Autodesk University 2014: Innovating the design process

In the second of a five-part weekly series, The Manufacturer talks exclusively with Autodesk’s director of automotive product development and strategy, Stephen Hooper, about design technology innovation and market disruptions.

The Manufacturer (TM): How do you see the barriers between the physical and digital worlds becoming blurred?

Stephen Hooper, director of automotive product development & strategy, Autodesk
Stephen Hooper, director of automotive product development & strategy, Autodesk.

Stephen Hooper (SH): The automotive industry uses clay models as much as it uses design modelling and there’s a lot of vendors that would argue that everything should be digital. Autodesk thinks that the real opportunity lies in blending the digital and the physical domains. Let somebody create a digital model, provide the tools to be able to mill the clay from the digital model, but also if the clay is sculpted in the physical world, allow it to be scanned and the results brought back into the digital model. In that way you’re not constrained between digital and physical tools.

You benefit from having a sculpted 3D form that you can touch, feel, walk around, but you can also benefit from being able to use advanced visualisation to overlay new concepts before you go into production.

My goal is to equip automotive manufacturers with a toolset that enables them to design the surface, automatically mill that on clay and then if they scrape the clay and change it, synchronously have the digital model update to reflect the change in the physical world. You’d basically be able to move between either domain and not be forced to choose one or the other, getting the benefits of both.

TM: What is Autodesk’s approach to overcoming industry resistance to such disruptions?

SH: Resistance can be overcome easily if someone can see that although it would mean changing process and procedure, the end result is much better. It’s pointless merely copying what other vendors are doing, you need to start out with some vision that challenges what’s in the market today, a different way of thinking. Then translate that into something pragmatic, where customers can see deliverable results quickly and build towards that long term vision.

In automotive although there’s concern among OEMs over cloud based technologies, they are already using tools like email to communicate data outside of the organisation. We see our job as to solve those security concerns with cloud based technologies which actually lessen the risk, rather than increase it. For us, we have to help the industry overcome any objections and fears, which can be challenging, but that’s where the real opportunity lies for all of us.

TM: What is Autodesk’s strategy towards pushing advanced technology and making it accessible?

Within’s liquid lattice provides a lightweight design for a load bearing engine block.

SH: We try to develop technology organically, but we also make acquisitions, for example our acquisition of Within, a technology that enables organic and crystalline lattice structures. We specialise in taking advanced technology and bringing it into core mainstream tools that are easy for people to use.

Autodesk has acquired two organisations around composites; Majestic, specialising in the manufacture of composites, and Firehole, which is focused on composites design and simulation. One of the things we are focused on doing is not just providing a point solution in design, but something that lets you design with a composite, simulate and optimise that design, and then manufacture.

Stylising a product is a crucial aspect to better differentiate a product in the marketplace; hence our interest in functional performance (cyber-mechanical machines), sustainability (composites and long fibre filled polymers) and aesthetic styling, which necessitates very quick and easy to use freeform surface definition tools. We have a technology called T-Splines [found in Inventor and Fusion 360], which enables the creation of very complex shapes without having to use traditional, procedural surfacing approaches.

Traditional surfacing involves spending a lot of time creating curves used to drive the definition of surfaces, something that’s quite difficult to an occasional user. T-Splines allows you to start with the surface and subdivide it, which can then be pulled to create freeform surfaces. The more detail you want, the more you subdivide the surface.

That’s an example of how we are providing that innovative technology at the product level, but we also try to build a suite of tools that offer everything for conception, design and manufacturing. Suites like Product Design Suite and Factory Design Suite take multiple tools and combine them in a workflow to provide data management, 2D tools for very detailed documentation, 3D modelling and visualisation.

TM: With a variety of tools in the market to help facilitate design in that direction, what opportunities exist for Autodesk to innovate?

SH: Composites are a really big area because there are no volume mainstream design tools that help people gain the benefit of these new materials; and it’s not just carbon fibre, there are things like long fibre filled polymers that are stronger and a fraction of the weight, important factors in the production of electrical drive vehicles, for example.

There’s a lack of design tools available to help people absorb those new technologies today. For almost every product, whether automotive or mainstream manufacturing, if it has moving parts it usually has a control system and involves some form of actuation, feedback loop, control, electrical sensors or signals. Accordingly, a variety of multidisciplinary tools need to be integrated and there’s no accessible platform for doing that at the moment, except those that are expensive and require PhD-level users.

Generative design is being largely driven by additive manufacturing processes, which open up opportunities to create very complex forms, especially internally. Automotive designers are increasingly incorporating very organic shapes now by using technology that enables the creation of an internal latticed structure that’s 25% of the weight but is functionally as strong as homogenous material.

In the past, there’s been too much of a tendency to focus on the detail of solid modelling and not what it is that you are trying to achieve as an organisation. What Autodesk wants to do is drive the more requirements driven approach to design; identifying your differentiator, making that the core of the design process, and using computing power to assist you in meeting those requirements or warning you if you step outside of them.

TM: How are Autodesk’s automotive offerings, for example, applied to other sectors? 

A high resolution, lifelike cityscape created in VRED.

SH: We start with a technology based on an individual set of requirements and as that technology develops, especially in something as high-end as automotive, applications become apparent in other industries, so we look at how the offering can be leveraged and transposed to other industries.

VRED is a great example. You can create these fantastically lifelike and, importantly, interactive visualisations of what it would be like to actually sit inside a vehicle. Obviously that’s just as applicable for a product designer to be able to interact with a product immersively. Autodesk is currently looking at ways to extend VRED’s workflows for mechanical engineers and other industries to make use of it for factors such as perceived quality analysis.

TM: How does Autodesk ensure its offerings address the evolving needs of the industry?

SH: Working closely with existing customers, though not exclusively with that group otherwise we only create incremental development, i.e. making the top features slightly better, faster and cheaper. That development is important for existing clients, but we also look for innovation where there are market disruptions happening.

Current key disruptions centre on collaboration, cloud technologies and new design paradigms, so Autodesk is spending more time with entrepreneurs and start-ups to understand how their needs differ.

BAC Mono (Image by Tom Ziora,
BAC Mono, a lightweight, ultra high performance, road legal supercar (Image by Tom Ziora,

Compare Porsche, which is very design-focused and has dedicated teams that specialise in areas such as styling and Class A surface development for example, with a company like Local Motors, which essentially 3D prints vehicles or British-based Briggs Automotive Company (BAC), which produces a full carbon fibre production vehicle, the Mono. BAC’s a start-up with a workforce of around 30 and requires tools that are more intuitive and easier to access, understand, learn and use on an infrequent basis, so its needs are very different.

Additionally, there are new technologies such as generative design and Internet of Things (IoT), both of which have an extension towards design, so we need to consider smart, multidisciplinary machines with full system integration.