At Autodesk University (AU) 2021, Autodesk leaders emphasized digital transformation: it’s inevitable, it’s urgent, and it’s happening now. “Digital collaboration is now a necessity, cloud workflows are the norm, and time saving is a must,” said Mimi Hoang, vice president of cross-industry strategy, during her keynote.
Never mind that Autodesk has been talking about collaboration since Carol Bartz was CEO in the mid-1990s; that the cloud is the norm for ordinary people; and every CAD vendor promises to save designers time.
Everything for Forge and Forge for all
To understand Autodesk’s strategy going forward, its Forge technology is key. Originally, Forge referred to Autodesk’s 3D printing API (application programming interface), which has since been discontinued. Since AU 2015, however, Forge has referred to Autodesk’s Web Services API Platform. According to the company, these web services are like Lego blocks that developers can combine to create design workflows and/or integrate Autodesk online product components into their own applications.
Autodesk has always had several ways to allow users to add functions to software and access drawing data. Most Autodesk programs have one or more APIs, such as AutoLISP and ObjectARx in AutoCAD. Even so, these did not allow programs to easily communicate with each other. The Forge Platform is Autodesk’s massive effort to reverse the Babel of APIs by establishing a single API for all programs, via the cloud.
Autodesk considers Forge useful for writing complementary software that visualizes data, automates design processes, and connects teams to workflows. An example is Forge’s Model Derivative API. With it, files uploaded to Autodesk’s A360 servers can be translated into 60 other data formats, including generic formats such as STL and STEP.
As an example application, an architectural firm could work with Forge APIs to create a workflow where a building design is uploaded to A360 to be securely shared with clients. Clients would then see the design in 3D and 2D, and explore the specific properties of parts of the building; meanwhile, the graphs would show stats like square footage and/or component types per floor.
For Autodesk, he dreams of a day when all his programs will be rewritten in Forge. The file formats created by its various applications (and the resulting incompatibility problems) would disappear and all their applications would be able to intercommunicate data freely and progressively.
Forge is so important that AU executives have called it “the Autodesk platform.” However, transferring data between the myriad of programs incompatible with Autodesk data is a time-consuming project. Initial efforts began around 2008 to get Inventor and AutoCAD to talk to each other. Subsequently, Autodesk released the “universal” Navisworks viewer, but it wasn’t quite successful.
And so around 2018, Autodesk turned to Forge to solve their translation problem. It turns out, however, that the Forgeian dream has not yet been fully realized. Autodesk is still at a liminal stage of its implementation.
“We are investing heavily in connections between Autodesk products, improving interoperability,” said AutoCAD Product Family Vice President Rob Maguire, speaking in the present continuous. “We’re excited about the potential this has…With Forge, we’re making strides towards seamless workflow capabilities.
While Forge is crucial; it is not yet ubiquitous. In the meantime, Autodesk Docs (formerly BIM 360 Docs) will have to act as a placeholder. As a web-based application, Docs allows users to view, annotate, and manage files in many formats, and is integrated (so far) with AutoCAD and Revit.
What’s new in AutoCAD
While Autodesk strives to interconnect AutoCAD with its other incompatible software, its competitors are already there. Graebert (ARES), Hexagon (BricsCAD) and Nanosoft (nano CAD) took the easier route by unifying general, mechanical and architectural designs within a single program and storing the models in DWG files, but with proprietary extensions. Therefore, these apps do not suffer from a data compatibility issue.
At AU 2021, the brief AutoCAD-specific keynote described some features added to last year’s release, such as Trace (for marking up drawings collaboratively) and Count, another way to count entities in the drawings.
In the future, Autodesk promises that AutoCAD will have automated drafting workflows, such as Connected Paper, which recognizes annotations drawn by hand or added to PDF files and then converts them to AutoCAD geometry. Additionally, AutoCAD Automation will suggest combining repetitive command sequences into a single macro and My Insights will allow users to see how they are using AutoCAD and then suggest alternative commands that might be more effective.
