A vision of the future through Autodesk’s eyes

While at AU2014, Jonny Williamson caught up with a number of senior Autodesk executives to uncover the trends the software company predicts will disrupt the manufacturing landscape.

Autodesk President and CEO Carl Bass welcomes 10,000 attendees to Autodesk University 2014 (Image -Business Wire)
Autodesk CEO, Carl Bass welcomes 10,000 attendees to Autodesk University 2014 (Image -Business Wire).

“Not since the Industrial Revolution has there been such a broad and radical rethinking of the way that we make things.”

That’s the feeling of Autodesk’s CEO, Carl Bass, who goes on to say that modern technology has enabled us “to move more fluidly between what exists in the physical world to what exits in the digital world”.

The biggest change, he continues, is the ability to work with much richer data. “Modern data better captures the complexity of the real world and allows computers to take on more of the foundational work of building models, enabling users to devote more time to actually designing.”

Generative design

What the CEO is describing is known as “generative design”, a system that learns, works and supports problem solving the same way that nature does. It starts with your goals and then explores all the possible permeations of a solution through successive generations until the optimum one is found; in other words, “a complete inversion of the traditional perspective”, says Autodesk CTO, Jeff Kowalski.

“Nature takes the optimum design and reiterates; in that way, it only moves forward. For us to experience similar progress, we need to consider the huge corpus of potentially relevant ideas and designs that already exist.

Autodesk Future PQ“We need to stop telling computers what to do and instead tell them what we want to achieve, utilising them as not merely tools, but portals for exploration and an expansion of human potential.”

Looking at design as a living process isn’t a new concept, but due to the volume of processing power required, it hasn’t been practical previously, and sat largely locked up in theoretical computers. That is until now.

The Cloud has provided access to the computing power generative design requires, in essence accelerating evolution like nature. Though what the Cloud offers doesn’t just stop with generative design, according to Bass, the Cloud also provides “a natural hub for project collaboration, with collaboration and design management built into everything rather than being another task layered on top”.

Community of things

Kowalski notes that whether designed in a more traditional manner or utilising next generation technologies, “as wonderful as our creations are, they are all more dead than alive.”

Autodesk and Local Motors
Autodesk and Local Motors collaborate on first industrial application of Spark (Image – Business Wire).

“Intelligent taxonomies and generative design may help bring life to design, but the moment that creation is brought into the world, it starts dying [due to obsolesce, either planned or otherwise].

“[To become more alive], the things that we design and manufacture now and in the future need to do three things – sense, respond and collaborate. Collecting data, even big data, isn’t enough. We need our objects and environments to respond, to act on sensory input.”

The CTO thinks that we’ve been too focused on simply delivering “things” and we haven’t considered the environment our products exist in or the potential experiences they can provide.

“We need to move away from the Internet of Thing, i.e. solely talking to me, to better realise the Internet of Things, i.e. communicating with each other and becoming conscious of what’s happening out in the world.”

Hardware revolution

Helping to further the dual market disruptions of both generative design and “more alive” things is additive manufacturing, a process that holds the promise of shrinking the distance between a design and a finished, real-world artefact.

There has been an almost 35,000% increase in 3D hardware over the past five years, but there still exists a 25 – 75% failure rate.

Behind the front cover of Autodesk's Spark-powered 3D printer, Ember.
Behind the front cover of Autodesk’s Spark-powered 3D printer, Ember.

The current process of information moving from design tool to printer is convoluted and fragmented, let alone inefficient and costly, and at present there exists a broad spectrum of variables in choice of tool and machine.

Regardless of what file you send them, 2D printers work. Autodesk has attempted to bring that uniformity to 3D printers by exploring the intersection of hardware, software and materials to create Spark (the first free, open 3D printing software platform) and Ember (the first Spark-powered 3D printer).

Throughout history, technology has always disrupted how things are made so shouldn’t be something to fear, reflects Bass, adding that the most important resource moving forward is young engineers, designers, makers who grow up understanding the tools of the future.

“To assume that the solutions to the biggest global challenges will come solely from professionals and industry is naïve. The future will be built by small hands creating big ideas for everyone.”

Alongside these three technology trends, Autodesk also predicts:

1 Markets of One – mass personalisation will march toward the mainstream

In the past few years, an increasing number of companies have started to offer customers the ability to customise their product by allowing customers to select from predefined options.

Diego Tamburini, manufacturing industry strategist at Autodesk, predicts this trend will build with consumer demand for products uniquely tailored to their needs, tastes and bodies increasing.

2 Human-Robot Symbiosis – our relationship with robots will be redefined

In the future, humans and robots will collaborate and learn from each other. Today, robots are receiving data and using machine learning techniques to make sense of the world and provide actionable analytics for themselves and humans.

Nevertheless, robots are not artists and they will need inspiration and guidance from us for the foreseeable future. In the words of Autodesk Technology Futurist, Jordan Brandt, “a robot is no more a craftsman than an algorithm is a designer.”

3 Digital Cities – big data will inform our urban landscape

Thanks to advances in laser scanning, sensors and Cloud-based software, cities are now being digitised into 3D models that can be viewed from every angle, changed and analysed at a moment’s notice.

Cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Singapore, Tokyo and Boston are working to digitise not just the shapes and locations of their buildings, but create a data-rich, living model of the city itself — complete with simulated pedestrian traffic, energy use, carbon footprint, water distribution, transportation, even the movement of infectious diseases.

4 Living Buildings – buildings are dead, but new materials and technology are bringing and returning them to life

David Benjamin, founding principal of the design and research studio The Living, is collaborating with plant biologists at the University of Cambridge to grow new composite materials from bacteria, a process that uses renewable sugars as a raw material rather than non-renewable petroleum used for plastics.

In 2014, The Living delivered Hy-Fi, a “living” installation for the Museum of Modern Art. The temporary installation involved a 40-foot-tall tower with 10,000 bricks grown entirely from compostable materials — corn stalks and mushrooms — and developed in collaboration with innovative materials company Ecovative. The building was disassembled at the end of the summer and all of the bricks have been composted, returning to grade A soil.

5 Made in Space – 2015 will be the year of space manufacturing

With more than 30,000+ hours of 3D printing technology testing, Made in Space has led to the first 3D printers designed and built for use on the International Space Station.

As Made in Space CTO, Jason Dunn explains, “no longer do engineers need to design around the burdens of launch – instead, in 2015 we will begin designing space systems that are actually built in the space environment. This opens an entirely new book on space system design, a book where complex 3D printed structures that could only exist in zero gravity become possible”.