Autodesk University 2015 AECbytes Newsletter #78 (December 17, 2015)
Come December, and it’s time for Autodesk’s main annual user event, Autodesk University (AU), held every year in Las Vegas. For Autodesk’s many users across the three main disciplines it targets—AEC, Manufacturing, and Media and Entertainment (M&E)—the annual AU is almost like a rite of passage, not to mention ending the year with a bang. In fact, the most frequently asked question at AU—especially as an ice-breaker when meeting someone new—is whether this is their first AU, and if not, how many AU’s they have attended. Perhaps, in a nod to this, all the “freshmen” attendees this year—those who were at AU for the first time—had a green lanyard nametag ribbon to distinguish them from the “AU veterans” whose lanyard nametag ribbons were gray.
Some fun facts about AU in general: this was the 23rd AU, being held for the first time in San Francisco in 1993; the attendance this year was nearly 10,000, similar to last year, reversing the trend of lower attendance numbers that happened during the recession; many sessions of the live event were streamed online, reaching an additional audience of about 50,000; and in addition to the main Las Vegas event, AU events are now held in 13 other countries, reaching over 25,000 attendees. In fact, this year’s event was so packed that many attendees could not get into the main hall for the opening session and were forced to watch it on a screen in an adjoining “overflow” room, despite making to the session in good time for the session. They were understandably very upset, and Autodesk might have to consider hosting the event at a bigger location if attendance numbers at AU continue to spike.
It was interesting, as always, to attend the event in person and get a feel for the “pulse” of the AEC technology industry—of which Autodesk is undoubtedly the largest vendor. It was also informative to learn about Autodesk developments in the Manufacturing and M&E fields, especially given the fact that Autodesk, at least, sees a growing convergence between all of them. One of the additional aspects about AU that makes it so worthwhile to attend in person is the chance to learn first-hand about the large number of third-party vendors that exhibit at the event and their products, in what can only be described as an ever-growing universe of adds-ins, plug-ins, other supporting technologies, and certified hardware products. This article captures the highlights of the main event, while the exhibitor highlights will be captured in a dedicated article later this month.
The Focus on “Making”
The main theme of AU this year was “The Future of Making Things,” and although this can be translated into “The Future of Building Things” for the AEC industry, I found a lot more emphasis on the Manufacturing (MCAD) industry at this year’s event since it is the one that primarily deals with “making.” For instance, one of the main highlights of the opening session—and many other sessions at the event—was how Autodesk software was being used by Airbus, the leading aircraft manufacturer, to design a partition for its airplanes that separates the passenger seating area from the galley of a plane and holds the jumpseat for the cabin attendants. Generative design was used to create a large number of design alternatives satisfying the numerous design and structural requirements for the partition, including specific cutouts and weight limits. The final design, shown in Figure 1, was selected by further refining the criteria, and it was then 3D printed using additive manufacturing techniques. Dubbed the “bionic partition” as it is created with custom algorithms that mimic cellular structure and bone growth, the structure is stronger and weighs much less than would be possible using traditional processes. The prototype is currently undergoing additional physical tests, and once deployed across Airbus’s entire fleet of aircraft, the reduced weight of the partition will result in substantial fuel savings.
Another major new initiative that was announced by Autodesk at AU this year is Forge, a new cloud platform—referred to as “Platform as a Service” or PaaS—which will serve as a hub for cloud services that span across all stages of “making,” including design, engineering, visualization, collaboration, production, and operations. The idea is to provide a platform with open application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) that other software developers can use to build cloud powered apps, services, and applications. In order to jump-start the effort, Autodesk is starting a $100 million investment fund to encourage development on the Forge platform, similar to the Spark investment fund it announced last year to encourage innovation and collaboration in the 3D printing industry. In addition to the Forge fund, Autodesk is also launching a formal Forge Developer Program to encompass all the developers on this platform; provide them with ongoing training, resources and support; and bring them together in an annual Forge Developer Conference, the first of which is planned for next summer. While Forge is definitely an interesting development—and particularly the idea of having a developer community similar to other leading companies such as Oracle, Microsoft, Google, Apple, and Adobe—it is still quite nebulous, and from what was shown at AU, it again seemed to have a distinct MCAD slant to it.
While there were several additional MCAD developments—including updates to existing applications such as Inventor and Fusion 360, and upcoming tools such as Project Dreamcatcher for generative design and Project Leopard for browser-based MCAD—Autodesk attempted to tie these efforts to its AEC audience as well by emphasizing the convergence between manufacturing and building. With an increasing number of prefabricated components being used in buildings, the construction site has become like an open-air factory, in which pre-manufactured components are brought in and assembled in the desired configuration. To this end, one relevant development is the addition of IFC to the file formats that can be exported from Inventor (Figure 2), which will make it easier for 3D mechanical designs to be used for building and construction.
In addition, the convergence between manufacturing and building was also highlighted by a couple of live demonstrations of robot-enabled fabrication, either fully automated or semi-automated. One such demonstration was the recreation of the MASS LoFab Pavilion that is currently installed on the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston, and which was created by Virginia Tech’s Center for Design Research (CDR) and MASS Design Group in collaboration with Autodesk (Figure 3). The pavilion is a lattice-like structure made up of custom metal joints connected to machined lumber pieces, with each piece being unique to its position in the structure. While the joints are cut by a robotic machine, the lumber pieces themselves are assembled by people.
