too few escalators. Designers and makers and architects and construction teams, all in one place. Las Vegas, usually prettying itself up for holiday visitors at this time of year, was instead prepping for a Formula One race, putting up grandstands and giant tents rather than a faux skating rink and garlands. That big sphere thing, shining far too brightly in the night. But in the Sands Convention Center, we discussed important things, like electric vehicles, water infrastructure, and sustainable housing, and how software can help us make the things we need — but better and faster. And, some of us, nervously signed up for and completed a certification exam (yay, Maria!). It’s a lot, so let’s dig in.
Continuing last year’s themes, Autodesk highlighted its progress on platforms and artificial intelligence. Buried under those ledes were dozens of other product announcements, enhancements and introductions — go https://www.autodesk.com/autodesk-university/search for presentations on your favorite products and to catch keynotes and other sessions.
I wish Autodesk had focused more on the less buzzy stuff, since current products already deliver real value while the platform- and AI-related announcements are mostly still future promises. And since many of these new things will probably fundamentally change how many individuals at AU do their jobs, they caused concern rather than excitement.
Anyway, in no particular order, my key takeaways:
- Autodesk fully acknowledged that its customers are operating in technological quicksand. Cloud or desktop — or both? Point solutions or connected ecosystems? Replacing (or not) retiring experts? How can they bring novice users up to speed as quickly as possible? And without sacrificing the secret sauce that differentiates one user organization from another? Add in the broader effects of economic, political, and social disruption, and it felt as if many attendees were tentative about their prospects and looking for guidance from Autodesk and its partners. Individual users seemed OK with what the company presented; their bosses want Autodesk to execute on its promises.
- One area where Autodesk seems to be doing quite well, is bringing new, trained talent into the workforce. I don’t remember a year when I spoke with so many people getting certified or excited about training and upskilling. Perhaps it’s still a Covid-related catchup, but it was real. PSA: Go! Take training classed,. Get certified.
- Cloud was again a big topic but with a heavier focus on data granularity. Cloud is no longer just about collaborating or computing; Autodesk is talking more and more about the fact that files bury data that can be accessed more readily in databases, whether by AI or another app.
- Probably the biggest announcement at AU 2023 was Autodesk AI, a technology capability in the core Autodesk Platform, the layer under the AEC Forma, Manufacturing Fusion, and Media Flow industry platforms. During the announcement, CEO Andrew Anagnost said things like AI will “remove the non-value work of drawing creation.” At that point, the people around me stopped listening because they heard, “You’re going to be laid off; your company won’t need you any longer.” I would have liked Autodesk to make a “we’ve got you, we’ll help you skill up for new roles” statement, perhaps with hints as to what that might be. Instead, fear and uncertainty. Missed opportunity.
- Announcing Autodesk AI this way also didn’t acknowledge that the company already has AI capabilities in many products. For example, Construction IQ came out in 2018 or 2019 (and I think I heard someone say it has 12,000 users, so a lot of proof points). One of the site managers I interviewed back then used the incident reports generated as a regular part of operations to find the root causes of these incidents; another searched data already on hand to find underperforming subcontractors. We need to get beyond the gee-whiz factor of coming-soon AI-enabled products and show the tangible benefits we already know it can create.
- Other Autodeskers, including Amy Bunszel, EVP of Architecture, Engineering, and Construction Design Solutions, were clear (and more kind) about the ultimate aim of Autodesk AI. Ms. Bunszel said, “I believe that AI should augment you, not replace you,” while Autodesk CTO Raji Arasu said AI should make everything faster and more efficient, the implication being that you’ll be able to use that found time for more creative work.
- Sticking to AEC for just a moment longer: Forma, the AEC platform, uses the Autodesk Data Model, which means that data is stored granularly rather than in giant files. Forma is not, the company said over and over again, Revit-in-the-cloud. But Revit will (soon?) be connected to Forma, which means the platform will download only those data elements that are needed for a task. Revit’s giant file size issues may soon no longer be an issue. When might that happen? Ms. Bunszel wouldn’t say, but a user I spoke with is apparently already testing it.
