Expansive vision

12 mins read

Andrew Allcock attended the annual Las Vegas Autodesk University event, a gathering of some 10,000, taking in software users, Autodesk staff plus journalists. The full breadth of the company was made clear, as were its central themes, messages and vision

Everybody knows Autodesk, right? AutoCAD and Inventor are probably the two design software products that will spring to mind. But the US-headquartered £2.5 billion turnover company has many tens of software packages, many of them in the design, modelling and visualisation fields that cover engineering, architecture, construction and entertainment. It is also expanding by acquiring complementary companies and technology at regular intervals, 10-15 per year. And since 2014, Autodesk (01252 456600), has been the owner of Birmingham-based CADCAM specialist Delcam (www.machinery.co.uk/60055 and 82390).

Autodesk University (AU2015), the 23rd such event, held at Las Vegas’ The Venetian Hotel at the end of last year, revealed the software giant’s breadth plus overall themes and vision in upbeat fashion. An essentially design-led company, it has been increasing its manufacturing software complement in recent years, with the Delcam purchase a major part of that.

In a new development, Delcam (0121 766 5544) is now part of Autodesk’s Advanced Manufacturing software family, as Carl White, senior director, manufacturing marketing, told Machinery at the Las Vegas event. Other software that sits within that group includes Magestic Systems’ portfolio of products (also an Autodesk company since 2014), which numbers some 20 software packages that include sheet metal and composite part nesting software (http://is.gd/q500Pd), Autodesk’s factory layout software and the company’s cloud-based Fusion 360 offering that incorporates CAD, CAE, PDM and CAM (the latter via HSM Works CAM software, another acquisition).

At future exhibitions, these various solutions will more and more be brought together under the Autodesk Advanced Manufacturing banner, reveals White. “Our whole plan as Autodesk has always been ‘let’s provide this complete workflow [design through to manufacturing] for manufacturing’.” With the acquisition of Magestic Systems, Autodesk boasts the fabrication workflow, he offers, adding that Delcam software and Fusion 360 support manufacturing workflows. “We really have this breadth, as Autodesk, of solutions that we are going to bring together as a whole for customers,” he emphasises.

As for any cross-pollination between these products, White says that since the Delcam acquisition the company has been “pushing technology back and forth [between Delcam’s metalcutting software and HSM Works] to see where it actually applies”. As to filling any ‘holes’ in its Advanced Manufacturing software portfolio, he says that extending the robotics element will loom large, and the AU2015 extravaganza offered a glimpse of that through its Hive initiative (see below), while the additive manufacturing (AM) machine programming area has recently been filled by the acquisition of Netfabb (see below), with Delcam likely focusing on the hybrid subtractive/additive area, he adds.

In Las Vegas, this manufacturing element was set against a backdrop of the company at large, with the central manufacturing element at the event that was held at the end of November and beginning of December last year focused, in the main, on realising designs via AM (with its subset 3D printing being typical Autodesk speak); so, on low volume, customised and market-of-one manufacturing via 3D printing.

Footwear, plastic dresses, archery longbow frames, medical parts and specialist motorbike rear swinging arms were variously instanced. But there was also a novel low volume metal additive manufacturing example from Airbus (see below) that encapsulates Autodesk’s design and manufacturing messages, and also represents a first for Airbus and the aerospace sector.

Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski reveals the Airbus 'Bionic' partition at one of the opening addresses

These messages involve powerful, intelligent software that allows engineers to calculate many alternative designs in a short space of time. And that design process can be supported by topological and generative approaches. The former sees part analysis for performance versus geometry/weight and is not necessarily linked with production via 3D printing; generative design typically is.

A design and performance constraint-driven process, generative design can produce novel structures that put material only where needed and which then demand manufacture via 3D printing. The Airbus development was the major reveal here.

Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski told Machinery that it was conceivable that the company could include manufacturing constraints/possibilities within its generative design software, so that all manufacturing options (additive, subtractive, composite, injection moulding) can be considered, while also making sure that things won’t be designed that cannot be manufactured. In this way, the company would absorb some manufacturing decision making within its upstream automated design process.

On top of this technical design capability, a social, collaborative element sees connected people able to communicate easily and so speed the design-feedback-design-feedback etc process. Cloud and mobile applications (on iPad etc) support this distributed/ collaborative element.

