California software maker Autodesk explores future of design, HVAC construction
Calling Autodesk’s annual gathering in Las Vegas a user conference doesn’t seem to do it justice. Sure, thousands of the international construction and design software company’s customers were at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center Dec. 2-4, 2014, and plenty of new Autodesk-using products were on display.
But this was something much bigger. How many conferences and trade shows book the resort’s events center — better known for staging concerts and boxing matches — for its opening keynote session?
Company announces new programs
Autodesk used its annual user conference to debut two cloud-based services aimed at contractors that use building information modeling in the cloud: Autodesk A360 Collaboration 360 for Revit and Field Assets for InfraWorks 360.
Once known as “Project Skyscraper,” the A360 Collaboration for Revit gives project teams a place to get BIM data from one cloud-based place. It eliminates the need for the use of email with attachments, file-sharing software or uploading to file transfer protocol sites, officials said.
“We are entering a new era in which abundant computing power and pervasive internet access are powering remarkable advancements in BIM, where information about a project is always accurate and available anytime, anywhere to anyone involved,” said Amar Hanspal, the senior vice president of Autodesk’s information modeling and platform group, Autodesk. “Our aim is to equip project teams with highly connected, powerful services for every phase of a building or infrastructure project lifecycle. The expanded services we are announcing today are key pieces in achieving this larger goal.”
The other program, Field Assets for InfraWorks 360, allows building owners and operators to manage assets in the cloud and give staff Web-based access to data.
Bjorn Clouten, project manager and senior associate architect at SRG Partnership, used a beta version of A360 Collaboration for Revit on a renovation project for the 77-year-old Oregon State Capitol. He said it worked very well.
“We’re sharing linked BIM project models with the entire project team in the cloud,” he said. “Everyone has instant access to the latest information. It’s terrific. We’re enjoying the kind of smooth BIM collaboration that we’ve sought for more than 10 years.”
Unlike many of the buttoned-down HVAC construction industry conferences, Autodesk University — “AU” as the company calls it — attracts a very diverse group. Middle-aged engineers walked next to heavily tattooed hipsters and people from all over the world. The number of languages and dialects you heard spoken in the halls of Mandalay Bay’s convention center seemed like it could rival the United Nations.
Over three days, an estimated 10,000 people had a chance to see, hear and use some of the new technologies and products that Autodesk software had a hand in creating. From sheet metal works projects to a full-size plastic model car created with a 3-D printer, the hundreds of sessions and large trade show at Autodesk demonstrated the breadth of the San Rafael, Calif.-based company’s product offerings and impact.
Evolution of manufacturing
That was made apparent in the opening session presentation by company President and CEO Carl Bass and Chief Technology Officer Jeff Kowalski. It began with a “scientist” who looked quite a bit like Dr. Emmett Brown, inventor of the time machine housed in a 1980s DeLorean sports car in the film “Back to the Future.” Once the smoke cleared from his appearance, which included launching Autodesk T-shirts into the audience — Kowalski took the stage.
Many of the ways products have been created are “dead,” he said.
“At Autodesk, we’re starting to look at technology and design itself through the lens of nature — a complete inversion of the traditional perspective of looking at the natural world through the lens of technology,” Kowalski said. “We’ve started to think of the design process as a living process.”
The way products are designed is changing, he said.
“At Autodesk, we’re working on ways to better understand and navigate existing solutions that might be relevant to your next design project,” he said. “We’re using machine-learning algorithms and we can now discover patterns inherent in huge collections of millions of 3-D models. … In short, we can now discover and expose the content and the context of all the current designs for all of your next designs.”
It’s changing the relationship people have with computers, Kowalski said.
“We want you to be able to focus on the intention of your design,” he said. “We have to stop telling the computer what to do and instead start telling the computer what we want to achieve. We have to stop thinking of our computers as merely drawing tools and start thinking about them as portals to greater exploration. And the tools we’ve been working on will help you to do just that.”
Kowalski presented a slide show of some of the many products where Autodesk software played a part, from medical devices to rockets.
“Like nature, the computer has actually created the design solution,” he said. “It hasn’t received it through a tedious transcription of the solution that you’ve come up with before.”
Following Kowalski, CEO Carl Bass took the stage to the thumbing beat of Meghan Trainor’s hit song “All About That Bass,” which elicited laughter from the audience.
He said attendees of this year’s Autodesk University will see firsthand the way manufacturing is changing.
“There’s been a radical rethinking of how things will be made in the future,” Bass said. “New manufacturing processes and materials, coupled with infinite computing and ubiquitous connectivity are completely changing how companies innovate and deliver new products.”
Bass said the changes now under way are as groundbreaking as anything that has occurred in history.
“I think not since the industrial revolution has there been such a broad and radical rethinking of the way that we make things,” he said.
Computers are driving that change.
“The biggest change has been the ability to work with much richer data. Data that better captures the complexity of the real world,” Bass said. “We’re breaking the glass that separates the real world from the digital world to better create.”
Bass stressed the company’s collaboration focus of Autodesk’s A360 software suite and said it is a part of all its 360 products.
“I’m thrilled that 60,000 of you have already jumped in and taken advantage of A360,” he said. “A360 digitizes the way you get together and gives you a place to collaborate. Collaboration is not an afterthought for us. You don’t need a separate place to do it.”
He used the company’s new Fusion software, which Bass said is the world’s first cloud-based mechanical product, as an example.
“To me, it really demonstrates the future of design and engineering software,” he said. “It provides the context to understand what’s going on in your project and gives you access to the interactions of all the people involved.”
The themes of collaboration and integration continued throughout many of the educational sessions aimed at those involved in ductwork fabrication and HVAC construction. One such session was “The Value of Integrated Databases,” which was presented by Rick Dustin, a licensed professional engineer and the director of engineering at Atlanta-based mechanical contractor McKenney’s Inc.
Dustin noted that groups such as the Sheet Metal and Air-Conditioning Contractors’ National Association, the Mechanical Contractors Association of America and the National Electrical Contractors Association all recommend the use of shared databases, yet few mechanical and sheet metal works contractors use them.
And for a long time, that was true at McKenney’s, he said. The company had separate software platforms for sheet metal, modeling and fabrication. A lot of work had to be called in and manually entered into systems.
“It’s just the reality when you are working off separate platforms,” he said.
He gave an example of a recent HVAC construction project that required 46 feet of duct without slip-and-drive-style connections. The project had problems and they were short on the amount of ductwork needed.
McKenney’s realized they weren’t communicating well with the sheet metal shop and other departments.
“When you have these silos of software and people, you need something to tie them all together,” he said.
So using Autodesk’s software products, including Fabrication CAMduct and CADmep, they were able to create a shared database that allowed departments to share data and work together more efficiently.
Dustin said it’s made a big difference.
“Our modelers can now compare alternative routing methods,” he said. “They’re trying to create the most cost-effective system they can.”
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