Attending Autodesk University (AU2015) is a pleasant change for me. First of all, it diverges a bit from my usual focus on ERP. But as I have been saying for years now, the footprint of ERP has been expanding to the point where it is hard to tell where ERP ends and other software categories begin. Indeed, many ERP players have ventured into design software (largely PLM solutions), data management, and more recently the Internet of Things (IoT), all of which lie squarely in Autodesk’s wheelhouse. And of course, while I don’t limit my writing or research to a particular industry, manufacturing (a key industry for Autodesk) is “home” for me.
I came to “know” Autodesk better a couple of years ago when I worked on a project with them as they partnered with NetSuite, integrating ERP and PLM. That partnership is still strong today, expanding into the area of configure, price, quote (CPQ), as well as IoT. AU2015 is a good opportunity to refresh my knowledge of and my relationship with Autodesk itself.
But that’s not the only reason why AU2015 is a pleasant change for me. Even more appealing: Being surrounded by a vibrant crowd of innovators that see technology as a potential game changer. It seems I spend a lot of my time these days convincing business leaders of that potential. Even those who might be innovators in their own fields seem to undervalue and underappreciate what technology can do for them in terms of the (back office and front office) software that runs the business. Even as their current software might keep them locked out from this competitive advantage, because they spent a lot of blood, sweat and tears (not to mention money) getting it up and running, they are simply reluctant to rip it out and replace it, often convincing themselves “they can’t” or “it’s not worth it.” It’s my job to convince them otherwise, showing them the potential for game-changing results. Innovation can’t reside exclusively in a silo all by itself. It needs to connect back to the people and the software running the business.
Many in the Autodesk community have already made the connection between technology and innovation. So it is very refreshing to see and hear so many business leaders chomping at the bit to take advantage of these new technologies in order to accelerate innovation and really change their own game. Company after company came on stage during the Innovation Forum within AU2015 with bright new ideas and applications for technology.
LMN Architects that actually took it upon itself to develop software to use in validating designs. Turning to its in-house LMN Tech Studio for its Cleveland Civic Center project, it developed a 3D digital model of the façade, using parametric modeling techniques to help them convert a hand sketch of the window pattern into a set of fabrication-ready glass and precast-concrete panels. The team used a 3D printer to print out the basic panel form, then used this as the basis for a plaster mold to generate its own complete scale model. Tech Studio set a new standard for team wide collaboration and completely redefined the role of technology in design. As a result, they were able to complete the Cleveland Civic Center project in just 3.5 months (a typical project is 13 months).
JE Dunn Construction also developed a tool in house (called LENS), not for design, but for estimating. LENS allows you to develop a full estimate based on a simple sketch.
GE FirstBuild (yes even old dogs can develop new tricks!) is a partnership between GE and Local Motors formed to “create a new model for the appliance industry, engaging a community of industrial designers, scientists, engineers, makers and early adopters to address some of the toughest engineering challenges and innovations. FirstBuild will then manufacture those designs in its Microfactory for rapid product introduction and iteration.” Its first ever Appliance Hackathon developed 5 new prototype appliances. And as GE’s product evangelist Taylor Dawson (@J_TaylorDawson) said on stage, “A prototype is worth a thousand meetings.” Amen!
These are just a small sampling of companies, ranging from very small, early stage startups to large enterprises taking an innovative approach to using the software, services and platforms Autodesk provides. And it’s not just companies that are innovating. Matt Flail and Tim Ganter, industrial design students at Philadelphia University’s masters program came on stage to describe how they are taking a giant step beyond custom orthotics (the kind that fit inside shoes.) Instead they are making the whole shoe, using 3D scanning and 3D printing to create completely customized footwear that is made to conform exactly to the wearer’s needs. Their thesis project is called FOOTPRINT: 3D Printed Custom Algorithmic Footwear and their goal is to produce cutting edge shoes by incorporating 3D scanning, algorithmic model development, rapid manufacturing, and advanced textile technologies.
And Autodesk itself is no slouch when it comes to fostering innovation. There were several themes interwoven throughout the event to prove that. The overriding theme was “the future of making things.” To this end, Autodesk is on a mission to fuse three components that have previously been treated separately: Design, Make and Use. There are a lot of technical components here. We heard about generative design, and building intelligence and machine learning into smarter products. We heard about 3D printing, not just for printing trinkets, but some really valuable industrial and medical uses, from body parts to tooling. Attendees even assembled 3D printed hands with e-NABLE, a non-profit that provides customized 3D printed prosthetics for children.
So what is this fusion of design-make-use really all about? I think a quote from the stage really sums it up: “Stop trying to make people want what you make. Instead make what people want.” And recognize that people sometimes don’t know exactly what they want from a product until they use it. Therefore what people want continues to evolve as products are used. A smart product, connected through the cloud, can indeed continue to evolve even as it is being used.
This philosophy fit nicely into a fun kind of theme at Autodesk University – Star Wars. Complete with Storm Troopers!