As regards 3D printing technology itself, Autodesk has its own stereolithography (SLA) 3D printing hardware, Ember, for plastic AM (https://ember.autodesk.com/); has recently purchased 3D printing software firm Netfabb; and is promoting its Spark platform – described as an “open platform for connecting additive manufacturing” (see below). Delcam PartBuilder software that prepares CAD files for 3D printing is a separate recent development, too (see below).


But in addition to connecting design directly to manufacture via the 3D printing production process (the ‘design’ and ‘make’ phases), connecting resulting products with designers or others via the Internet of Things (IoT) was another theme at AU2015 (adding the ‘use’ phase to the ‘design’ and ‘make’ phases). This includes product- or structure-embedded sensors able to provide information that might help designers create better products or give users a better experience. The parallel offered was website metrics that feed user activity information back to web developers.

To support this ‘use’ phase element, the software giant has purchased SeeControl, a company that provides an enterprise IoT platform. And in linking SeeControl-aided data collection and analysis with the hot topic of generative design, Autodesk exampled media company Bandito Bros’ development of Hack Rod (http://is.gd/f31mOE). A test car was fitted with sensors and driven, with data fed into Autodesk’s currently-under-development Dreamcatcher software (http://is.gd/M5d2tk) to originate a generatively designed car frame. The resulting ‘organic’ space-frame-type structure would require 3D printing to realise.

So, design supported by powerful, accessible computing, plus networked collaborating individuals, 3D printing and use-phase feedback offer an ‘iterative design’ approach that fits with individualised design and manufacture, user involvement with design (experience not just ownership) and connected services thereafter – “the future of making things”, as the company encapsulates all of this.

A contrast with the traditional ‘linear’ process of design, mass production and delivery of dumb, unconnected products to customers is drawn.

Autodesk’s Fusion 360 cloud-based system, incorporating CAD, CAE, PDM and CAM, is said to be enabling this new approach right now. And boosting this is the company’s Forge programme (see below) that will help create a cloud-connected ecosystem in support of this ‘future of making things’.

Indeed, a Fusion 360-complementary capability developed via Forge is Britehub. Currently with a US focus, this allows companies to tap into a network of some 2,000 suppliers to help them get their designs manufactured, although offers more than just this (https://britehub.com). In addition, US-headquartered rapid prototyping service Proto Labs has incorporated its online quoting system directly within Fusion 360 via the Forge initiative (Proto Labs has a UK set-up, www.protolabs.co.uk).

Fusion 360 can be seen as supporting design-focused companies or individuals wanting to realise a new product, rather than established manufacturing companies already set up to produce engineered parts in production and where Delcam ‘terrestrial’ software running locally is the likely solution. A glimpse of the future here, however, may have been new cloud-connected Inventor desktop software that now benefits from more frequent, bite-sized software updates, supports collaborative working and offers access to user forums, for example.

As to the ‘use’ phase of ‘the future of making things’ and manufacturing, White links data collection and analysis to this by instancing traditional preventative maintenance to avoid machine stoppages; the stage on from this is ‘instrumenting’ a machine so that its supplier, as part of an extended service contract, can see when a part may need replacing and avoid any stoppages; and the third stage is rental of a machine, based on use rather than purchase, with the machine’s supplier obtaining data feedback that allows it to make a better product in the future. Designers could then enter such data into a computer system that would “throw some algorithms at it [and] find things you would never even have considered”, White enthuses, seemingly referencing generative design.

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass added a further use-phase metalcutting example into the mix, drawing on experience with his own CNC lathe relating to poor cutting conditions and poor quality parts, as indicated by particular process noise. “Why can’t the machine fix itself?” he asks, suggesting the solution is a connected machine via the IoT that can close the loop, recognise what is happening via sensors and recommend tools, speeds and feeds. The Las Vegas event was certainly not short on vision.

Why can't CNC machine tools "fix themselves", asks Carl Bass, rhetorically. Connected machines could, he suggests


But what does all this mean when taken together? The company’s low-cost, PC-based AutoCAD disrupted the CAD market in the 80s; Autodesk is disrupting the design process – iterative not linear – right now, supported by cloud, cloud-connected and mobile technology that incorporates its novel generative technology that demands 3D printing support; the software giant is helping and driving the development of cloud applications (Forge) and doing the same for 3D printing (Spark); through SeeControl, it is closing the loop, providing ‘use phase’ feedback to design; Autodesk’s iterative collaborative approach touches both the additive and subtractive manufacturing sphere via cloud-based Fusion 360, with HSM Works (likely incorporating Delcam technology) supporting the subtractive machining element; and the company is gathering together an advanced manufacturing software portfolio focused on supporting complete workflow.

