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Innovation & Design

Autodesk's Digital Dreams

The software maker's CEO talks about the future of digital prototyping and the amazing structures made possible by the technology

What do Peter Jackson's digitally reincarnated King Kong, Mercedes-Benz's S-Class luxury sedan, and the yet-to-be-built Freedom Tower in New York City have in common? All were designed with the aid of sophisticated modeling tools from the San Rafael (Calif.) software maker Autodesk.

The Silicon Valley company was founded in 1982 by a group of engineers who created what at the time was considered innovative drafting software. Over the next two decades, partly fueled by an acquisition spree capped by the $197 million buyout of digital effects software company Alias two years ago, Autodesk (ADSK) grew into a powerhouse that supplies a stable of computer-aided design tools used in a wide range of creative industries, from architecture to video games. In the last decade, Autodesk has transformed itself by broadening its product line—all manner of consumer and industrial goods are created using its software—and aggressively entering emerging markets as they experience an unprecedented building boom.

The company weathered a rocky period in the late 1990s, but now its vaunted turnaround (, 3/31/08) is in full effect. Earlier this month it announced better-than-expected fourth quarter revenue of $598.8 million, up nearly 18% from the same quarter of last year. BusinessWeek innovation and design writer Matt Vella recently sat down with Carl Bass, the company's chief executive officer, about how its software is helping change the nature of design by both expanding its scope and helping designers ask questions that push far beyond matters of shape and form. An edited version of their conversation follows.

How would you characterize Autodesk's evolution over the last decade?

Originally the company started to help people automate the creation of blueprints. It was essentially an electronic drafting table. The past 5 or 10 years have been all about designers creating 3D models of what they're going to build. That allows them to explore form, shape, looks, and function. People are now using tools to create 3D models to explore their design on one particular axis.

Take a building, for example. One person might ask: "How does this room look?" Another might ask: "How does this building respond to an earthquake or a big gust of wind?" Another person yet will ask: "In case of an emergency, how quickly can people get out of the building?" Or "How much energy does it take to heat and cool the building?" All of them are valid questions, and we try to give people tools to model the building and answer the questions.

How does the software help designers iterate, and why is that important?

We want to allow people to experience the thing they're going to build before they have to build it. If someone can get that information they will make different decisions, they will be more informed, they will save money, they will build a better product, and ultimately they will provide a better experience to their customers.

The more iterations someone can do of a design, the better the product will be. The more information designers can get early in the process, the better the thing they eventually build will be. Anyone who's ever built anything recognizes that, as soon as you're done, you usually say: "Oops. I would do that differently." We're trying to make it less expensive to say "oops."

So it's all about digital prototyping?

We're moving towards digital prototyping replacing, as much as possible, physical prototyping. It has grown to encompass prototyping in all of its dimensions. We're now talking about the structural characteristics, the performance characteristics, the carbon footprint of whatever you're trying to build. Those are all questions a designer wants to ask now.

But this doesn't eliminate the need entirely for physical prototyping; there's still a right time for that depending on what you're making. We're moving to rapid prototyping, the eventual 3D manufacturing of objects. There will always be the need for a physical product. But the more that can be done at the digital stage, we hope, the better the finished product will be.

Is this changing how designers work? Are the questions they ask changing as the tools do?

People have started asking more sophisticated questions. Originally, it was: "What's the shape of the thing?" The next questions were about engineering characteristics. And now it has become about durability and maybe about sustainability, performance, or even the experience for the user.

How can these tools help collaboration between different departments such as engineering and industrial design?

Interoperability is critical. For example, if you're doing industrial design you want that to translate to engineering. So if you're designing a mouse or a car, the industrial designer gives the design to an engineer to put in the guts. If it doesn't fit, the engineer isn't going to make the changes but will send it back to the designer. That's a work flow. If you continue downstream, it goes from the engineering to the manufacturing engineer who decides how to manufacture the product. I think we've done a good job, but we have a lot more work to do in streamlining those work flows.

So the work flow should stream from top to bottom?

One of our customers, a major auto manufacturer, went all the way from concept to engineering to manufacturing engineering to making ads. Most people don't realize it, but a significant fraction of the autos you see in print ads or TV ads didn't exist at the time those ads were made.

Our customers can use these tools to gain big advantages on time-to-market: If I can start making my marketing materials while the thing is still being made, not having to create expensive, time-consuming physical prototypes is a big advantage. Of course, they also have artistic freedom in using those digital models.

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