‘Suite’ on design

Posted on 31 Mar 2011 by The Manufacturer

Autodesk has innovated a new delivery method for its manufacturing design solutions. Jane Gray reviews reactions to the launch of the Autodesk ‘suite’ model for 2012.

Autodesk, the design software provider, has released its response to competitor PTC’s recent restructuring of products. Last year PTC controversially rebranded its widely known and used design software offerings as app-like products under the Creo product design umbrella.

PTC made this move as part of a strategic effort to make their design tools more obviously role applicable. The same, or remarkably similar, objective has been behind this weeks’ announcement from Autodesk that it would now be offering its diverse product set as a range of ‘suites’. Senior Vice President, Manufacturing Industry at Autodesk, Buzz Kross explained at a press briefing event in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday, March 30: “These packets of tools are more than just product bundles. They focus on identified user types and they should be more than just the sum of their parts to users.”

However, although the two software giants may have had similar motivations in altering the way they sell their products, their solutions to the challenge could hardly be more different.

On the one hand PTC now offer an array of software applets which customers can buy incrementally, building a collection of software which suits company requirements as they arise and as budget becomes available. The Autodesk approach shuns such a piecemeal attitude and aims to reduce complexity and implementation challenges for customers by providing ready packaged sets of tools which interact around industry workflows and which give customers the opportunity to explore the potential that can be extracted from technologies they might not have bought as point solutions.

The Autodesk suite offerings for manufacturing organisations are grouped around four major areas. There are two suites devoted to product design, one to he concept design stage and one to Factory design. All of these offering include varying combinations of solutions which will be familiar to current Autodesk users including AutoCAD, Vault, Publisher, Inventor and, most ubiquitously, Inventor Fusion. The way the user navigates between these products and the way in which standard capabilities have been enhanced in each is specific to each suite and its targeted user journey.

Continuous improvement

Many of the individual capability upgrades that Autodesk have installed for this range of 2012 products are impressive. Particularly worthy of note are improvements to SketchBook Designer in the Design ‘suite’ which have really sought to understand the way in which concept designers work and have responded with newly intuitive 2D design tools which will excite engineers who have previously been reluctant to abandon pen and paper and go over to the ‘digital dark side’ when dealing with concept sketches.

Another important development at the opposite end of the product management process has been added to Autodesk Inventor Publisher. A true technology leap with user needs right at its heart has been made here as Autodesk allows product data updates in Inventor and AutoCAD to perform real time updates in technical documentation created in Microsoft Word. The time saving, user productivity and rework reduction implications of this achievement are impressive.

However, although individual innovation like these, and many others are individually impressive it must be said the concept of the suites themselves slightly underwhelmed analysts and technologists at Autodesk’s Portland summit. A sense of confidence in explaining how product interactions within suites would be more beneficial than the use of individual applications was lacking and questions around whether the suites would swamp certain users with applications the did not need, either becoming wastefully redundant or distracting from core work, were not answered to universal satisfaction despite Cross’s defence that: “We are always being surprised by the value that customers create around tools they didn’t originally believe they needed.”

Grand designs

The one exception to this ‘suite-scepticism’ was conceded by almost all attendees to be the Factory Design suite, perhaps the most pioneering of Autodesk’s 2012 releases. A tangible user story gives rationality to this collection of AutoCAD, Inventor, Naviswork and 3D Max Design software.

The Factory design suite which has been piloted with a range of large organisations over the last nine months is now to be made available throughout the Autodesk reseller network and the software provider is hopeful that the offering (available in standard, premium, and Ultimate formats) will be enthusiastically received, not only for manufacturing application but also for use in retail, healthcare and event management markets which have already expressed interest.

The Autodesk Factory Design suite, which leverages high end design software, both 2D and 3D, and enhances it with suite specific material flow intelligence and asset information, gives a new level of recognition to the importance of factory design in the product lifecycle and in the competitive capability of manufacturing organisations.

In the USA alone $15.8bn is wasted annually through inefficient factory design despite widespread efforts, which will also be familiar to UK manufacturers, to reduce this waste the use of methodologies such as lean and TPM.

The fact is that, while often highly effective, projects to rationalise factory organisation are often extremely lengthy, sometimes taking up to 18 months to plot optimal material flow, and are also dogged by re-work since 2D plans formed in simplistic programmes often fail to foresee obstructions.

The Autodesk Factory design suite not only addresses the issues with advanced capability, slashing planning time and reducing risk, but does so with its usual dedication to creating compelling visual designs. There is glamour being added to factory design in this offering which ought to please those who campaign for the rehabilitation of the image of manufacturing.

Some more specifics around the capabilities, and the failings of the Factory Design suite will be addressed in TM May but, briefly, they include material flow analysis tools providing time, transportation and cost information, asset management tools for investment feasibility planning and visualisation tools capable of creating animated fly-throughs of the digital factory prototype.

In conclusion, the Autodesk suite style of delivery for its 2012, is currently lacking in finesse but might have great potential for untangling the complexities around product design and manufacture. There has been a valuable attempt to understand both process interdependencies and the working styles of different professional profiles. It awaits to be seen whether greater potential can be unlocked through improved communication of intent and capability refinement.