Taking the Autodesk vision to its highest level, CTO Kowalski offers that we are entering the ‘augmented age’, meaning that human capabilities will be amplified by “computer systems that help you think [viz generative design, machine learning systems and empathic systems that pre-empt your thoughts/actions]; robotic systems that help you make [viz the Hive robot /human collaboration demonstration]; and a digital nervous system that connects you to the world, far beyond your natural senses [viz SeeControl, IoT, sensors]”.

All this is not clearly visible through the prism of Delcam here in the UK, but Autodesk’s vision will more and more encompass the manufacturing world. Indeed, White concludes: “Everybody has tried to wring every bit of efficiency they can out of the design processes, spending gazillions of dollars on PLM systems that may not provide the ROI, and now everybody is starting to squeeze manufacturing. And, as you squeeze manufacturing and try to make it do more, which is where we are headed – smaller machines, multi-task machines – you are going to have to spend to get there [including on software/software services].” Clearly, Autodesk aims to have the answers.


Box item 1 - Airbus generates and prints novel structure

Box item 2 - Smart, helpful robots – Hive demonstration

Box item 3 - Spark platform

Box item 4 - Delcam PartBuilder

Box item 5 - Forge platform

Box item 6 - Netfabb acquisition

Box item 1

Airbus generates and prints novel structure

The world’s largest 3D printed aircraft cabin component, dubbed the “bionic partition”, draws on generative design and metal additive manufacturing (AM). This partition is a dividing wall between the seating area and the galley of a plane, and holds the jump-seat for the cabin attendants. The traditional design, employing honeycomb composite materials, is light and strong and has been flying for decades – “There is nothing wrong with it”, says Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski, “it is good enough,” but adds that “Airbus wanted to explore the limits of what is possible”. And this part has demanding design and structural requirements, including specific cut-outs and weight limits, making the generative design approach particularly appropriate.

The new structure was created with custom algorithms that generated a design that mimics cellular structure and bone growth, with metal AM employed in its physical realisation. This design and manufacture process renders the structure stronger and more lightweight than would be possible using traditional processes. In fact, the generative approach delivered “tens of thousands of options that truly met the required goals”, with the optimum result the culmination of human and computer interaction thereafter, reports Kowalski.

The team employed both a Concept Laser M2 machine and an EOS M400 to 3D print 122 parts in Scalmalloy, a second-generation aluminium-magnesium-scandium alloy created by APWorks, an Airbus subsidiary focused on additive manufacturing and advanced materials, as well as 40 parts in titanium. Scalmalloy is specifically designed for use in 3D printing and offers outstanding mechanical properties in that it stretches more before breaking. This is the first time it has been used on a large scale for an aircraft component.

Airbus’ new bionic partition is 45% lighter than current designs. When applied to the entire cabin and to the current backlog of A320 planes, the new design approach can save up to 465,000 tonnes of C02 emissions per year, the equivalent of taking about 96,000 passenger cars off the road for one year.

In talking about this example, Kowalski says: “Generative design, additive manufacturing and the development of new materials are already transforming the shape of manufacturing, and innovative companies like Airbus are showing what is possible.”

The first phase of testing of the partition has been successfully completed, with further testing to be conducted this year, including a test flight.

Box item 2

Smart, helpful robots – Hive demonstration

The world of robot programming, with which Delcam is already involved, was touched on, although the example was construction and the cutting of apertures in panels. The robot and person interacted directly, via a see-and-repeat, vision-based approach; no programming was involved. Asked if this type of direct person-to-robot interaction is realistic in precision machining applications, Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski answered that he believed so. And collaborative working with robots was supported by a practical demonstration at Autodesk University via ‘the Hive’ (See video here). This involved the building of a bamboo structure (geodesic pavilion), designed via generative design, where humans and robots worked together to create the building elements. This could not have designed or built by either humans, on the one side, or computer and robots, on the other, alone, Kowalski emphasises, alluding to his ‘augmentation age’ message (see main article).

A more traditional demonstration cell involving robot machining, programmed by Delcam PowerMILL Robot, also featured in the exhibition area within the Venetian hotel, however.