Always drawn to fun analogies, I’ve picked up on the anticipated Star Wars craze in some of my recent writing (contact Lisa Lincoln at firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested in learning more). A couple years ago I had fun with a Star Trek theme as I wrote about “Next Generation ERP” moving into the final frontier. But that concept of next generation software can be applied to a lot of different software categories.
Star Trek was all about sleek and futuristic technology, including starships that could travel at warp speed, transporter beams, (wireless) communication devices, weapons that could be placed on “stun,” and other electronic gadgetry that might not seem so futuristic today. But all these pieces of technology had something in common. They weren’t just cool to have; they served a real need -solved the right problem, perhaps?
The Star Wars franchise was (is?) better known for “the Force.” The Force was an energy that could be harnessed to perform supernatural feats and to amplify other common physical traits of speed and reflexes. Of course the original movie relied on some futuristic technology at the time, particularly in the use of robotic droids and space travel, but it was more about enhancing human performance. While we haven’t yet achieved the same level of progress in space travel, robotics don’t seem so futuristic today and in fact we saw them featured prominently on the AU2015 show floor. More importantly, the Force at AU2015 was really about enhancing the performance of people, products and organizations.
This supports a concept Autodesk CEO Carl Bass (@carlbass) emphasizes – one of “reframing.” He encouraged his audience to ask themselves: Are you solving the right problem? The example he used: Did you know there is a higher energy impact in making a car than driving it over its lifespan? So is reducing fuel consumption really the right problem to solve? I guess it is for the consumer paying at the pump, but maybe not so when you consider the greater good. But just asking the question is a giant step in the right direction.
But solving the right problems is going to be a group effort, which is why Autodesk is relentlessly building out the ecosystem, with more than just software and design tools.
Its cloud-based Forge Initiative, announced during the event, is a three-pronged effort to transform how products are designed, made and used. The three major components include a platform-as-a-service (PaaS) offering, a robust developer program, and a $100 million investment fund. The components:
- Platform-as-a-Service – The Forge Platform is a set of cloud services that span early stage design, engineering, visualization, collaboration, production and operations. Open application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) enable small and large software developers alike to build intuitive solutions to real problems.
- Developer Program – The Forge Developer Program will provide ongoing training, resources and support to the developer community. Autodesk will host an inaugural Forge Developer Conference next June.
- Investment Fund – The Forge Fund will provide up to $100 million in funding, as well as business and technical support to start-ups that are working to deliver innovative solutions and services on or connected to the Forge Platform. This investment will be made over the next several years.
But of course for the Force to be strong, there must be at least the implication of some magic – remember those seemingly supernatural powers? For a company like Autodesk, I think the keys to unleashing this “magic” lies in harnessing data from the Internet of Things (IoT). As Mr. Bass points out, we are rapidly approaching a time when everything will have an IP address and everything is addressable. This opens the doors to a whole new level of understanding of how products perform and how they are used.
IoT is not a foreign concept to manufacturing. Manufacturers have been collecting enormous volumes of data from sensors on the shop floor for many years now. But much of that data has lain dormant because these manufacturers didn’t have the tools and technology to really harness it. Of course the most intuitive use cases for harnessing that data has been in maintenance. Don’t schedule downtime for unnecessary preventive maintenance. Don’t wait for products to fail. Predict failure and perform maintenance optimally based on data collected by the product itself.
In the future of making things, we need to apply this same concept to any kind of consumer, medical or industrial product, move it beyond maintenance and harvest that data to help us improve the products themselves, along with efficiencies that measure human performance. That means we need tools to make it easy to connect all these addressable sources of data. I think this must have been at least part of the consideration in Autodesk’s acquisition of SeeControl last summer, which resulted in the announcement of Autodesk SeeControl at AU2015.
The Internet of Things refers to the growing ecosystem of physical things embedded with electronics, software, and sensors that are connected to the Internet and to each other. When these things are products sold to end customers, manufacturers can gather and stream data about how they are being used to offer valuable insights, allowing them to respond to the needs of their markets and individual customers. Connected products also create new insights for the people who design and make them, helping companies better understand their use and improve them over time.
Autodesk SeeControl allows manufacturers to monitor how their product performs in the real world and use live data to optimize future versions. They can keep products running at peak levels, identify potential for failure before it happens and schedule maintenance downtime when it is least disruptive. Ultimately, manufacturers can bring their customers a level of enhanced services based on information about real world product performance and consumption.
Autodesk SeeControl is absolutely native to cloud and device agnostic. Most any protocol you encounter has been accommodated, but if you find a new one, Autodesk can add it generally within a couple of days. But even better, it requires no specific technical or programming skills to connect new devices. Most any business analyst or product manager can get in and do something meaningful with hardly any keying. Just point and click.
The connected product journey has begun – the journey to customer discovery, better next design, advanced services and product as a service.
In conclusion, whether you are looking to
- Re-imagine the future of making things
- Fuse the design – make – use processes with connected products
- Solve the right problems or
- Simply bring innovation to your business and your customers
…Know that the Force is strong at Autodesk. May the Force be with you.