CAD software maker says designers want digital prototypes

SAN FRANCISCO – Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO, recalls a conversation with a client who creates outsize – as in 20-foot-plus – granite statues. The client’s been having his production done in China; when Bass saw the bill, he said, “You can’t buy that much granite at Home Depot for that much money.”

Globalization – and the commoditization it drives – is one of the major issues facing the design community, Bass said at Autodesk’s World Press Day held here this week. “These create new design challenges,” Bass said.

Other trends facing designers are the demand for new infrastructure in developing economies and for maintenance and repair of existing infrastructure, soaring energy demand, geopolitical interest in sustainable development and the increasing amount of “screen time” we face as our lifestyle becomes more digital, he said.

Compelling, quality design differentiates businesses, Bass said – look at Nike and Apple.

Or Ottawa-based DEW Engineering, which builds jetways – the ramps we use to board airliners. An enduring frustration of air travelers, boarding and deplaning can take up to 45 minutes. DEW is developing a dual jetway that feeds two doors on a small airliner by maneuvering over the plane’s wing. It’s being tested at Denver International Airport, Bass said, and it’s cutting boarding time by half – which could mean an additional flight a day out of the aircraft.

In the early days of CAD, the software helped designers create blueprints. Now, it’s focused on how things function and are used. The new CAD is about visualization – allowing designers to experience their product before it’s built. “Really, what our customers are doing is building digital models, digital prototypes,” Bass said.

In manufacturing , digital prototyping can take a huge amount of time and expense out of the design process, according to Joe Palumbo of Palumbo Motor Cars. The company, based just out side of Milwaukee, Wisc., is bringing to market a hybrid fuel-electric sports car. The design process would normally entail a series of one-tenth scale models, then a quarter-size version, before going to a full-size mockup. Using Alias Studio (Alias was recently acquired by Autodesk), the company can go straight to a full-size mockup, saving about 75 per cent of the prototyping time. “You can do anything you can do with a scale model” in software, Palumbo said.

The company also uses Autodesk’s Inventor software for chassis design, a process that was once done with wooden models, according to Palumbo’s son Jason. Eventually, the company plans to integrate Inventor and Alias Studio. The company’s M-80 convertible – which will sell for about US$85,000 – will be prototyped within a year, and the Palumbos expect 500 production models a year to be rolling off the line within two years.

It’s the integration that’s key to the new design process, Autodesk executives said. The company’s Revit building information modeling software is an example. It models processes across architecture, engineering and construction to create a prototype that can be used to calculate heating and cooling loads, daylighting levels, and combine mechanical, electrical and HVAC designs for building construction.

“This is a time of huge change for the building industry,” said Patrick MacLeany, CEO of HOK, a 52-year-old architectural firm with offices worldwide. “The next decade will be telling for the industry.” HOK once developed a proprietary UNIX CAD solution, but has since moved to Autodesk. “We discovered in the ’90s that we’re a design firm, not a software firm,” he said.

A construction project is a complex web of communication. Ideally, said MacLeany, a collaborative hub built around a building information model such as what Revit creates allows all involved to share information – and risk – in a project.

These models, whether in manufacturing, architecture or media design, require integration among Autodesk’s products. While they’re all rooted in the familiar AutoCAD platform, delivering that integration on the ground through resellers has been hampered by a siloed distribution mechanism. 

Autodesk resellers have been limited in what products they can deliver, but Bass says the new reality is changing that.

“Maybe two, three years ago, we thought we were ahead of the customers” in terms of integration, he said. Resellers were restricted in what they were allowed to deliver to customers – they were matched to units in Autodesk according to the verticals they were serving. While Bass still likes the customer-facing ethic, “you’ll see a broader range” of products resellers will be able to bring to market, he said.

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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