With 3D design software playing an increasingly critical role in 21st century manufacturing, Edward Machin meets Autodesk’s “Buzz” Kross to discuss digital prototyping, paradigm shifts and the onset of a menuless product environment
Nine million global users; turnover of $2.3bn in 2009; a steady stream of corporate citizenship, innovation and software accolades; and widely recognised as an industry leader in 2D/3D design, engineering and entertainment software. Founded by John Walker to assist users in creating detailed technical drawings at an affordable margin, 2010 finds California-based Autodesk releasing digital prototyping software which is virtually unrecognisable from its offerings for the 8-bit CP/M, Victor 9000 and IBM Personal Computer systems.
40 Buzz There’s a about Autodesk Indeed, “When I show today’s students how we used to run Inventor, many of them simply refuse to believe me,” says Robert “Buzz” Kross, senior vice president of the company’s manufacturing solutions division. The early eighties found Kross working for Calma, a General Electric-owned business offering computer-aided design (CAD) systems at $500,000 a seat, and which would take anything up to a year to become productive.
Autodesk entered the market in 1982 with a distinctive, cost-efficient — i.e. $3,000 — take on CAD software for the PC. “I remember vividly the first time we lost to Autodesk,” Kross recalls. “Quite simply, our customers were sacrificing critical productivity, whereas Autodesk offered a unique value proposition which has kept me interested in the company to this day.” Kross co-founded Woodbourne Inc — a provider of parametric modelling tools for the AutoCAD platform — in 1990, although the business was ultimately acquired by Autodesk in 1993. Once aboard, however, it became apparent to Kross that progression in the 2D modelling environment was proving difficult to achieve without a change in both mindset and technical applications. Accordingly, “We undertook a project called Rubicon, the precursor to Inventor,” he says, “introducing 3D mechanical design software to the wider market, at that time dominated by SolidWorks.” Forward fifteen years — with releases such as Revit, Ecotect, Moldflow, Vault, Alias and Streamline, among many others, under its belt — and Autodesk continues to bestride a marketplace that Kross terms, “Ferociously competitive, often scarily so.” Nonetheless, the company seeks to differentiate itself from the wider sector by two distinct, yet ultimately interrelated, criteria. “First and foremost, we employ a pricing model that sits in direct opposition to our competitors; while many in the market offer price-points starting at $40,000, Autodesk offers a set of advanced factory tools that retail at approximately $5,000 a seat.
Secondly, and almost without exception, the other market players offer PLM systems in conjunction with their CAD offerings. Given that he is yet to meet an engineer whose design tools are without fault, “We believe that by concentrating on the continual refinement of our design capabilities, Autodesk is ideally positioned to offer a robust, industry-leading suite of design applications — while simultaneously anticipating any technologies related to our customers’ needs,” says Kross.
Such singularity paid dividends in 2007, with the emergence of digital prototyping technology — recognised internally as a Damascene moment of sorts for the company. Given that his role includes countless customer visits, Kross was struck by the fact that a growing number of users were utilising 3D tools and modelling capabilities largely to assist in the construction of more detailed design drawings: those with isometric views, for example. While the blueprints were undoubtedly more complex than five years previously, they nonetheless remained a ‘smart’ AutoCAD design at best. Understanding that engineers could be reticent to, on occasion, trust product design to anything but their own hand, Autodesk invested significantly in the — then embryonic — concept of digital prototyping; i.e. the ability to virtually explore a complete product before it is built, with users given the capacity to create, validate, optimise and manage designs from conceptual design to complete manufacture.
“It would be incorrect to say that others in the market haven’t attempted to follow a similar path.
However, they have done so by considerably more laborious means; the Autodesk story in a nutshell,” says Kross. “Rather than a multi-million dollar process which can take months, or even years, to implement, we offer rapid, cost-effective and user-friendly solutions.” That said, arguably the most pronounced challenge in the transition to a seamless digital prototyping suite required Kross and his cohorts to develop increased simulation capacity while ensuring that the company’s ethos — helping customers design, visualise and simulate their designs — remained in tact.
Phrased by Autodesk CEO, Carl Bass, as “helping customers experience it before its real,” the crux of the business remains, says Kross, “That our products fundamentally enable users to simulate their designs better digitally than they could physically. This remains the case for every division within Autodesk, and regardless of our customers’ size, turnover or design requirements.” While such technology doesn’t wholly eradicate the need for physical prototypes, accepts Kross, destruction testing is still prevalent within the majority of modern manufacturing processes.
