That’s All Right (Mama)

Posted on 2 Dec 2009 by The Manufacturer

Ed Machin reports from day one of the Autodesk conference in Vegas...

And so it begins. Awake to a panoramic view of the Nevada mountains. Just about beats Clapham Common on a rainy December morning. Channel surf for twenty minutes or so, returning inevitably to my Northern Star, my one true love — ESPN. Have an hour until I need to be at the coffee and muffin (never let it be said that Americans don’t know what drives the human condition) breakfast reception. Consider channeling Caligula and lounging in the bath cum jacuzzi cum swimming pool. After no little deliberation I settle for the walk-in, entirely marble shower, real estate considerably more spacious than the average London flat.

Expecting only a few hardy souls — what with this being 7:00 am — I am greeted by a throng of pathologically excitable design experts carrying their trolley bags like beautiful, canvas badges of pride. Feel slightly miffed that I decided to plump for a traditional English business wallet. Ain’t going to make that mistake again. We network profusely, although on occasion the conversation drifts towards whether I know the Queen/Beatles/Tony Blair personally. To make matters easier I say that I do. Meet a gentleman from Japan by the name of Ayumu who insists on referring to himself as, ominously, a ‘manufacturing sensei’. Seeing as we have enrolled for a number of the same workshops, and, more importantly, that his love for ESPN appears even more all-consuming than mine, we arrange to ‘catch’ some college basketball once our last session is finished. He stands me up. My heart breaks quietly.

Welcome Address and General Session Keynote. Held in the Mandalay’s premier events arena, this feels very much like a stadium rock concert, albeit one lacking in ticket touts, ‘dad’ dancing and the profound crush of disappointment which inevitably occurs when seeing your heroes in the flesh — yes that’s you, Bob Dylan. A bold call, perhaps, but the highlight of this entire conference will almost certainly be the compere’s introduction of an Elvis impersonator to sing the Autodesk legal disclaimer. A moment of pure, knowing genius, and encapsulating all that is simultaneously beautiful and vulgar about Sin City. Mostly beautiful, though.

We are introduced to Autodesk CEO Carl Bass who wears, in true business casual stylings, a black t-shirt and suit combination. The man patently knows his stuff, advocating elegantly on the need for businesses to target that ethereal point (the ‘sweet spot’) in an overall product cycle which realises maximum commercial impact. This, clearly, isn’t easy. Too premature — citing examples of early electric cars and iPhone variants — and you risk finding yourself a penniless pioneer; too late and you miss the boat. It’s a commanding message.

Bass brings Jon Landau on stage, producer of films such as Titanic, Solaris and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. Shlocky dross as they may be, his latest work, Avatar, is quite literally breathtaking. Filmed entirely in real-time performance capture on Autodesk-powered virtual sets, this technology will revolutionise cinema — you have been warned. With the crowd in audible ecstasy when shown clips from the film, the speaker who follows Landau, Amory Lovins, faces an unenviable task. Having been named as one of Time Magazine’s most influential people of 2009, however, Lovins makes it looks like he briefs heads of state for fun. Which, it turns out, he does. Speaking primarily on the need for energy efficiency within business, Lovins demonstrates why his work at the Rocky Mountain Institute is pioneering the field of global resource management. He exits the stage having given both Bass and Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski a banana grown in his scarily energy-efficient home, 7,000ft above sea level in the Rocky Mountains. Hammy as a number of my neighbours found the gesture, rather cynically I would argue, you have to take your hat of to the guy; he really does walk the walk.

Kowalski doesn’t speak for long, except to say that “the future is coming faster than you think.” Demonstrating a number of Autodesk’s current iPhone applications, you tend to believe him. Technology which allows the collaborative designing of a bespoke kitchen from one’s phone, for example, indubitably highlights that CAD is on the verge of penetrating our everyday lives, if it hasn’t already. The future is coming faster than we think, as the man said.

* * * * *

A few hours to kill until I meet Ayumu for the first of our electives, namely ‘Digital Prototyping: The Rosetta Stone’. I retire to my salon to watch, you guessed it, CNN. Consider ordering room service. At $40 for a basic pasta dish, however, I decide to chance my arm at the gift shop. Having previously lived the American dream, I was emotionally prepared for the dearth of chocolate-based treats available to the hungry foreign hack. Nonetheless, it remains one of the most shattering experiences of a young man’s life when, quite reasonably, he is forced to accept a choice of Hershey’s, Hershey’s or, wait for it, Hershey’s. I go with Hershey’s.

Digital Prototyping: The Rosetta Stone. Rendezvous with Ayumu. I find him in high spirits. Given my luncheon debacle, he finds me less so. Hosted by Jay Tedeschi, an Autodesk ‘Product Solution Evangelist’, the session appears to be largely populated by manufacturers falling over themselves to demonstrate their knowledge of CAD-related software. Such makes for a surprisingly engaging workshop, with a good deal of ‘friendly’ banter exchanged by attendees. I employ a dignified silence.

In essence, digital prototyping brings all geometric and functional characteristics into a single mode, favouring a two-way pipeline over conventional linear sequences. With benefits including increased profitability and reduced time-to-market and number of prototypes required — 1.5 versus 2.9 — such technology enables best in class manufacturers such as Airbus and General Dynamics Electric Boat to bring together globally disparate aspects of their production. Preaching to the converted, myself included, Tedeschi runs through a fascinating demonstration of Autodesk Inventor, concentrating largely on welding design models. It goes down well.

* * * * *

I don’t remember ninety minutes watching the Arsenal being this enjoyable. Neither do I recall Emirates staff greeting us with refreshments — cookies and assorted soft drinks — outside the event. I debate with Sarah, a charming CAD expert from the University of Utah, the relative merits of chocolate versus wholemeal snacks. Sadly we fail to see eye to eye, and talk turns to, somewhat surprisingly, ESPN. She hates it. I say I do too.

AutoCAD and Media & Entertainment Keynote and Mixer. Highly anticipated, given that we are promised a 15 minute screening of the aforementioned Avatar. It does not disappoint. At the risk of sounding sycophantic, this film, if indeed one can call it that, is mind blowing. Frighteningly so. Jon Landau has us eating from the palm of his hand throughout, artfully dropping selected anecdotes and referring to James Cameron — he of Rambo, Aliens, Terminator, Spider Man and The Dark Knight fame. So, fairly handy then — only as ‘Jim’. Nice.

Autodesk senior vice presidents Amar Hanspal and Marc Petit offer a brief technology preview — 2010. It’s going to be a good year — and discuss the ever-evolving capabilities of AutoCAD, Autodesk 3ds Max Design and Autodesk Showcase, among others. We are then given the chance to mingle with guest speakers, Autodesk executives and the product teams. Attendees are, to a man (and woman, obviously) diverse, engaging and undeniably good peoples. Common bonds are easily struck — the life and times of Marcel Proust, anyone? — and much general merriment ensues. To know that we have another two days of such CAD-related adventures fills me with genuine happiness, and that’s not just the low-fat apple juice talking.

Sic transit Gloria. Ayumu fails to show for our basketball marathon. Perhaps my, by now, encyclopedic knowledge of design modeling software made him feel like I had become unapproachable. I do hope it isn’t the case — the knowledge thing, that is, not the inapproachability. I console myself with a giant McDonalds and, in a junk food-induced stupor, wander around the Mandalay casino. Protocol be damned, I say, and put $5 on black. It lands on red. ESPN fails to soothe my malaise; a sad day indeed.

A chink of light, in the form of tomorrow’s Manufacturing Keynote, just about keeps my head above water. I cling to it like Roy Schneider in Jaws, and ride that baby all the way to sleep…