- Moving on to manufacturing, Autodesk Fusion will use AI to “bring together data and workflows across the entire product lifecycle,” according to Srinath Jonnalagadda, VP of Design and Manufacturing Industry Strategy. One early use of AI in Fusion 360 will debut soon: automated, fully dimensioned drawings created from 3D models “with the click of a button,” according to Jeff Kinder, EVP, Design and Manufacturing. Future deliveries will include more efficient toolpath generation via a partnership with Cloud NC, which Mr. Kinder said “reduced programming times by up to 80% through AI-powered CNC toolpath analysis and automation.” (Not sure when this will be available.)
- And, because I know you’ll ask: Inventor isn’t dead, far from. Lots of enhancements there, too, including single-click workflows to bring data from Inventor into Fusion, with full, bi-directional associativity. Why would one want this? Because Inventor and Fusion are targeted at different use cases, and work groups want to use the best of each to achieve their goals. Watch the Design and Make Forum at the link above.
- As usual, AU had a massive and exciting expo. One of the coolest things on the expo floor was a display about The Phoenix, a 300-unit affordable housing project in Oakland, that ticks many modern urban design boxes: affordable housing on a not-awesome parcel of land; modular design and build; and sustainable material selections and construction methods. But what really caught my imagination was the use of mycelium (the underground string-like structures that connect mushrooms — yes, mushrooms) in composite panels that clad the exterior of each module. This facade is lovely and durable, and provides thermal and sound insulation. Take a look: https://www.mbharch.com/thephoenix.
- If you know me, you know I’m not a car person. But Rivian trucks … very cool. Rivian had a massive $90k truck the expo floor, and the lovely Rivian design team walked me through why it’s unique. From the cool-to-me-but-not-the-average-truck-buyer roof rack to the compartment behind the cab, the truck has a lot of innovative design features that are made possible by the space created by no-drivetrain, and innovations in materials and manufacturing processes. Am I their target buyer? Definitely not, but I am a fan. This is a cool video about how Rivian uses Autodesk products to design its vehicles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RebVsNezZ2s or watch the Design and Manufacturing Forum recording at the link above.
- Finally, a non-product observation: Autodesk’s go-to-market continues to evolve and not everyone is happy about it. There seemed to be fewer reseller partners in Las Vegas this year, probably due to the combo effects of consolidation (so fewer resellers in total) and the fact that Autodesk keeps tweaking its VAR compensation in ways that many feel makes Autodesk less attractive as an OEM partner. We’ll have to see how that plays out.
I could keep going, but this blog will never get posted if I don’t wrap it up. I had great meetings with AEC customers and partners, spoke with lots of random users across all sorts of end industries, saw some terrific demos, tried on VR headsets, learned about mycelia, and even learned what Deadpool is (Ryan Reynolds was on stage for one of the keynotes; he’s charming but I had no idea why he’s famous outside the whole English football thing—thanks, Stan P.). I may cover some of this in other posts as time permits.
Bottom line: As always, Autodesk University was a lot. The company has so many resources that it can bring to bear on any problem — and with Autodesk Platform, it seems to be centralizing resources for core development, leaving the product teams to focus more on adapting these developments to the needs of their specific customers. That’s good. But we’ll have to wait to see how the vision and technology come together to create products and solutions that solve real problems.
One thing that does seem very real, already, is the move to data granularity. It’s geeky stuff, and a problem of the developers’ own design (after all, they chose to implement files in the first place), but moving from files to “atoms”, as one Autodesker put it, will open many opportunities. This is an AEC example, but we can imagine parallels in manufacturing: One customer I spoke with said that he’s testing how Revit data is “translated” from files to “atoms” and stored on the fly in Forma, when needed, for use outside Revit. Likely by Autodesk apps, maybe by third party apps and perhaps to train AI. So far, he said, so good.
While we wait for all of this platform and AI stuff to take shape, go check out your favorite product’s roadmaps and announcements at the link above.
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 cover picture is of Mr. Reynolds and Autodesk COO Steve Blum, taken at the end of Mr. Blum’s keynote by an Autodesk photographer.