Creating the Future: Highlights from Autodesk University 2015


Autodesk University 2015 showcased their research and investments in future-facing technologies in manufacturing and AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction), such as IoT, 3D printing, and generative design.

Source: Image by ChainLink Research

It is impossible to capture even a fraction of the happenings at an event the size of Autodesk University 2015 (the first Autodesk conference I’ve attended), with more than 650 sessions, hundreds of exhibits and demos, and over 10,000 attendees. However, you can see the spirit, vision, and ethos of a company. The show was an engineering geek’s delight. 3D printers and robots everywhere, modern-art-looking examples of generative design, BAC Mono and McLaren P1 supercars (two of the fastest street-legal cars on the planet) alongside a great looking Harley. These embody Autodesk’s forward-looking vision and investments in future technologies. But Autodesk is not just about the future — they’ve been around for 30 years and dominate the market in design tools for AEC (Architecture, Engineering, and Construction) as well as a strong and growing presence in manufacturing.1

Beyond Passive Tools

The keynote by Autodesk’s CTO, Jeff Kowalski, on Entering the Augmented Age, reinforced the futuristic ethos. He talked about the leap from passive tools used since the dawn of man where humans explicitly direct the tool, to generative design tools where the human merely provides the constraints and optimization goals for the design and the tool uses its own intelligence to synthesize optimized alternative designs. When combined with 3D printing, with its nearly free complexity (allowing the creation of previously unfabricatable parts), generative design can do some amazing things.

Generative Design – The Bionic Partition

Source: Image by Autodesk

An example of generative design was shown: the bionic partition, created by Airbus. Airbus worked in partnership with R&D firm The Living4 (part of Autodesk) using generative design tools to create a new version of the partition that separates the aft galley from the passenger compartment in an Airbus 320. Later in the conference, David Benjamin, Founder of The Living, explained that generative design uses algorithms from biological evolution, which optimizes limited resources to create strong structures using the least amount of material. The computer can evaluate a very broad design space, literally millions of alternative designs and narrow it down to several thousand promising ones. Then the designer uses data visualization tools to view things like weight vs. strength plots and eventually arrive at the best high performing design — much better than traditional approaches. They also did a lot of digital testing, before even building a prototype including stress testing, stretch, compress, twist, bend, and so forth on both individual parts as well as the overall panel.

Source: Image by ChainLink Research

The previous existing partition already had a strong, light, modern honeycomb design (everything in an airplane has already been optimized for minimal weight). However, using generative design, they were able to reduce the weight by an impressive 45% less than the already existing lightweight design (the goal was 30% reduction), while making the new version almost 10% stronger. This was so successful that they decided to start using this part in production A320s (once the part has been fully tested and certified).

Jeff also talked about design tools beyond just generative design, that are intuitive (tools that learn, with no human intervention) and that are ‘empathic,’ i.e. systems that understand humans’ tastes, likes and dislikes.

Robots + People

Source: Image by Autodesk

Next Jeff discussed robotic systems (they were everywhere at this show). He said that humans will be working side-by-side with robots more and more. Autodesk is working on applied research in this area, such as a robot to do high precision repetitive tasks in constructions like cutting holes in sheet rock for outlets and switches. Project Hive showcased this in the pavilion at the show — it was a structure being built by untrained volunteers (i.e. show attendees) working in concert with robots that were building the piece parts and a smartwatch-based interface to tell the people what to do next. When I visited the Hive, it was 65% complete.

An Inspiring Example of Creating the Augmented Age

During Jeff’s talk, he brought up Dr. Hugh Herr, from MIT Media Lab, who gave a moving presentation. Dr. Herr lost both legs to frostbite while doing mountain climbing. He was told he definitely would never climb again. Instead of accepting it, he designed his own artificial limbs. By designing the right prosthetics for the job, within 12 months he was able to climb even better than before. Today he is an MIT professor in Bionics, studying how the human body works in order to augment it. They are looking at how people walk, measuring the biomechanical characteristics (e.g. flexibility and compressibility) of the body’s components, building synthetic skins and mechanical and electrical interfaces between the built world and human body. They are growing nerves through micro tubes that will allow the wearer of a prosthetic to sense and control the limb directly using their own nervous system. He said, “It will be common for people in the future to wear bionic devices with their nervous systems extended out to the physical world. In this century we will systematically create technology that eliminates disabilities.” Dr. Herr was an inspiring example of the coming augmented age.