Another exhibit showing automated construction was the Hive, a 12' high architectural pavilion created from 224 tensegrity units where each unit is composed of three bamboo rods held together with string that is wound by robotic arms (Figure 4). The bamboo rods are not touching each other, and each tensegrity unit is unique due to the bamboo rods having differences in length and diameter. The rods are connected together with special LED units that help the people assembling it—the AU attendee volunteers, in this case—place the pieces accurately.
While these were only exhibit prototypes, it is likely that we will progressively see more of manufacturing in the fabrication aspect of construction in the real world. Recall that Autodesk University 2013 (AECbytes Newsletter #67) featured an innovation called “contour crafting” being developed at the University of Southern California (USC) in which structures are manufactured using large-scale 3D printers. While this seemed extremely futuristic at that time, there is already at least one real-world implementation of a similar concept: a 3D printed steel bridge in Amsterdam designed by Dutch 3D printing firm MX3D on which construction has already begun (Figure 5).
The biggest news from Autodesk on the AEC front at this year’s AU was the launch of BIM 360 Docs, a new application for cloud-based document management, built on the same BIM 360 product family as BIM 360 Glue and BIM 360 Field. Rather than compete head-on with Bentley’s ProjectWise for project management—which remains the tool of choice among the leading design and construction firms all over the world for comprehensive project management and delivery, as I pointed out in my recent article on Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure 2015 Conference—Autodesk has chosen to narrow its focus to the document management subset of project management. Thus, its new BIM 360 Docs competes more directly with the SKYSITE cloud-based document management application for construction that was launched earlier this year by ARC Document Solutions. While most of the functionality in BIM 360 Docs is similar to what cloud-based collaboration solutions like SKYSITE provide—including a central repository for project data, team collaboration, permission based online access, mobile access, version control, elimination of duplication, markup and commenting, and creation of an audit trail—where BIM 360 Docs scores over SKYSITE is in enabling 3D models to be viewed in addition to 2D drawings (Figure 6). Additionally, being part of Autodesk’s AEC portfolio, BIM 360 Docs integrates much more closely with other Autodesk AEC applications like Revit and Navisworks, and especially the BIM 360 family. The product is in beta now, and is expected to be commercially launched in a few months.
Additional AEC-specific product highlights showcased at AU this year included the opportunity to experience the interactive visualization of Autodesk Stingray, the gaming engine it introduced a few months ago (described in AECbytes Newsletter #76), through a powerful virtual reality headset; the new Autodesk Insight 360 cloud service for performance analysis (described in AECbytes Tips and Tricks Issue #76); the continued development of Autodesk Building Ops mobile facilities management software (see the article, Autodesk AEC Summit: 2016 Release and Upcoming Products); and the Rapid Energy Modeling software energy analysis that can be used with Autodesk InfraWorks 360 at a city level to detect which buildings are ready for retrofit and which systems to upgrade. An interesting case study was presented on how this technology was used in Washington DC to help meet its sustainability goals (Figure 7).
For me, the main highlight of this year’s AU was more of a human interest story rather than a technology one. One of the presenters in the opening session was Dr Hugh Herr from the MIT Media Lab, and what was remarkable is that he not only told us of his work in creating prosthetic devices to replace missing limbs in those who had lost them, he actually demonstrated the latest invention in this area by wearing his “bionic legs” during his presentation and displaying how well they worked by walking and even running around the stage in them (Figure 8). A keen mountaineer, he lost both his legs in an accident in 1982—they had to be amputated because of frostbite—and since then, he has been working in the field of prosthetic limbs.
While Autodesk has featured presentations on prosthetic devices at AU before (for example, at Autodesk University 2013) to illustrate the use of its MCAD software in designing and manufacturing such devices, what was so extraordinary about this presentation is that it was coming from someone who had come up with an invention, strongly motivated by his own need for it. Bionics is the next advance in the field of medicine, and bionic devices and implants are a step up from prostheses by mimicking the original body function very closely or even surpassing it. Dr. Herr demonstrated how he was using bionic legs to resume his hobby of mountain-climbing, often with better results than before, to the extent that his competitors now complain about it not being fair to them!
For society at large, he hopes that in the future, there will be no such thing as a “disability,” that we will be able to design and manufacture any missing body parts that get damaged in the course of our lives. His assertion that technology has the power to heal and even extend our capabilities may sound overtly optimistic, but he has actually demonstrated it to be true.
While I did not find this year’s Autodesk University terribly exciting from an AEC technology perspective—and, by the way, there was even less from an M&E perspective, unlike in the past when the use of Autodesk technology in movies like “Avatar” and “Tron Legacy” have been the event showstoppers—it was heartening and affirming to see how much of an impact technology could have on human life as evidenced by Dr Hugh Herr. Just as advancements in manufacturing and material science can enable new developments in medicine that impact the human body—enabled by technology, of course—so too can advancements in AEC technology enable new developments in creating healthier and more sustainable environments for humans to live in.
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