Reflections by Simon Hailstone
Being in Las Vegas for any length of time can be challenging on the senses as you wander through the staged realities from around the world, none more so than the version of St Mark’s Square at the Venetian.
So it seems almost appropriate that a significant part of AU2016 was dedicated to virtual and augmented realities. Attendees were treated to immersive experiences in architecture, construction, automotive design and even 3D printing. This seems in no small part due to the collaboration with hardware partners and finally some evidence that Autodesk is using its experience in media and entertainment applied to its industrial applications.
Immersive environments have been around in the auto and aero industries for a long time but what was refreshing at AU2016 was the use of workstation level power coupled with HTC Vive to provide collaborative virtual environments of high quality. Working with virtual tools, including virtual torches for inspection provided a glimpse of future possibilities to guide design for service not just in the automotive sector.
Autodesk has released new capabilities to take Revit environments into VR experiences. From the demos on hand and the reaction of participants this will prove to be a valuable addition to the full BIM lifecycle story.
It’s all about the Platform
One of the slightly frustrating aspects of Autodesk’s offering over the years has been the sheer number of products available. In spite of some simplification of industry specific solutions through suites and collections these have served to emphasise a somewhat heterogeneous approach. Autodesk are by no means alone in this but their industry coverage, across construction, manufacturing and entertainment has amplified the problem.
So it was with some interest that we heard throughout the event a message of platforms, connectivity and common data environments. A message starting from the keynote from Amar Hanspal (“… we are moving to integrated platforms and experiences”) and continuing through more detailed sessions with the product teams. The future, at least for the moment, is being headlined with branding of Fusion360, BIM360 and Shotgun. But the platform is Forge and there were a number of impressive customer presentations of Forge development and usage including construction estimation and ERP/BIM integration.
Autodesk continues to be quite transparent in exposing some of its research technologies. At AU we were made aware of two new projects, both in the construction sector. ProjectIQ is a machine learning environment for construction project data providing, for example, predictive analytics and risk assessment within and across multiple projects. Project Quantum is Autodesk’s next generation BIM environment.
Will any of this escape into the wild? The announcement that Dreamcatcher (Autodesk’s generative design environment that has been in the labs for some time) will be available commercially in early 2017 could be taken as a declaration of intent for future projects. There were some interesting practical examples to be seen of what can be produced with such techniques – see the chair and the pavilion below and the optimised automotive frame above.
But what of AutoCAD, Inventor, Revit, Max/Maya and the like, the foundations of Autodesk’s position in the market? Some of the loudest cheers during the product keynotes were heard when enhancements to these products, clearly long awaited among a significant user base, were announced.
Autodesk is continuing to extend capabilities in core areas. Announcements in manufacturing included integrated electronics design, simulation opportunities with Nastran and hybrid manufacturing simulation. In construction, extensions to BIM360 docs for RFIs and submittals, and in media & entertainment new capabilities in production management, studio pipelining and editorial review.
This is all good stuff and should help to keep customers onside. However, talking to delegates over the 3 days there is clearly still some unease about the subscription business model and its long term effects. The cloud was also a topic which seemed less immediate, but left some wondering what their application environment will have to look like in a few years’ time. BIM was also a keen topic. My impression from some delegates was that switching to BIM was a heavy investment in retraining with few benefits for design teams. The true value would only be achieved in cases of end-to-end contracts where all parties have an interest in the total lifecycle value.
A Big Shot of the Hard Stuff…
One of the revealing aspects of AU is that hardware plays a significant part. Prime sponsors include computer hardware providers (HP, Lenovo, Microsoft), there’s a lot of industrial machines on the show floor, a lot of kit related to construction too and that’s before you get to all the usual sports car eye candy.
But sometimes you need to remind yourself that Autodesk University is called that for a reason. It’s primarily for customers and users to attend classes and learn about new or existing capabilities, to gain certification and exchange experiences with others. That learning is primarily about software but it has to run on something and the creations that emerge from it need to be formed somehow in the real world. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that the whole eco system is represented.
With the growth of cloud solutions you might expect the desktop hardware landscape to be like a local Sunday league football (soccer) match – competitive but thinly populated by all but a few die hard supporters. In fact, the opposite is true. The development of new compact form factors, large touch screens and graphics kit – that used to be the reserve of defence contractors and animation studios – made its presence felt at AU.
Additive manufacturing has been showcased for a while but this year there were some serious materials on show including a stainless steel printed chair designed using Dreamcatcher, Autodesk’s project Escher for parallel 3D printing enabled by Netfabb, and some evidence that Autodesk is taking hybrid manufacturing seriously. Certainly in its ‘Make’ zone there was a lot of activity in the more traditional subtractive machining arena and some positive noises coming from delegates.
In construction, reality capture is driving some rapid changes in equipment particularly in the area of site survey. In addition to new high definition ground-based scanning kit, drones are enabling new and rapid ways of capturing not just initial design and site layout but incremental build data. But probably the star of the show in this area was the new portable scanner from Leica which, hooked up to Autodesk’s Recap looks like a game changer particularly for small and medium sized practices and contractors.
Generative design in construction also made its presence felt in the form of a pavilion constructed from multiple materials – a combination of CNC machined limestone and knitted fabric. This was not only a demonstration of the power of this design optimisation method in producing a highly elegant and practical solution, but was also an illustration of the way that the traditional lines separating manufacturing and construction are blurring.
… and some Time for Soul Searching, Reflection and Inspiration
Events such as this always have some feel-good, inspirational speakers. AU is no exception and this year we were treated to a talk from a high-school student involved in robotic design competitions and has also co-founded the STEM4Girls organisation. She finished off with a very direct request to Autodesk and Carl Bass to provide the kinds of tools that her generation need – tools learned quickly, efficiently and that know how you work.
So, what are the tools of the future and will we use them? In a non-technical session possibly one of the most relevant discussions of AU centred around the future of work, the social impact of automation and the role of ethics in developing and maintaining advanced technologies. From his keynote, certainly Jeff Kowalski the CTO sees all the opportunities that automation, AI and machine learning will bring rather than the disadvantages.
However, from this panel discussion there is still a lot of convincing to be done. While we are trying to encourage young people into STEM subjects to become the designers and engineers of the future we are simultaneously developing tools such as generative design which, on the surface, would appear to be taking away some of the traditional engineering skills we are trying to nurture. How will the automated systems of the future be auditable and who will bear the ultimate responsibility in the case of design failure? Some companies are already establishing new company structures to handle these kind of ethical and legal issues. In a future decentralised manufacturing world it will not only affect “blue collar” workers, who have been most affected in the past by such developments, but also white collar professionals. How do we help people find other meaningful things to do?
With that in mind it was good to hear a very human story of how technology combined with human innovation and teamwork can make a real difference. Denise Schindler is a Paralympian cyclist. She worked with a team of engineers to produce a personalised prosthetic limb that that was not only a better fit than previously but was lighter, stronger and more aerodynamic and helped her to 2 medals in Rio. Using 3D scanning, Fusion360 and 3D printing the team was able to reduce cycle times between design and test and optimise the final design.
AU2016 is full of very able people who create some amazing things with some impressive technologies.
To quote Denise Schindler: “Disability is what you can’t do – “ technology is helping to remove disabilities by enabling people to do things”.