Autodesk Technology Centre: A new frontier for design & manufacture

Jonny Williamson takes a tour of the recently opened, cutting-edge Autodesk Technology Centre - the first of its kind in Europe.

Autodesk Technology Centre - Birmingham - image courtesy of Autodesk.
Realising the benefits on offer via the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ involves ‘the creation of products that are increasingly personalised and intelligent – image courtesy of Autodesk.

The latest Autodesk Technology Centre (ATC) is based in Birmingham, what many people still consider to be the heart of UK manufacturing.

The location isn’t a coincidence. It represents a very clear message of support for British industry from the global software company, in our skills, capabilities and potential future growth. That Europe lies just a short distance across the Channel probably also helps.

The centre also isn’t strictly new in the truest sense. The site previously housed Delcam’s highly prized Advanced Manufacturing Facility, which Autodesk acquired via its $300m purchase of Delcam in November 2013.

Though, that’s not to belittle the size of Autodesk’s investment. Having previously visited Delcam’s AMF, it’s clear to see where the undisclosed ‘multi-million-pound figure’ has been spent over the past 12 months.

Walls have been knocked down to create open, more collaborative working areas, buildings have been extended, the entire décor has been freshened up and modernised, not to mention the shiny new kit.

High-tech machines have been sourced from many of the world’s leading vendors, including ABB, DMG Mori, Hermle, KUKA Robotics, Renishaw, and Steifelmeyer & Hamuel.

Following the tour, Jonny Williamson took part in a media roundtable with Autodesk’s CEO Andrew Anagnost to discuss the future of design and manufacture, and where Autodesk fits into the new emerging ecosystem.

You can read the interview here.

To better understand how robots can work alongside humans, the ATC also houses an augmented reality (AR) application, as well as a lab where engineers can view data collected from connected machines, to make smarter design decisions and deliver projects more efficiently.

In an effort to enable the centre to start taking on specialist aerospace and defence projects, an inspection room is also in place, complete with AD9100D certification.

Million-dollar question 

Autodesk Technology Centre - Birmingham - image courtesy of Autodesk.
Autodesk CEO, Andrew Anagnost (centre), cuts the ribbon – image courtesy of Autodesk.

So, why has Autodesk gone to all this trouble – and expense? Because of the ‘Future of Making Things’.

Speaking to several of Autodesk’s workforce, from a machine operative all the way up to the CEO, you get a genuine sense that the company wants to push the envelope, to reimagine the relationship between software, hardware, machines, people and materials.

Realising the benefits on offer via the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’ involves ‘the creation of products that are increasingly personalised and intelligent, which requires a combined approach to design and manufacture, through the use of advanced techniques,’ the company proudly proclaims.

Sounds straight forward enough in theory, but what does it mean in the real-world?

“The purpose of this centre is to solve the world’s most complex, pressing high-value manufacturing challenge, namely, how to create more products from the same amount of resources, if not less,” explained Steve Hobbs, vice president of CAM & hybrid manufacturing at Autodesk.,”

“It also aims to help promote the cross-pollination of ideas and advancements. That’s for the progression of industry as a whole. Furthermore, what’s achieved here will be fed back to our software designers and engineers, meaning the quality and capability of our products will similarly advance.”

Autodesk’s president and CEO, Andrew Anagnost believes that traditional manufacturing processes are being ‘shaken up’ by the convergence of automation technologies like robotics and machine learning – such as those at work at the ATC.

“Coupling these with cloud computing enables more people to access their power at much lower costs,” Anagnost added. “While clearly a challenge to established practices, these technologies offer huge opportunities for existing manufacturers to do more, do it better, and do it with less negative impact on the world.”

On display  

From clay milling and generative design for CNC, to hybrid machining (capable of both subtractive and additive processes) to what is described as the first-ever ‘push button manufacturing’, what’s on display at the ATC is certainly impressive.

future of design and manufacture - The Autodesk Technology Centre in Birmingham may be kitted out with modern kit, but all of it is regular production machinery - image courtesy of Autodesk.
The Centre in Birmingham may be kitted out with modern kit, but all of it is regular production machinery – image courtesy of Autodesk.

It’s also not just on display. This isn’t a gallery. Real orders and projects are being worked on from the likes of BMW and GKN Additive, and though some of the kit isn’t exactly ‘off-the-shelf’ for most companies, they are almost all intentionally regular production machinery.

