Diverse Use Cases at Autodesk Accelerate 2016


The use cases on display at Autodesk’s Accelerate 2016 showed the breadth of capabilities for their PLM suite.


The Accelerate conference in Boston last week featured lots of customer presentations. This is Autodesk’s annual conference for their PLM platform Fusion Lifecycle (formerly PLM 360). The presenters were a mix of manufacturing firms, many that had large construction or assembly projects associated with delivery of their solutions. This is in keeping with Autodesk’s strength in the construction industry. Here I highlight a couple of interesting customer examples from the conference.


We heard from Brad Lott, E-Business Leader at GSI. GSI makes systems and structures for drying, moving, and storing grains. These are big, complex, highly custom-configured systems. As such, a lot of time and effort goes into responding to RFQs and creating custom configurations and quotes. GSI, who had previously done this work manually with spreadsheets, selected Configure One (acquired by Autodesk) for CPQ (Configure, Price, Quote).

They originally bought Configure One for use with one product in one division. Now they have expanded to using it for 34 different products across the whole company. Brad said that the use of Configure One has forced more structure and discipline into the business. He also said that dealers, who were at first wary, now love how it speeds up the process and makes everything more efficient. The quote turnaround time, which had been two to eight days, was now less than four hours. In fact, feedback from their dealers is key to the continual improvement. During training sessions, the dealers sometimes question why things are done in a certain way or make suggestions, prompting GSI to continually refine the configuration process. He said that configurator work is never done — not just adding new products, but making the process better. For example, they are looking at the possibility of allowing end customers to do self-service configuration. The output would be a potential configuration, sent as a highly qualified lead to the appropriate dealer. Previously, configuration of these systems took a certain level of engineering expertise that limited who could do it, for example in calculating the right size fan for getting enough but not too much air movement. Now the system does most of the work for you, which means that anyone smart enough to use tools like Excel, can create valid configurations.

Source: Tony Webster from Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

NPI and Reverse Logistics at Danby

Source: Image by Danby

Mark Tanner is Director of MIS at Danby, a manufacturer of specialty appliances, such as high-end wine coolers, refrigerators, dishwashers, ranges, air conditioners, dehumidifiers, washing machines, and so forth. Last year, Danby’s new president wanted the company to cut new product introduction (NPI) time in half, from a year down to six months. He recognized that this level of performance improvement would require a new process-driven approach, clearly defined goals, and a platform to enable it. They selected Fusion Lifecycle based on its scalability and adaptability, among other criteria.

Once they had the platform in place for NPI, they realized they were now capturing the information needed to improve their reverse logistics processes as well. Danby had recently moved the reverse logistics back in-house and were already seeing improvements to their returns. Using Fusion Lifecycle, they built a whole workflow for the reverse logistics process including inspection, data entry of specific parameters about the condition of the returned product (e.g. number and location of scratches and dents, working condition, etc.), and rules-based decision logic that categorized each unit according to its disposition, such as to be stripped for parts and scraped, to be repaired, to be refurbished, or to be sold as is. Before, when the reverse logistics process was still outsourced, they used to get about $0.20 on the dollar for returns. After bringing it in-house and moving the process onto a PLM workflow, they are now getting $0.60 to $0.70 on the dollar. They continue to look for opportunities to improve, adding more tasks into the workflow, and automating more of those tasks where possible.

First Solar’s Single Source of Truth

Many of Autodesk’s clients are either manufacturers or construction companies. Some, such as First Solar, are both. First Solar is the world’s largest manufacturer of PV solar modules. They focus on utility-scale projects (rather than residential or commercial). First Solar started off as a manufacturer of thin film CdTe1 solar cells and modules. Several years ago, in addition to manufacturing, they started moving downstream doing more installation, maintenance, and more recently financing and operating their own plants. They have a dedicated EPC2 group for building utility scale power plants. These can be significant projects, such as their Topaz Solar Farm comprised of over nine million solar panels on 6,000 acres. These large projects require serious project management capabilities.

We heard from First Solar’s Mark Zeni (Director of Engineering Operations), Bill Mitchell (MIS Analyst), and Ryan Markey (Industrial Engineer). First Solar evaluated and selected Fusion Lifecycle for their PLM last year for use on the BOS (balance of system)3 portion of these projects. This includes interconnects to the grid, trackers, power plant controllers, and a state of art operations center in Tempe, AZ, where they monitor their plants around the world in real time. The main challenge they were trying to address with Fusion is the coordination of nine different BOS engineering groups, each with their own product team (such as DC electrical, AC electrical, fixed tilt, trackers, structural, and so forth). Each group has a need to see the other’s documents, which previously were held in different systems, such as various SharePoint systems, a standalone PLM used by one group, SAP, Box.net and so forth. There were a lot of challenges tracking down the right documents and issues with incorrect revisions. Using the wrong version of a document leads to errors, rework, late projects, and lower project profitability.

First Solar chose Fusion Lifecycle over several other PLM systems because it was the only one able to configure the workflows to meet First Solar’s unique needs. The designer search tool lets them build custom classification and characteristics, making it easier to manage items. They also liked the ease with which Fusion lets them drill from top level assembly down to the nut and bolt level of the structures. They can see the nested engineering view and also flatten it to see all the components. Other capabilities that attracted them were the APIs, reporting, mass imports/exports, mass change, and good process metrics to measure improvements and monitor the health of processes.

They started the project in December 2015 and deployed in July this year. Users are excited about the new system, being tired of having to go to multiple systems to get information. They now have a single source of part data with one workflow across the entire end-to-end process, starting with requesting a new part, through to engineering design, approval, pricing, finding vendors, and so forth.

First Solar built a ‘responsibility matrix’ to manage the different stakeholders throughout the process. When a user creates a new part, there is a predefined list of responsible people for each discipline and each step in the process. The system sends notifications to the responsible person and monitors progress. The workflow has been streamlined, eliminating gaps created while waiting for emails or spreadsheets, trying to find the right people, and so forth. This has cut two days out of their new part creation process and the part change process. With the success they’ve had in BOS, they are now expanding the system to work on the solar module side as well, and creating a supplier portal. First Solar expects payback on their investment by mid-2018 or sooner.

Capabilities Across the Lifecycle and Spectrum of Needs

The examples of different use cases we saw at Accelerate demonstrate capabilities that spans the end-to-end lifecycle and a broad spectrum of needs for manufacturers, construction firms, and hybrids like First Solar and GSI.


1 CdTe = cadmium telluride. Unlike the majority of photovoltaic solar module manufacturers who use crystalline silicon as the photovoltaic material, First Solar uses cadmium telluride, and has been able to achieve some of the lowest costs per watt in the industry. — Return to article text above
2 EPC = Engineering, Procurement, and Construction — Return to article text above
3 Balance of system refers to all components of PV power plants other than they actual PV modules. It can include the grid connection, offices, concrete, land, and processes such as siting and permitting. — Return to article text above

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

Scroll to Top