Digital Nervous System – Input to Design

Source: Image by Autodesk

CTO Jeff Kowalski used the nervous system analogy to segue into talking about connected objects and environments; ‘nervous systems’ for a building or city or machine. A specific example he gave was the Bandito Brothers5 car that Autodesk instrumented with all kinds of sensors, recording all the forces the chassis was subjected to while being driven through extreme maneuvers. They took all of that real-world data and plugged it into their generative design tool, Dreamcatcher, and asked it to build a 3D printable chassis that could withstand those forces. This theme of using IoT sensor inputs to inform design was heard repeatedly and seems to be central to Autodesk’s vision for IoT.

Forging a New Platform and Ecosystem

Amar Hanspal, Autodesk’s SVP Products, talked about Forge — an initiative that is roughly analogous to Salesforce’s, except Forge is focused on design and engineering rather than CRM. It provides a platform for software firms to build tightly-integrated sets of cooperating web service components and applications for the engineering and design community — everything from design, to manufacturing, field service, visualization — all with the design data at the core. The platform provides a consistent set of APIs that can work across the cloud, providing partners a way to develop their apps with common UI, administrative, and data integration. Amar said that Autodesk’s goal is for Forge to be the platform; the first choice for anyone developing design and engineering related solutions.

The Forge Program and Forge Fund

In addition to the platform itself, Autodesk is creating a community, resources, and events to support developers. Next June they will host their first ever public Forge Developers Conference in San Francisco. Examples of early members of the Forge program include BRITEHUB, FATHOM,, MakeTime, Proto Labs, and HWTrek. The third leg of the stool for Forge is a $100M investment fund that Autodesk is running, similar to what they did with the Spark Fund for additive manufacturing (see below).

Commitment to the Cloud

Source: Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay

Autodesk has been one of the first and most committed among CAD vendors to move aggressively onto the cloud. Two years ago, they launched Fusion 360 and also announced the integration of PLM 360 with NetSuite, all pure cloud-based solutions. Autodesk’s VP of Cloud Solutions, Scott Reese, talked about how production, construction, and fabrication are all changing and transitioning from sequential linear processes to more iterative design, flexible on-demand manufacturing, and connected products with as-a-service business models. All of these are driving the move to using the cloud, to keep everyone on the same page in a single version of the truth, regardless of who they work for; as well as provide a central repository for IoT data and enable Forge-based applications to work together. Autodesk’s core market of AEC is a great example of an industry where many players, from many different companies, work on very complex construction projects, with ever-changing designs, project status, schedules, and constraints — all of which must be tightly synchronized. The cloud helps keep everyone in sync, with an always up-to-date single-version-of-the-truth.


Cloud also helps in tightly coupling the Design-Make-Use cycle. Changes made in design can automatically propagate through to manufacturing and field service. Data collected out in the field via sensors about how the product is being used and how it is performing is made more easily available for analysis and feedback into the design cycle via the cloud. In recent years, Autodesk has invested more in the “Make” phase, such as their major investments in 3D printing. Now, the increasing importance of IoT and the acquisition of SeeControl has pulled Autodesk more fully into the “Use” phase, making them more of a full lifecycle provider.

SeeControl Rapidly IoT-Enables Installed Base of Legacy Industrial Controls

As part of the SeeControl launch announcement (see sidebar) we heard from David Keeley who manages Engineering for TSM Control Systems. They make gravimetric7 blending and control systems that control the flow of materials for blending and batch production of plastics and other materials to make things like pipe and tubing, blow moulding, blown film, extrusion coatings and much more. A 40+ year-old company, TSM already has a huge installed base of industrial machinery. As the ‘brains’ of these production machines, their device already generates many gigabytes of data out in the field, but up to now it has been locked up in the machines and not available for applications (outside of local control).

David said they first spoke to the Autodesk-SeeControl folks about six weeks ago. He said once they received the documentation, he configured the backend himself and they were up and streaming data from their machine within two days without needing help from anyone at Autodesk. In the short term they see it as a way to deliver a whole new set of services using that data. In the long term there are even more exciting things they could do. Their management team is still thinking through possibilities and coming up with a strategy that works for both TSM and their customers. David concluded, “I think these platforms are transformational for manufacturers. A lot of companies like ours need to take a look at our day-to-day operations and offerings. It has the potential to change everything from the way we sell to the way we service.

3D Printing

3D printing is an area that Autodesk is investing heavily in with three interrelated initiatives:

  • Ember – n open source, production quality, DLP stereolithography 3D printer, with 50 micron XY resolution (about two thousandths of an inch) and 10-100 micron Z resolution.
  • Spark Investment Fund – $100M fund to accelerate advancements in 3D printing.

