Attendees posed next to the Autodesk University logo sculpture.

Attendees posed next to the Autodesk University logo sculpture.

Credit: Wanda Lau

The dust from the CNC machines has settled down and the life-size sculpture of Autodesk’s conference logo hauled back presumably to the multi-billion-dollar company’s headquarters in San Rafael, Calif. From Dec. 3 to 5, the 21st annual Autodesk University (AU) drew 9,233 attendees and more than 35,000 virtual attendees from around the world to the Venetian in Las Vegas.

Some came for the litany of educational courses, software certification exams, and product previews. Others lined up for the impressive roster of technology and design speakers, such as Electronic Arts designer Stone LiBrande, The Living’s David Benjamin, and MIT’s Skylar Tibbits. Even if some presenters made no mention of Autodesk products, their attendance was a testament to the spirit of creativity, collaboration, and design democratization that underscored the conference’s ongoing theme—“Learn. Connect. Explore.”—and the numerous takeaways that will help inspire architects and designers until next year’s event.

1. Nothing is Stronger than Community
The inaugural Cave Conference, which occurred a day before AU 2013, served as a vivid reminder that Autodesk caters to many designers outside the AEC community. Through acquisitions and its own research and development, the company’s entertainment software portfolio includes Maya, 3ds Max, and Sketchbook Designer. One of the many encouraging lessons shared by the speakers was that the strength of the design community is invaluable to enduring the good times and bad times in one’s career. DeviantArt CEO and co-founder Angelo Sotira highlighted how his network of programmers, gamers, and artists kept him going throughout the dot-com boom and bust. You may know Sotira as the teenager who created and sold MP3 hub Dimension Music in the 1990s, or the genius behind the addictive skins for MP3 players, such as Winamp. Now DeviantArt is the world’s largest online community of independent artists and its “deviants”—the community members—have been commissioned by the likes of Disney and Pixar.

About 9,400 designers, engineers, programmers, and artists registered to attend Autodesk University 2013 in person.

About 9,400 designers, engineers, programmers, and artists registered to attend Autodesk University 2013 in person.

Credit: Wanda Lau

2. For Ideas, Seek Boredom
The wonderfully quirky Neil Gaiman, creator and author of The Sandman, Stardust, and Coraline, delighted Cave attendees with his deadpanned presentation on creativity. When asked about his sources for ideas, he said he initially responded with something such as “an ideas shop in Poughkeepsie” because he didn’t know the answer. But then he realized that “you get [ideas] from daydreaming, and from being bored. The only difference is that creative people notice. We are looking.”

He also spoke about his creative process and overcoming writer’s block, to which an audience member and self-professed fan half-jokingly asked, “Do you have to write every day? You’re not as prolific as I would like.” Gaiman’s response: If he’s stumped for words, he forces himself to be bored. No distractions. After five minutes of doing nothing, he says, “writing is more interesting.”

Author and New Yorker blogger Maria Konnikova, who wrote Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes, also noted the importance of meditation in the creative process. “Meditation is an exercise in tension,” she said.

3. Don’t Rest on Your Laurels
As multiple 3D printers throughout the conference hall operated fervently to demonstrate their wares, Cave and Autodesk Innovation Forum presenter Skylar Tibbits had already moved on to the next dimension: 4D printing, in which objects are embedded with the information and ability to self-assemble in effort to improve construction efficiency. “We need products that can perform and respond based on [occupant] behavior and the environment,” he said, “We need to make smarter materials, but [not necessarily] new materials.”

Skylar Tibbits, director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, talks about 4D printing at one of the conference's Innovation Forums.

Skylar Tibbits, director of the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT, talks about 4D printing at one of the conference's Innovation Forums.

Credit: Courtesy Autodesk

Futurist and artist Syd Mead noted that he constantly challenges himself to try new things in his career. “If you do something right the first time, why do it over and over again?” he asked. “That’s called a linear career.” By the way, the only thing cooler than seeing Mead in person is seeing Mead and his work projected to two-stories tall. 

Futurist and artist Syd Mead talks about his design concept for the resurrected Turn A Gundam.

Futurist and artist Syd Mead talks about his design concept for the resurrected Turn A Gundam.

