Autodesk University 2011 Las Vegas Weather: Partly Cloudy

Bill Fane
December 13, 2011
Written by
Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO
Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO
If you use any Autodesk products at all then you need to put at least one trip to Autodesk University (AU) on your bucket list. Before you begin hitting your boss up for next year’s trip, be ready with a few answers because they are bound to reply “Yeah, right, you want me to pay for a trip to Las Vegas so you can attend some classes.”
Okay, here are a few numbers for you. In the last three days of November, about 700 instructors presented almost 1,000 classes to over 8,100 attendees on virtually every conceivable topic related to virtually every Autodesk product. Add in almost 300 exhibitors showing their wares in about 180 booths, plus the AU support staff and techies, and you end up sitting down for lunch with about 10,000 of your best friends. Needless to say I won’t be covering every class in this report.

I arrived a day early in order to attend the special media sessions which usually supplied more detail on much the same topics that were covered the next day at the general keynote address. I managed to draw a very nice room on the 48rd floor of the Palazzo, overlooking the Venetian and south down the Strip. AU was held in the Venetian convention centre (below).

venetianNow we get to the weather report. If you haven’t heard of The Cloud by now then you must have been vacationing on a different planet. Briefly, cloud computing takes several forms in the same way that real clouds may be stratus, cumulus, nimbus, and so on. 

The definition of cloud computing depends on who is doing the talking. At one end of the scale it is simply a collection of large file servers on the Internet where you can save and store your files, and where your clients or suppliers can access them from anywhere in the world for collaboration purposes.

At the other end of the scale the cloud is a collection of computers on which applications run. You can access these applications from your own computer, no matter how humble, because it simply becomes a dumb keyboard and monitor with very long cords attaching it to the cloud computers via the Internet.

Storm Clouds Are Brewing…
The debate rages hot and heavy over the relative merits and the future of the cloud. When one blogger ran a piece proclaiming that the cloud was dead it unleashed such a storm of emails, for and against, that I suggested to him that in future he should stick to relatively non-controversial topics such as religion or politics.

Okay, back to AU. During several presentations, and in particular at the media sessions, Autodesk were quite adamant that they would be pursuing cloud computing only “where appropriate, and not the cloud for the sake of the cloud.” 

Unlike some other CAD vendors who have been pushing to run all their applications on the cloud, Autodesk were saying that they would still offer stand-alone applications for as long as users want them. It doesn’t make much sense to use cloud computing for generic 2D drafting or even for moderately complex 3D modelling. On the other hand, the cloud is the only thing that makes sense for heavy-duty work like complex stress or fluid flow analyses, or for high-end photorealistic renderings and animations. 

The expression “infinite computing” kept popping up. No, the cloud isn’t infinite, but it can be quite large. Computer-graphics movies like Avatar and How To Tame Your Dragon were produced on rendering farms holding 20-30,000 computers.

In one set of example figures it was claimed that if one minute of desktop computing costs one dollar then 10,000 minutes of cloud computing still takes one minute and still costs a dollar. A designer can run dozens, even hundreds, of parallel stress analyses in the same time as one analysis in order to optimize the design for the best strength at the lowest cost.

Here’s another cool example of cloud computing. Autodesk Labs have been running a free cloud service called Project Photofly, which has recently graduated to being a full product, still free, called 123D Catch. With it you simply take a series of overlapping digital photos with any digital camera, cell phone, iPhone, etc. 

dininghallYou then upload them to the 123D Catch web site and within moments it hands you back a 3D model of your subject. The UNESCO World Heritage organization has been using it to capture and record important heritage sites before they get lost. In fact, in an example shown at AU, they had collected a number of tourist photos and picture post cards and have been able to re-capture the statue of Buddha in Afghanistan that was destroyed by the Taliban ten years ago.

Now for the fun part. There was a booth about the size of a toilet stall set up in the exhibit hall at AU. You sat in it for a moment while about 30 high-end digital cameras simultaneously snapped your picture from all angles and a few minutes later you received an email link to a 3D model of yourself. 

Now all I need is a 3D color printer and I’ll have a bust of myself. Okay, who’s the smarty-pants in back who whispered “And what’s the good news?”

Seriously, this technology should be a real boon to anyone doing reverse-engineering. You have a broken part from an obsolete machine. Simply photograph it, upload the photos, take the resultant model to a 3D printer, and get your new part. Can you say “Matter replicator?” Mind you, it also raises ethical questions over infringement on the rights of designers and manufacturers, especially if you start replicating current parts. 

The scary part was where they talked about taking a person’s cells, growing more of them, and using them to 3D print a new organ which is transplanted back into the person. This isn’t science fiction. Check out

At the other end of the 3D printing scale they showed slides of a machine that 3D prints a full-size concrete house.

