Autodesk is the AEC industry’s predominant software provider, with its workhorses AutoCAD and Revit providing the basis for most domestic architectural firms’ production. But even with 200 million–plus users and a 2018 projected revenue of more than $2 billion, Autodesk is not resting on its laurels. The San Rafael, Calif.–based company is quickly evolving to “do more, better, with less,” as president and CEO Andrew Anagnost stated at Autodesk University in November. “We believe that humans and technology—whether that’s robots or Revit—can accomplish a lot more working together than working alone.”
The “more” in that statement includes projects in cloud-based computing, artificial intelligence–led generative design, and machine learning, as well as the new Autodesk BUILD (Building, Innovation, Learning, and Design) Space—a 34,000-square-foot incubator in Boston where the company has an enviable early-stage view onto the future models and tools of design practice. Since October 2016, BUILD has hosted research initiatives by approximately 500 people from 70 architecture schools, startups, and design firms. Users get space and access to high-tech equipment, including 3D printers, CNC milling machines, robotics, and computing resources—for free.
In exchange, Autodesk staff get to observe and interview BUILD residents as they “figure out how to execute ideas,” says Autodesk senior director and technology and innovation strategist Rick Rundell. “The goal is to understand how our tools can be used.” All occupants use software in their work, which has spanned programming, automation, the 3D printing of ceramics and concrete, and the full-scale fabrication of high-rise timber connections. However, as Rundell quickly adds, they aren’t confined to the sponsor’s own products. In fact, he explains, “it’s interesting to see how they use non-Autodesk tools.”
By outfitting the maker space and its wood and metal shops with the latest industrial and fabrication tools, Rundell says, Autodesk is removing some of the high amounts of risk and investment required in building research and development. “When I was in practice,” he recalls, “we made drawings from software.” Now architects can drive the machines that make everything from prototypes to finished products, a direction that he sees more design practices taking. All of this aligns with the company’s bet, as Anagnost noted at Autodesk University, that automation will give designers “an opportunity to do more … [and go] from design to make, at the push of a button.”
Autodesk is already expanding BUILD’s footprint in Boston and leveraging industry partnerships to fabricate portions of the new space. “Numerically driven machines are popping up on site” and operating under the guidance of designers’ digital directions, Rundell says. The process underscores his advice to practitioners to embrace disruption—of themselves. “Architects won’t be able to afford to leave means and methods to the builders,” he says. And that’s where BUILD offers Autodesk another leg up on the industry.
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