“What we’re looking for, as much as anything else, are opportunities where software can add value to existing equipment,” noted Hobbs.

“Some of the most interesting projects the centre is currently involved in are to do with connectivity, tracking and monitoring. I think we have plenty of road to travel simply allowing manufacturers to use conventional equipment more effectively.

“I think we have to. Companies aren’t going to throw away all their existing kit and buy in new overnight. There’s a natural inertia momentum that we have to work through. We can’t afford to get too far ahead of people, and that’s where the real value of the facility lies because as well as being a test bed, we are grounded by live commercial work coming through at regular intervals.”

Anagnost added: “This is about being pragmatic, to help manufacturers see how they can apply some of this advanced – be that marginally or considerably – technology to the world that they live in; opposed to them saying, ‘Yes, this is cool, but it’s not for us’.

“This centre is pushing out a little bit beyond where a manufacturer’s comfort zone is today using existing machinery and capability with new algorithms layered on top.

“There are other efforts within Autodesk where we’re absolutely, deliberately and purposefully getting far ahead of where industry is, and in some cases probably alienating some businesses with our investments in that space,” he continued. “And I’m perfectly content to do that because I want to make sure that whatever happens over the next decade, we have built out the design system that feeds into that new ecosystem.”

Catapulting industry forward

From what Hobbs and Anagnost spoke about, coupled with the proejcts and technology we saw during our tour, it looks like the ATC occupies a similar space to the UK’s existing network of Catapult centres – most notably, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in Solihull, the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield, and the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry.

Autodesk Technology Centre - Birmingham - image courtesy of Autodesk.
it looks like the ATC occupies a similar space to the UK’s existing network of Catapult centres – image courtesy of Autodesk.

When I asked Steve Hobbs where the facility fitted into that ecosystem, either complementary supplementary, he replied that it was both, and that the ATC was already working closely with several of the Catapults.

“As far as possible, we’re not trying to replicate what they do, but we do want some creative overlap,” he commented. “There’s clearly a benefit to us if they are using our tools, partly as a shop window, but also because they provide an awful lot of feedback from people we can’t necessarily reach.

“The aim, for the most part though, is complementary. The Manufacturing Technology Centre, for example, has a great centre for metal powder bed additive manufacturing, so I don’t really need to build that capability here, and we’ve done a host of collaborative projects with them in that regard.

“There are situations, however, where businesses want to work with a commercial company with some skin in the game to develop a solution, often privately. Unlike the part government-funded Catapults, we can conduct projects with undisclosed partners very discreetly, which makes the ATC more flexible, I feel.”

A hybrid approach

One of the most interesting things we saw during our tour involved a collaborative project between Autodesk and the Port of Rotterdam’s Additive Manufacturing Field Lab (RAMLAB).

The Port is the largest in Europe and handles more than 460 million tonnes of cargo every year. As such, efficiency and time management are imperative. Yet, when vessels come into Rotterdam requiring maintenance, the downtime can potentially cost millions and take weeks of action to repair.

Having to maintain considerable stockpiles of spare parts in either a centralised or disparate warehouse network only adds to the cost, especially as 70% of parts stored in inventory never get used, according to Anagnost.

Autodesk Technology Centre - Birmingham - image courtesy of Autodesk.
Hybrid manufacturing combines both additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques – image courtesy of Autodesk.

RAMLAB is overcoming those challenges thanks to an on-site facility kitted out with a pair of 6-axis robotic arms capable of additively manufacturing large-scale metal industrial parts – helping to save time, cost and materials.

The secret lies in adopting a hybrid manufacturing approach, which combines both additive and subtractive manufacturing techniques. Large ship components, such as a propeller, are 3D printed in metal using wire and arc additively manufacturing, and then traditional CNC milling and grinding methods finish the pieces off.

The whole process takes a matter of days, and doesn’t sacrifice precision or performance, I’m told.

Hybrid manufacturing is probably the most cutting-edge machine the ATC has to offer at the moment, and it’s likely that its capabilities and benefits are far from becoming mainstream right now.

How far? Well, it wasn’t so long ago that the tools, connectivity and information held within the smartphone sat on your desk or in your pocket would have seemed revolutionary, almost science fiction. In little more than a decade, those devices have not only become ubiquitous, but arguably disposable. When it comes to advances in technology, time really doesn’t wait.