Box item 3

Spark platform

Spark will offer a set of industry standards for all aspects of the 3D printing ecosystem: software, hardware, materials and services, says Autodesk. This open platform initiative (https://spark.autodesk.com) supports the development of applications by offering access to Spark application program interfaces (APIs), software developer kits (SDKs) and sample applications. In so doing, Spark enables 3D software applications and services to better prepare, optimise and deliver 3D designs to any 3D printer or service bureau. And the 3D printer Ember's ultra-high resolution, streamlined printing experience and open design show what Spark-powered hardware can do.

Microsoft’s Windows 10 OS integrates Spark technology, in fact. This effort will provide Windows users with direct access to optimised and more reliable 3D printing experiences that streamline the additive manufacturing process for a variety of software, material, and printer choices. Basically, it will allow ‘File-Print’ from the desktop, avoiding intermediate software between PC file output and 3D printer input.

Autodesk is also joining Microsoft as a founding member of a 3D Manufacturing Format (3MF) Consortium (www.3mf.io) to create and support a standard 3D interchange and printing format.

Box item 4

Delcam PartBuilder

This software prepares CAD files for production, from both native and neutral formats.

PartBuilder covers four main steps in model preparation:

  • Checking the quality of the CAD model and repairing any problems it might have
  • Positioning the part in the optimum orientation for layer-by-layer manufacture
  • Addition of any fixtures, supports and other geometry that might be required to ensure reliable manufacture and easier post-processing
  • Exporting the complete data in a suitable file format for manufacture

At the start of the process, PartBuilder undertakes an analysis of the imported CAD model to verify the quality of the incoming design and so give the best possible chance of successful manufacture.Common problems in either solid models or mesh files, such as gaps or overlaps in the data, can be identified and repaired to give a water-tight CAD file that will generate an accurate and successful part.

The CAD model is then positioned within the machine envelope, either for manufacture as a single item or as part of a group of components that will be built simultaneously. Orienting the model on the build platform must consider a number of factors, including production time and cost, fixturing quality, heat effects and any critical areas of the part. PartBuilder allows the user to accept the optimised suggestions made automatically by the software or to try a variety of manually selected orientations.

Fixturing can then be created in PartBuilder that may be required for a number of reasons, the most important being the need to support the mass of the part during the build. Fixtures are also used to transfer heat away from the part so that thermal and mechanical stresses are minimised.

PartBuilder is able to analyse the model to identify critical areas that need fixtures to ensure geometric stability during the build and adequate heat management, and to generate the geometry required. As with the part orientation, the user has the ability to edit the suggested results manually if required.

The positioning of the fixtures also needs to take account of their removal after the build, both to ease their removal and to minimise any witness marks or scars that may be left on the part.

In addition to fixtures, other geometry types may need to be added, such as spigots to grip the part during polishing and other finishing operations, or datum tabs to provide a known location for finish machining programs.

The final stage is the export the complete model from PartBuilder in a suitable data file format for the 3D Printer or AM equipment. PartBuilder can output models in a growing range of manufacturers’ proprietary file formats, including CLI data for EOS machines and MTT data for Renishaw equipment, as well as STL mesh data that can be processed directly by most additive machines’ own software.

Box item 5

Forge platform

The Forge Platform is a set of cloud services that span early stage design, engineering, visualisation, collaboration, production and operations.

Open application programming interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs) enable small and large software developers alike to build intuitive cloud-powered apps, services and experiences.

The Forge Developer Programme will bring together the cloud developer community, provide ongoing training, resources and support, and host an inaugural Forge Developer Conference during the week of June 13, 2016.

The Forge Fund will advance the developer ecosystem by investing up to $100 million over the next several years in emerging companies that are working to deliver innovative solutions and services on or connected to the Forge Platform.

In addition to financial support, Autodesk will also provide business and technical support to start-ups that are contributing value to the future of making things. http://investors.autodesk.com/phoenix.zhtml?c=1178...

Box item 6

Netfabb acquisition

In September last year, Autodesk acquired Netfabb, a Lupburg, Germany-based developer of software solutions for industrial additive design and manufacturing. Autodesk will also make a strategic investment in FIT Technology Group, Netfabb’s parent and provider of additive manufacturing software and services.

The two companies will collaborate to increase adoption of technology for industrial additive manufacturing. Netfabb 3D printing software can be seen as the interface between construction and the 3D printing machine. The software is able to edit CAD data in order to output it onto a 3D printer.

First published in Machinery, February 2016