Carl Bass, Autodesk’s CEO, spoke about these investments as “ — transitioning the 3D printing conversation from manufacturing trinkets to making real parts.” He said that the investment fund not only invigorates development, but exposes Autodesk to just about everything happening out there, enabling them to help direct some of their partners in useful ways, such as creating novel materials with the right desired characteristics that are needed for the next generation of 3D printers and applications. The Ember printer is being adopted and is generating lots of interest.9 Autodesk also recently acquired NetFabb, provider of software for 3D printing used worldwide by over 80,000 designers, manufacturers, artists, researchers and developers for production 3D printing tasks.10

Acquisitions and Interns

Carl Bass said Autodesk does about 10 to 15 acquisitions per year, with many of them being ‘acquihires’ of smaller firms that have breakthrough technology and passionate talent. He said it is fairly rare for them to buy a larger mature firm, though it does happen. He also talked about their philosophy towards interns, saying, “We value the insights that come from young people. They are not empty vessels, but have a well-founded point-of-view on what the future will look like that we like to tap into.” I saw this in action as Autodesk had some interns use the newly acquired SeeControl platform to build an IoT application for a self-propelling robotic ball. I saw how seriously the Autodesk team listened to and incorporated what was learned from that process.

Research Scientists, Advanced Materials Specialists, and Data Scientists, Oh My!

One more example of Autodesk’s future-facing orientation was a session I attended, “The Future of Making Things is Here — Generative Design and Additive Manufacturing,” a panel discussion of Autodesk personnel in advanced manufacturing, research, and 3D printing. Their broad ranging discussion covered areas like new materials with inherent sensor capabilities (a carbon fiber that tells you how much it’s being flexed and stressed), new 3D printing beyond SLS (Selective Laser Sintering), how people are tackling the relatively high failure rates of additive manufacturing and much more. The brainpower and knowledge on the panel highlighted for me the investments that Autodesk makes into research and advanced technology. I met a number of Autodesk’s research scientists of various types at the show, such as in materials science, manufacturing technologies, data analytics, and generative design to name a few.

Autodesk Creating the Future

This was my first Autodesk University and first broad exposure to Autodesk as a whole. The acquisition of SeeControl is what drove our interest and participation, since IoT is central to our research. It seems to me the SeeControl acquisition will drive Autodesk deeper into manufacturers’ ‘use’ phase, especially in the area of service and new business models. Having an engineering background myself, I appreciated Autodesk’s no-nonsense and inquisitive/future-investing culture. They seem to be investing in many of the right areas to align with where manufacturers and the AEC industry are headed. It will be fascinating to watch them co-create the future with their partners and customers.


1 Carl Bass, Autodesk’s CEO, talked about the blurring of lines between construction and manufacturing industries — where components of building are manufactured offsite and assembled onsite. He gave the example of ConXTech steel frame buildings, with components manufactured by robotic systems and Lego-like assembly on site. — Return to article text above
2 I have a personal testimony about this democratization — I purchased and learned AutoCAD myself a couple decades ago to design a very simple addition to our house. — Return to article text above
3 When counted by number of seats, AutoCAD has the largest market share of any CAD software company. — Return to article text above
4 The Living is a cross-discipline R&D firm with projects of architecture, art, industrial design, aerospace, computer science, engineering, manufacturing and synthetic biology. The Living was acquired by Autodesk in 2014. — Return to article text above
5 The Bandito Brothers is a media company that, among other things, produces spectacular cars stunts, like the world record longest 4-wheeled car jump, first car corkscrew, and first double loop. — Return to article text above
6 A digital twin is a digital representation of a real-world object that uses data from sensors on the object to represent the state of the objects in near real-time. — Return to article text above
7 See this Plastics Technology article for an explanation of gravimetric vs. volumetric feed rate control systems. According to the source, “Since virtually all plastics feeding and proportioning applications are weight-based for reasons of both cost and quality, gravimetric (weight-based) feeding is, today, the near-universally preferred approach.” — Return to article text above
8 Spark’s ecosystem partners include some very innovative companies, such as 3D Hubs, a network of over 25,000 3D printing service providers, Occipital who makes a 3D scanner that attaches to an iPad, Voxel8 for printing 3D electronics (in combination with Autodesk’s ‘Project Wire’), Authentise, provider of a 3D development platform, secure design delivery, and print monitoring to protect 3D IP ownership — and many other 3D printing solution and service providers. — Return to article text above
9 One customer wanted to buy a thousand Ember printers. — Return to article text above
10 NetFabb provides functionality such as optimal packing of objects to be printed as compact as possible, 3D file repair, slicing (for printing in multiple passes objects that are larger than your 3D printer can make in a single pass), and more. — Return to article text above

To view other articles from this issue of the brief, click here.

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