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Promise Seen in the Shift from Portfolio to Platform

Autodesk seeks advantages from integration that stand-alone software solutions are challenged to provide.

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Shopfloor changes to machined parts via a tablet is one of the possibilities arising from CAD/CAM access via a browser. This photo is actually a screen capture from an Autodesk product presentation describing this capability (among others). Find that full video—the tablet-related part is toward the very end.

Manufacturing software includes a range of different tools, but some of the larger problems impeding the advance of manufacturing live in the gaps between point-solution software products. Solving those problems means bridging these gaps, and one way to do that is through acquisition and integration.

I recently spoke about this with Mark Forth, industry strategy and business development manager with Autodesk. For discrete-product design and manufacturing, Autodesk offers a range of solutions, some developed and some acquired, extending from invention and shape modeling through production in various processes (both additive and subtractive) to inspection and validation. Toolpath generation for CNC machining is part of that range. And now, as a result of the company's efforts to achieve more seamless integration between these different solutions, that range has shifted from being a product portfolio to also being a platform, called Fusion 360.

Mr. Forth says the advance toward a common system and experience for everyone involved in product creation will ultimately enable manufacturers to do more. Getting away from understanding manufacturing software as disconnected tools for different purposes will unlock advantages, capabilities and efficiencies that part producers previously haven’t thought to look for. He says here are just some of the kinds of benefits a platform can deliver that point solutions cannot:

1. Nimbleness. At the company’s most recent Autodesk University event, one of the coming capabilities shown was software access via a web browser, and one of the possibilities shown for this was part design modification on an iPad. An engineer on the production floor will be able to change the design of a machined part using his or her tablet, with the corresponding machining program automatically updating to reflect the change. In achieving this nimbleness, the browser is the final step, but the primary enabler is the associativity from CAD into CAM resulting from integration. As that associativity becomes more seamless, design workflow will become less rigid, and part designs will increasingly able to adapt easily to refinements that are implemented all throughout the process of the part’s creation.

2. Manufacturing influence farther upstream. “Design for manufacturability” is a goal that adheres to different sets of rules depending on the manufacturing process chosen. That means the choice of manufacturing process shapes the design—constraining it or freeing it—from an early stage. A design system anticipating manufacturing, with manufacturing knowledge built in, can therefore guide engineers in (for example) the choice between casting or 3D printing for a given part. Different design criteria might enfold the part as one of these processes is pursued, or as the possibilities for different processes are compared.

3. Unification of user experience. In a point-solution ecosystem, the different user experiences are ultimately inefficiencies. The operation and expectations of different, unrelated software tools create specialists with those tools. These brand-specific specialties constitute tribal knowledge rather than technical expertise, sapping bandwidth from the system overall. Driving toward commonality and getting the user experience out of the way frees up capacity for technical expertise to be more fully and effectively realized, Mr. Forth says.

4. Even more solutions. Fusion 360 is written on Forge. That is, the common platform for product creators has been and is being written using a common platform of coding and development tools—and Forge is available outside of Autodesk as well. Thousands of independent Forge developers now serve various sectors, with developers in manufacturing offering solutions such as bill-of-material management, online simulation, virtual reality collaboration and engineering of sensor-equipped devices. It turns out that one of the limitations of a network of point solutions is that it tends not to address enough small problems, Mr. Forth says. Certain needs are too tiny for any company to justify bootstrapping a complete solution from scratch. But with a coding platform to stand on, developers are making the solution platform even more thorough by filling in more of the gaps.

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