I’ll Show You Mine…
Each year I like to take a quick inventory of the exhibit hall to see what the trends are amongst the exhibitors. In the early days, back in the last millennium, the focus was mostly on graphics cards because the original generic PCs were often text-only and you needed to buy an AutoCAD-specific card to get adequate graphics. 

In those days, 800 x 600 16-colour was considered to be very good. As in the last few years, the main graphics card exhibitors were NVIDIA and ATI. 

The coolest graphics hardware, however, came from InfinitZ ( They were showing a “holodeck” graphic system that adds on downstream of your graphics card. It has a large monitor, a pen-type stylus, and polarizing glasses. With it you can view and work in full 3D stereo. It even tracks your head movement so you can move to one side and look behind objects that are closer to you.

Recent AU exhibit halls have featured rapid prototyping and rapid manufacturing such as 3D printing and CNC programming & machining, but these were much scarcer this year.

There was still a wide range of product exhibits, but by my highly-unscientific polling it seemed to me that the predominant theme this year was Product Document Management (PDM), Product Life Management (PLM), and Building Information Modelling (BIM) add-ins for the various Autodesk vertical products.

This segues nicely into the major new product announcement from Autodesk. 

Full Circle
After making reference to a YouTube rant by Carl Bass, Autodesk CEO, to the effect that PLM would never be viable, it was announced that their next new product would be a PLM package to be released early next year. Carl’s defence was “We waited until we could do it right.” 

In the opening remarks it was stated that the most common PDM software in the world is Microsoft Excel. Been there, done that. 

Anyway, the new product is called Autodesk 360. It consists of three components:

1. The existing Vault software for engineering document management.
2. The existing Buzzsaw product for web-based collaboration and file sharing.
3. A new component called Nexus which will work with the other two to give full PLM functionality.

Let’s start by attempting to answer the basic question “What is PLM?” I have found that if you ask five experts you will get six definitions, but as I understand it PLM links together all documentation for the total life of a product. This ranges from initial napkin sketches through to final end-of-life disposal. Engineering drawings and specifications, production and purchase orders, quality control reports including exception reports, customer orders, warranty claims, and so on can all be linked as desired.

Autodesk’s claim is that the existing PLM systems were developed mainly for the very large manufacturing corporations and so they have evolved into big, cumbersome, expensive beasties that are out of reach of smaller and mid-sized companies.

Autodesk’s solution is to start from the ground up with a new application that was written to run entirely on the cloud, except for the pre-existing Vault and Buzzsaw components. The touted advantages to this approach are that it isn’t necessary for users to buy and install expensive software on expensive computers, and that it is independent of operating systems and so is also accessible through mobile devices such as iPhones and iPads.

Its claim is that Nexus will be “insanely configurable” and will require a simple walk-through to set up and get running.  It will bend to suit how you work, rather than forcing you to contort to how it works.

Occupy The Design Office!
Another buzz phrase floating around was “democratizing the design process.” The theory is that apps, and especially the free Autodesk ones such as 123D (3D modeling), 123D Capture, and 123D Make (rapid prototyping/rapid manufacturing) mean that now anyone can be a designer. You can design and make what you want instead of being forced to use what some designer somewhere wants to design and make for you.

I think the problem is that most people don’t really understand the design process. Most of them think “design” is the styling of pretty objects. I don’t have too much trouble with people creating and making their own coffee mugs and flower vases, but I got a little nervous when Autodesk executives began touting the virtues of people designing and building their own cars and airplanes. 

At the Q& A session I reminded Carl that I had a degree in mechanical engineering and that I needed it to design something as mundane as doorknobs, which I did for 26 years. I then asked if he wasn’t a little nervous about being on the road with cars, or on the ground under airplanes, that had been designed and built by people with no knowledge of basic laws of physics let alone all the government safety regulations. He skirted around the subject, but never gave a definitive answer.

Don’t Let Your Boss See This!
A couple of years ago, Autodesk began running AU Virtual. Initially they ran screen-and microphone-capture software to record some of the live sessions. The recordings were then posted on the Web so attendees could view sessions that they had missed because the full timetable didn’t let them attend everything they wanted.

The next step was that Autodesk set up a small recording studio, and “virtual” sessions were recorded without an audience.

This year, those speakers who were assigned a “virtual” class didn’t even need to go to Las Vegas. They were supplied with Camtasia recording software and recorded their sessions at home, several weeks before AU. They were then played back over the Web during AU, and viewers were invited to ask questions of the presenter. 

There are now about 200 of these videos on the Web and the presenters will still answer questions for several months. You don’t actually have to go to Las Vegas. I say again, don’t let your boss see this.

The Bottom Line
The entire CAD, design, computer, Internet, and manufacturing worlds are changing at an ever-accelerating pace. If you don’t keep up with current trends then you’ll get left behind. Who foresaw the enormous impact mobile devises would have? It has been estimated that by 2014 there will be 10 billion of them, which is somewhat more than the entire population of the world.

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