“Assessing the structural performance a coffee cup, for example, will not require overly elaborate testing,” he says. “However, whether you are seeking to ascertain the properties of a relatively simple household product or a highly complex, cost-prohibitive industrial machine, our customers have shared a universal goal since Autodesk’s inception — to reduce, or eliminate, prototypes wherever practically possible.” “In that sense, we don’t view ourselves as an engineering productivity tool, but a set of solutions which, very simply, enable the customer to make better products,” says Kross. “We can’t design for our clients; product innovations must come from the users themselves, and I can’t imagine they would have it any other way. That said, the Autodesk suite represents a crucial component in letting manufacturers ascertain, in unrivalled detail, how their product can realise its optimum design — thus giving the customer a crucial competitive advantage over its rivals.” Given his passion for engineering — “I can’t myself imagine anything more beautiful than a car.
A jet, perhaps.” — it isn’t altogether surprising that Kross considers manufacturing as Autodesk’s most important market, despite it amounting to only 35% of company revenue. “Quite simply,” he says, “manufacturing represents the largest market segment that we operate in; four times bigger than any other sector, in fact. Moreover, because the four largest producers of software in the segment only hold 40% of market share, there is still significant penetration to be gained.”
Although approximately one-fourth of Autodesk’s manufacturing division’s revenue is derived from enterprises with over $2bn revenue, “We place great importance on enabling SMEs to realise their optimum design capabilities, says Kross. “Indeed, innovation has historically come from the smaller operators; true of the market as a whole, this is especially pronounced in the manufacturing sector.
With lower-cost economies becoming ever more dominant into the production of goods, moreover, manufacturers realise that while competing on price will often prove challenging, they have the ability to ‘out-innovate’ China, for example.” “Similarly, the degree of offshoring that occurs in a modern supply chain – where a product may be designed in Britain, manufactured in Ireland and supplied to Taiwan – means that companies no longer have the chance to tweak their designs slowly,” says Kross. Simulation of the factory and its layout therefore becomes critically important to effective manufacturing, with solutions such as Autodesk Navisworks enabling users to combine multi-CAD data aggregation, visualisation and optimisation of large-scale factory layouts.
Paradigms make dollars…
Parametric modelling involves the use of a computer to design objects by modelling their components with real-world behaviors and attributes. “Historically, parametric modelling has been the dominant paradigm for design processes within the industry,” says Kross, “and, as such, Autodesk has long been a champion of its benefits. However, we are beginning to see a wave of direct modelling capabilities permeate the market, ensuring a fundamentally more menuless interface experience for the end user.” Offering an integration of both technologies within its product suite, Autodesk’s Inventor Fusion is currently the sole concept modeller enabling designers to engage in direct modelling without the use of traditional parameters; a paradigm shift, in other words.
Inherent in any move from entrenched, widelypraised working methods, however, is the leap of faith required by users in terms of both thinking and practical working patterns.
Did the advent of direct modelling provide such concerns for Autodesk? “Absolutely,” confirms Kross. “However, critical to the transition of our products from concept to release has been Autodesk Labs, an interactive development forum which allows us to upload early and prototype technologies for both new and existing users to roadtest. For example, Inventor Fusion was introduced to the Labs in 2009, ensuring that Autodesk condition the product based on our customers’ feedback of using an eradefining design solution.” “Coupled with the refining of such technology, Autodesk’ focus going forward – echoing the principles upon which the company was founded – rests on a continual drive to increase our product range’s ease of use. Largely past the stage of making menus or icons easier to read, we are concentrating on eliminating functions and commands,” says Kross. With an ability to study its customers’ patterns of use, Autodesk can predict the regularity and order in which commands are used; streamlining the entire environment as a result.
“We are looking to get to a menuless environment across the entire product suite, ensuring maximum real estate for design – which, ultimately, goes to the heart of what engineers, architects and simulation specialists look for in their design solutions,” he says.
Moreover, an increasing percentage of Autodesk’s newer product offerings are developed by small, fast-paced engineering teams. Where Kross’ Inventor team traditionally numbered 700 design specialists, a number of the company’s most recent developments were put together by teams of twelve technicians, if that. “The nature of our internal infrastructure means that we are able to construct leaner, more advanced and faster tools — while retaining the interface that our customers have come to associate with an Autodesk product,” confirms Kross. “Indeed, given that our portfolio is designed to encourage, foster and facilitate innovation, it would be somewhat amiss were we not continually striving for the same in the design and execution of our products.”