Getting Ahead in the Cloud

The trend toward cloud-based computing will be a boost to manufacturing.

Columns From: 12/20/2013 Modern Machine Shop, ,

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Mark Albert, MMS Editor in Chief

Mark has been writing his Mark: My Word column every month since January, 1981.

Last month, I visited Autodesk University in Las Vegas. This is Autodesk’s annual user conference, which is directed to design professionals, engineers, architects, digital artists, students and hobbyists—people who imagine, design and create. I was there to learn about how the company is ramping up its computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) offerings. Specifically, it announced a new CAM solution called Autodesk CAM 360, which is described as the industry’s first cloud-based solution for CAM. The visit also gave me some useful insights into sources of new products and innovative designs, and into how anyone can look for fresh ideas with creative, “wishful” thinking.

Cloud computing is a simple concept—use the Web to engage software tools and do the related number crunching on remote processors. Autodesk has applied this concept to its online design, planning and engineering solutions, which all share the same platform to create a unified, integrated and collaborative workflow. Autodesk CAM 360 will soon bring critical CNC programming capability onto this platform. This will enable designers and engineers to download product designs and digital prototypes from a shared database, and then prepare CNC machining programs on almost any computer or mobile device connected to the Web.

Getting the scoop on this product and the concept of cloud-based CAM was my goal for the visit. Mission accomplished. However, the event was a seminal experience for me because it exposed me to the phase of the product development process in which ideas and designs are born and developed. I usually focus on the other end of this process—the point at which product designs are turned into machined parts.

For example, the keynote speakers on the opening day exhorted the audience to tap new sources for inspiration and gave tips on how to do this in the context of a highly collaborative online environment. Accounts of inventors and creators who reached outside their usual set of tools, contacts, skills and thought patterns were especially interesting. Their creations included a snazzy sports car, a nearly smokeless camp stove that generates electricity as it burns wood to cook food, an all-terrain prosthetic leg, customized electric guitars and other “really cool” devices.

All of these creations started out as farfetched concepts. These original ideas sprang from minds that reach past current limitations and ranged beyond normal boundaries of possibility. That must be the key—to take wishful thinking (“Sure wish this device could do…”; “Wouldn’t it be great if it had…”; “What we really need is…”) and push it to the extreme. Let the imagination run wild.

From there, getting bold and daring concepts into practical, makeable form requires the contributions of many talented minds—hence the importance of moving into a digital environment conducive to rapid, simultaneous collaboration between coworkers and customers.

Whether it is called unified workflow, integrated supply chain or online product lifecycle, the creative vortex that results has to draw in the resources of a capable CNC machining base, and, in turn, infuse it with new energy and productivity.

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