Autodesk to “democratize” industrial design as it has 3D product engineering

Autodesk, with annual revenues that will soon top $2 billion, is the largest computer-aided design (CAD) vendor in the world. The company believes some day manufacturers will create “virtual” product worlds with the same visualization technologies used by Sony Pictures Imageworks to generate special effects seen in big-budget movies like the Spiderman trilogy and Beowulf.


Autodesk , with annual revenues that will soon top $2 billion, is the largest computer-aided design (CAD) vendor in the world. The company believes some day manufacturers will create “virtual” product worlds with the same visualization technologies used by Sony Pictures Imageworks to generate special effects seen in big-budget movies like the Spiderman trilogy and Beowulf .

“Design, engineering, and entertainment are converging to address unprecedented global challenges,” says Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO and president. “Autodesk's role is to provide visualization, simulation, and analysis tools that result in real or 'as-if' [i.e., entertainment] assets.”

Admittedly, it will be a while before many manufacturers look to gain from using products such as 3ds Max and Maya from Autodesk Media & Entertainment Solutions. Nevertheless, Autodesk sees this long-term vision of the power of visualization impacting its customers already.

For even as Autodesk continues to profit from bringing 3D design to the midmarket, it already identified an opportunity to, in the very near future, “democratize” industrial design for those same manufacturers.

Different than the rest

Other major CAD vendors—e.g., Siemens PLM Software, Dassault Systemes, and PTC—have spent recent years building out product life-cycle management (PLM) capabilities that expand their footprint within large manufacturing enterprises into areas as diverse as production, procurement, and services provision.

Visualizations today cross the threshold of believability because, "we know how light works," and capture real-world behavior by, for example, "applying physical laws to every thread in a cloth," say executives at Autodesk.

While not ignoring the needs of its manufacturing customers to move from product engineering to production as expeditiously as possible, Autodesk is at least as focused on fostering the collaborative relationship between industrial design and product engineering. The “integration” that may matter most to Autodesk, therefore, is that between its industrial design package, AliasStudio, and its 3D engineering environment, Inventor.

Autodesk completed its acquisition of Alias, the original developer of Alias StudioTools, in January 2006. Besides 2D sketching tools, AliasStudio today includes capabilities for precision surface modeling, photo-realistic rendering, and image-based lighting.

In February, Autodesk unveiled the latest releases of its solutions, including Inventor 2009, AliasStudio 2009, and others.

Peter Horbury, executive director of design for Ford Motor Co. , says using AliasStudio and other Autodesk tools allows Ford to go from “sketch to showroom” 14 months faster than it was able to only a few years ago. One reason is use of digital images so compelling in their verisimilitude that they can be used in place of physical models in marketing research road shows where “influencers” comment on competing designs.

Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski says visualizations have crossed the threshold of believability because, “We know how light works,” and analyses capture real-world behavior by, for example, “applying physical laws to every thread in a cloth.”

Asks Horbury, “Who says you can't make design judgments based on images like these?”

Nevertheless, in its initial stages, much industrial design work today is still done manually, and even on the back of those storied envelopes and napkins, says Keith Perrin, Autodesk solutions manager. While AliasStudio is said to have a commanding market share in transportation markets, “The strength of Alias is niche today,” says Perrin. “But to get these capabilities into the hands a wider range of people is very exciting. Autodesk is the only vendor focused on the 'democratization' of these powerful visualization capabilities.”

Autodesk says its role is to provide visualization, simulation, and analysis tools that result in real or "as-if" assets.

The approach other CAD companies have taken, says Perrin, is to embed industrial design software within their engineering packages. That doesn't work, he says, because it increases complexity for both camps, and industrial designers simply don't like using engineering CAD tools. The Autodesk approach is to keep AliasStudio and Inventor separate, but optimize integration between them.

“The ability to move from AliasStudio to Inventor, and vice versa, is important because it allows aesthetics and function to be considered together,” says Perrin.

STEP into it

Integration between Alias and Inventor is accomplished by means of STEP and IGES standards, and improvements within the systems to make that integration “sing.” Assembly and part files can be imported from Inventor to Alias, allowing design work to proceed based on component part specifications, for example.

“This integration will thicken over time,” says Perrin. “We will get to the point where every CPG company uses Alias the same way it uses AutoCAD. “

As its annual report testifies, Autodesk's ongoing success is dependent on bringing 3D design capabilities to its midmarket customers. In its most recent fiscal year, revenues from the Inventor family of products increased 15 percent, including the addition of 48,000 commercial seats. At this point, however, only 23 percent of its manufacturing customer base has adopted Inventor. Thus a significant opportunity still lies before it.

One area major CAD vendors agree upon is that pervasive use of 3D digital models—from design to manufacture as a constantly updated and communicated reference—changes the way many kinds of product-related work gets done.

Horbury says with Ford design studios spread around the world, digital models ease what would otherwise be significant collaboration challenges, and that use of digital information means business processes can be continually improved.

“The role of the digital model has changed,” says Kowalski. “In the past it allowed visualization, but wasn't truly connected to reality. Today, the model represents the project in its entirety, and in a real sense is its 'workplace'.”

The digital model, says Andrew Anagnost, Autodesk VP, CAD/CAE products, includes the geometric definition and functional properties of the design: “Form, fit, and to an increasing degree, function.”

Function may be expressed, for example, by the inclusion of analysis results within the taxonomy found in ProductStream, the repository for design information and related documents.

Thus, to an increasing degree, industrial designers will share digital concept models with engineers who then create the 3D geometry embodied in a digital prototype that includes both mechanical and electrical design data. Using analytical tools throughout the design phase, engineers can iteratively test the digital prototype to optimize and validate the design. The model becomes also the means for collaboration with suppliers and customers, and eventually to generate technical, marketing, and other types of supporting data.

All that's left is for the designer and engineer to argue about the film credits.

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