What separated AutoCAD from its competitors in the 1980s was that it allowed users to customize the CAD program themselves. Other systems at the time, like Intergraph and Computervision, charged customers a lot of money for customization. For today’s users of the next generation web-based version of AutoCAD, this level of customization will not be possible for the foreseeable future. Autodesk says users will “may one day” be allowed to integrate their in-house apps into the browser-based version of AutoCAD.
What’s new in Fusion 360 and Inventor
The start of the Mechanical Keynote at UA offered us a liturgy of sadness: “The cost of doing nothing is too high,” said the Vice President of Design Industry Strategy and the making, Srinath Jonnalagadda. “Continued reliance on in-house developed data management systems perpetuates ongoing struggles in the supply chain…Failing to manage complexity can result in lost profits and lost opportunity.”
The solution is, of course, to employ Autodesk to “empower innovators everywhere.” But even so, Jonnalagadda noted that the complete solution – a single cloud platform that unifies all tools from concept to manufacturing – lies in the future: “And that’s what we’re working towards with Autodesk Forge Platform .”
Fortunately, there is one significant exception. Fusion 360 currently shows what Forge is capable of. This partially cloud-based 3D mechanical CAD program handles sketching, direct modeling, sheet metal, PCB designs, generative design, and more.
However, Fusion 360 is not like PTC Onshape or Graebert Kudo, where users connect from a browser on any hardware. Instead, Fusion 360 requires a 1.9 GB download and then it only works on Windows or macOS. That there is a free version for personal use, which suggests that it is not selling well.
New to Fusion 360 is the ability to add parameters to imported meshes and convert them to solids. Modeling of subdivisions is now also parametric. Other new features include variable models (non-uniform networks), library-based electrical schematic designs in mechanical models, electromagnetic simulation from ANSYS, and plastic simulation from MoldFlow. What I found particularly interesting was a new form of generative design that modifies models based on simulation results.
A unified cloud-native PDM/PLM system was missing from Forge 360, so last year it acquired cloud-based PDM/PLM software Upchain from Canada to combine design, manufacturing, data and process management in Fusion 360. Autodesk really wants customers to stop using desktop Inventor and switch to Fusion 360 for all their design and manufacturing work. Here’s one reason: Autodesk runs parts of Fusion 360 on cloud servers, through which it collects data transmitted to it when we use the program.
Autodesk offers many plans for our data. He plans to use AI to generate design concepts, detect repetitive design work and flag underutilized production machinery.
This type of data mining is not as easy with desktop CAD alone. But, as other CAD vendors have discovered, desktop MCAD is what customers prefer, and so Inventor managed to earn a mention during the UA keynote. It can now use multiple CPU cores to open, edit and update models faster. Also new this year is selective import from Revit files, so that machine models are associated with building models.
“It’s an approach we’ll be expanding across the rest of our portfolio in the coming months,” explained VP of Design and Manufacturing Stephen Hooper, “bringing Fusion, Inventor, AutoCAD and even Revit to the Forge platform.” While Autodesk fixes its future on Forge, the company’s progress in forging its software seems remarkably slow. Every year we hear that it’s going to be great, which makes me wonder in what year of AU the company finally announces that its programs are no longer islands or isthmuses.
Autodesk nevertheless emphasizes how Fusion 360 puts data at its center, and at the center of client companies involved in manufacturing. As the Forge API connects the program to third-party software, Autodesk aspires to make Fusion 360 the umbrella for the entire industry.
The brightest spot so far is Fusion 360, and it just proves what Forge can do. I expect the long-promised cloud version of AutoCAD to be rewritten in Forge. Or, maybe just maybe, they’ll switch to a new underlying paradigm and start over.
Ralph Grabowski writes about the CAD industry on his WorldCAD Access blog (www.worldcadaccess.com) and weekly newsletter upFront.eZine. He is the author of numerous articles and books on CAD, Visio and other design software applications.