Carl Bass on Digital Prototyping

Carl Bass is the President and CEO of Autodesk. His earlier positions at Autodesk include CTO and Vice President of the AECAD group, responsible for the design and development of AutoCAD and AEC products. Previously Carl co-founded Ithaca Software, the developer of HOOPS, which was acquired by Autodesk in 1993. So Carl is basically one hell of a technical guy. I am told that inspite of being the CEO of Autodesk he actually uses a lot of the software that his company develops and sells.

Digital Prototyping is a term that is closely associated with Carl Bass and his vision for Autodesk. So I decided to ask him a few questions on Digital Prototyping and the issues surrounding it.

Deelip: Digital Prototyping is all about design, visualization and simulation. The marketing message going out appears to give the impression that all of this restricted to Inventor alone. Is that the indeed the case?

Carl: Not at all. Digital Prototyping is about giving people a robust set of digital tools to better understand the things they want to make. For example, Inventor is ideal for general parametric mechanical modeling. For understanding more about engineering or manufacturing concerns, tools like Algor and Moldflow are obviously more appropriate. For more aesthetic concerns, one might design with Alias and visualize with Showcase. For many parts of the process, AutoCAD is suitable. That’s a longwinded way of saying that the entire portfolio is suitable for digital prototyping but it does center around Inventor.

Deelip: With AutoCAD getting new 3D features at every new release, will the Digital Prototyping concept be widened to include AutoCAD as well?

Carl: If you use my definition of Digital Prototyping, AutoCAD already fits the bill – in fact, DP can be 2D. The key to DP is a model. Some models are best represented in 2D, take an electrical schematic for example. This is also true of mechanical designs – an example might be an early mechanism study. So AutoCAD has a critical role to play given its strength as a 2D design and documentation tool.

Generally speaking, 3D is usually the better way to do design work. That said, AutoCAD is also quite capable at 3D modeling – many people would be very surprised at the 3D work done in AutoCAD. Our analysis tools, Inventor Pro, Algor and Moldflow all work with 3D solid models created in AutoCAD as well as, of course, Inventor.

Deelip: Your competitors often dismiss the idea of Digital Prototyping as “nothing new”. What is it that Autodesk does differently? How does the Digital Prototyping solution set Autodesk apart from the competition?

Carl: Asking our competitors may not be the surest path to the answer. I think what separates us from the pack is the breadth of our solution, its ease of use, its price point and the ease with which it can be implemented. Some of the ideas connected to Digital Prototyping aren’t new, but their promise is largely unfulfilled. Many of our competitors are constantly trying to convince their customers that some new idea holds the key to realizing long promised benefits. In most cases, that new idea requires the customer to invest in ever more complex and expensive systems and services. We think the answer is making sure Digital Prototyping delivers on its promise – something the competition has largely failed to do.

Deelip: On a related note, recently a senior analyst wrote in an article that Autodesk products are used for “relatively unimportant tasks, such as drafting”. Another industry veteran suggested that AutoCAD is “more often used for mundane tasks”. He even went to the extent of predicting that no automotive or aerospace manufacturer would adopt Inventor in the near future. As the person whose vision guides the evolution of products like AutoCAD and Inventor, what you do say to such criticism? Do you think that these are signs that the idea of Digital Prototyping has not been completely understood by the press and analyst community?

Carl: Every engineering tool is used for both the profound as well as the mundane. There are two axes on which to consider the remarks. The first is the complexity of the task. Autodesk products are used by people doing simple drafting as well as people doing the most difficult and challenging engineering. I don’t really see any difference compared with competitive products – is drafting in CATIA some higher calling? By using Pro/E, is modeling a mounting bracket somehow more special? The capabilities, scalability and performance of Inventor is second to none and it is therefore appropriately used throughout the manufacturing industry.

The second and more important axis is the nature of the products and projects on which customers use our software. For more than 25 years, Autodesk has democratized the use of design, engineering and entertainment software. I’m extremely proud of what our customers do and the role we play in providing tools to them. When someone designs a water pump that will bring clean water to villages that don’t currently have it, does it really matter what application is used to model it? When a customer designs a new concentrating solar collector, a breakthrough medical device, the world’s largest telescope, the coolest cell phone or one of the millions of everyday items designed with our software, should we look to CAD industry “analysts” to categorize the importance of the task? It’s extremely gratifying to see the impact of our customers’ work knowing that we are providing them with the most creative, capable and affordable tools to accomplish their jobs. I think we need to step back and take a broader look to truly understand the impact that these tools have on making the world a better place and ignore the pettiness that replaces meaningful discussion about the capabilities and appropriateness of various engineering software products.

As for the reach and usage of our products, many people are simply unaware. People often forget that there are more seats of our software in use than all of our competitors combined. Products such as Inventor, AutoCAD, Alias and Moldflow and Showcase to name just a few, are used throughout the automotive and aerospace industries. People tend to cling to outdated perceptions of the capabilities and usage of our products. Early versions of our products may have been less capable than others already in the market (all new-to-market products share that problem) but that was a decade ago. Comparing performance, functionality, ease-of-use and affordability of Inventor to other CAD products in the market today, Inventor is clearly the best and Digital Prototyping is making a difference for our customers.