Future of design and manufacture, according to CEO of Autodesk

After a tour of its recently opened Technology Centre in Birmingham, 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.

Why is Autodesk so interested in making stuff, isn’t it predominantly about taking ideas and turning them into drawings? 

CEO, Andrew Anagnost, welcoming guests to the new Autodesk Technology Centre in Birmingham – image courtesy of Autodesk.
CEO, Andrew Anagnost, welcoming guests to the new Autodesk Technology Centre in Birmingham – image courtesy of Autodesk.

Andrew Anagnost: It’s funny that all Autodesk is remembered for is AutoCAD. AutoCAD represents less than 40% of the company’s business. We became a modelling company decades ago and it’s between product modelling and building modelling where more of our business is than AutoCAD.

The world is actually moving away from drawings, it has been for decades. Why? Because drawings do not facilitate creativity in the same way that models do. Physical objects are so much more compelling than pictures or drawings. The more we can manifest our ideas physically, the more impact they have.

The future is 3D, the future is models. These models are going to be generated in increasingly automated ways and they’re actually a better facilitator to design optionality and creative thinking than anything we’ve ever done in AutoCAD.

The reason that AutoCAD is still so prevalent is simply that the majority of processes and standards have been built around delivering drawings, the world hasn’t yet evolved to processes and standards that are built around delivering models. But, that’s rapidly changing.

Autodesk is involved in this because we are a modelling company, and what’s changing fundamentally  is we’re now able to apply so much technology and compute power to the process of translating a concept into something that is makable, that it’s being completely taken over by the computer. That represents a whole new frontier.

Jonny Williamson took a tour of the recently opened, cutting-edge Autodesk Technology Centre – the first of its kind in Europe. You can read the resulting feature here.

So, should we see Autodesk not so much as a software company, but more as manufacturing process developer or co-developer with machine manufacturers?

The degree of automation we are able to deploy thanks to design and make processes coming closer and closer together, what used to be done with multiple disciplines and deliverables being handed back and forth is simply being taken over by interoperation of the computer.

That is inevitably going to make us a design-make process company, in fact we are evolving to a design-make company. That doesn’t mean that we are machine tool maker or anything like that, but we are going to be a provider of streams of bits that feed highly automated factories of the future, and it’s going to happen at construction sites and manufacturing plants. It’s definitely an evolution of the Autodesk from a design software company to a design-make company.

Going one step further, should we see Autodesk an automation company?

I would absolutely agree with that. We already are at our heart an automation company. What was the company founded on? We automated doing drawings, and then ultimately we automated the process of creating drawings from models. Now what we are doing is automating the process of making something from a model.

Currently, there are dozens of different additive tools out there, all with their own differences and discrepancies. If you try and automate that process, how do people realistically work on very different additive manufacturing technologies?

Additive Manufacturing - Inspecting the form of a part during build
The ecosystem around additive is still very immature – image courtesy of Autodesk.

Let’s be clear. The ecosystem around additive is still very immature. Those who were around for the introduction of desktop laser printers remember ‘WYSIWYG’ – what you see is what you get.

It was a major initiative inside the computing industry because, believe it or not, there was a time that if you printed a document on one printer, it looked completely different than what you printed on another printer.

Frankly, if you took the same document to a different computer and printed it on the same printer, it would look different. You can imagine how impossible it was to have a desktop publishing industry in that paradigm.

What changed that was a little product called ‘PostScript’, which became fundamental in ensuring that no matter what computer or device you used, the printed document looked the same.

Additive right now is not only technologically developing – because we still have the equivalent of dot matrix and laser printing, it’s also unclear as to which technology is going to win, and there’s no PostScript. Right now, we have to play in all of these technologies; but, over the next five years, the PostScript is going to arrive and one or two technologies are going to win, we just don’t know which ones yet.

Are designers going to have to surrender ever more control to software? And if so, are we going to reach the point where you take a plastic additively manufactured product, put it in a machine, which scans it and produces an injection mould for it?

It’s absolutely possible we’re going to move to that world. Inside some of our facilities right now, we’re combining our mould simulation technology, our heat transfer simulation technology and some of our generative technology to look at exactly doing that.

There is actually a world where you could literally end up pushing a button for a plastic part and getting a mould base. It’s not today, but it could absolutely happen. This new frontier is being driven by things we’ve all talked about for a long time, but there was never either the process on the shop floor side or the compute power on the software side to actually do these things. All of that is changing now. Compute has become incredibly cheap.

How far will Autodesk go with its future gazing activities? Is there a point where you feel you can’t push forward any further until mainstream manufacturing catches up?

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

Our new Technology Centre is kitted out with modern kit, some of which is very leading-edge, such as the hybrid manufacturing machine. That’s not off-the-shelf for most companies. But, almost intentionally, it is all regular production machinery, there is nothing here that’s been specially built for us.

That’s because what we’re looking for, as much as anything else, are opportunities where software can add value to existing equipment. I think we have plenty of road to travel simply allowing people to use conventional equipment more effectively, and I think we have to.

We can’t afford to get too far ahead of people, and that’s where the real value of the facility is because it’s doing the commercial work, as well as being a test bed, it’s not fanciful, we are grounded by real work coming through at regular intervals.

This is about pragmatism, to help people see how they can apply some of this advanced – be that marginally or considerably – technology to the world that they live in, rather than them saying, ‘Yes, this is cool, but it’s not for us’.

What we’re doing here is pushing out a little bit beyond where customers’ comfort zones are today using existing machinery and capability with new algorithms layered on top.

There are other efforts inside of Autodesk where we’re absolutely, deliberately and purposefully getting far ahead of the customers and probably in some cases, potentially alienating some people with our investments in that space. I’m perfectly content to do that because I want to make sure that when this all plays out over the next five years, that we have indisputably built out the design system that feeds the new ecosystem.