Credit: Wanda Lau

4. The Cloud is Still King, but Interoperability is Still a Dream
Like last year, the cloud—the digital arena of shared computing, storage, and networking capabilities—was highlighted by Autodesk chief technical officer and senior vice president Jeff Kowalski and Autodesk CEO and president Carl Bass, who spoke at AU’s opening keynote. The company emphasized the importance of going beyond a firm’s walls to look for innovation and efficiency. “One great reason to go outside for insight is that it helps us to go outside our blind spots,” Kowalski said. “At Autodesk, we want to see what we are missing and what we should be paying attention to that we are not.”

Bass followed up by reaffirming Autodesk’s extensive line of cloud-based software programs, which include AutoCAD 360, BIM 360, and the newly added CAM 360, which the company says is the first cloud-based computer-aided manufacturing platform.

Autodesk president and CEO Carl Bass speaks at the opening keynote.

Autodesk president and CEO Carl Bass speaks at the opening keynote.

Credit: Courtesy Autodesk

Autodesk executives expounded on their vision for Autodesk 360, the company’s online launching pad for its cloud-based software, mobile apps, and services, at a press conference. They also debuted the forthcoming, social media-friendly dashboard for Autodesk 360, described numerous times as a Facebook for construction, designers, and engineers. Unlike Jive and Yammer, which target a “generalized audience,” says Amar Hanspal, Autodesk senior vice president of the IPG Product Group, “360 places the project at the center of the experience.” Team members can access and track the provenance of project documents and model revisions.

The forthcoming interface of the cloud-based Autodesk 360 platform.

The forthcoming interface of the cloud-based Autodesk 360 platform.

Credit: Courtesy Autodesk

Information security on the cloud is still a concern for some Autodesk clients, such as Sunkist, which holds more than 250 patents relating to its operations and distribution systems. Director of engineering Alex Paradiang said in an Autodesk panel of executive customers that his company would like to be mobile and flexible in information accessibility, but “we’re holding off to make sure that the Cloud is secure.”

Though the cloud promotes collaboration and information sharing, John Jacobs, chief information officer of general contractor JE Dunn, said during the executive customer panel that seamless inoperability among software providers such as Autodesk, Bentley Systems, Microsoft, and Oracle is still absent. Venturing cautiously further, he emphasized that the interoperability and universal access features that Autodesk and other software developers often tout is limited to programs “within the stack,” or the product portfolio, of that particular company. “It’s not realistic for a firm to use all the products from one stack,” he said. “I’m begging the big vendors to get together” and let their products speak to each other.

5. Construction Can Handle New Technology
Two potential obstacles to a world in which construction workers carry tablets instead of drawing rolls are site connectivity and staff adoption. JE Dunn’s Jacobs said that many building owners are not yet willing to pay for pervasive Internet connectivity on the job site. As a result, contractors must budget for it until the importance of wifi access in the field is established.

For the most part, once construction workers see value in adopting a new technology into their workflow, they will do so. During his presentation at the Design and Construction Innovation Forum, Eddy Krygiel, director of design technology at HNTB, which is overseeing the Denver International Airport expansion, said that construction workers have taken to laying out pipework while referring to digital drawings pulled up on tablets on the ground beside them. “No one has broken an iPad on the jobsite yet,” he said.

6. Within the Stack, Collaboration Looks Good
Other than the launch of CAM 360, Autodesk University 2013 was less about the release of brand new products, and more about the launch of several beta and pilot products into the public arena. For designers looking for a platform-agnostic conceptual sketching and massing tool, Autodesk introduced a beta version of FormIt that runs on Internet browsers Chrome and Firefox, and on iPads and Android tablets. Autodesk also enhanced the iPad version with energy analysis tools that estimate how the proposed building concept performs against projects of a similar building type and location. The comparison data set comes from thousands of project models simulated in Autodesk Green Building Studio.

FormIt users with Autodesk 360 accounts can also collaborate virtually on a model in real time. That is, collaborators can interact with objects and the site plan simultaneously and see each other’s actions as they occur.

FormIt runs a basic energy analysis to inform the conceptual design.

FormIt runs a basic energy analysis to inform the conceptual design.

Credit: Courtesy Autodesk

7. Scripting Influences Design and Vice Versa
For architects and designers who explore building forms via programming and parametric design, Autodesk merged its computational design tool Dynamo with Autodesk DesignScript, a programming language and computational engine that previously operated independently or was integrated into a host geometry application—AutoCAD—for its graphical output. With the visual programming environment of Dynamo and the robust programming language of DesignScript, architects and designers looking to iterate their design geometries and performance metrics to their hearts’ content will have another computational BIM tool at their disposal. Dynamo is also an open-source application so designers can augment and collaborate on codes developed by their peers around the world.