Exhibition floor at Autodesk University 2017
Courtesy Autodesk Exhibition floor at Autodesk University 2017

Nearly 10,000 architects, builders, designers, and makers of all kinds descended on Las Vegas on Nov. 14 to 16 to attend Autodesk University (AU), one of the largest conventions focused on technology in the AEC industry. The scope and scale of AU is undoubtedly a show of force: It is a signal of Autodesk’s market dominance as a software vendor and of a way to promote the San Rafael, Calif.–headquartered software developer’s ambition of being the data backbone for the industries it serves.

Much like last year, the convention was held under the banner of “The Future of Making Things” and showcased keynotes, educational courses, and product demonstrations aimed to connect design and making. Yet for all the glitzy showmanship set against the Vegas backdrop, if I were to recount an itemized list of announcements and keynote platitudes, they would appear strikingly similar to my coverage of the 2016 event. In summary, “generative design” and “machine learning” remain popular keynote buzzwords, virtual reality is increasingly adopted among the AEC community, Forge continues to expand as Autodesk’s data-automation flagship and cloud-based platform for aggregating application program interfaces (APIs) and software development kits, and incremental improvements to core products were highlighted in classes.

While this may sound like a trivialization of new developments, to write a simple play-by-play of this year’s event and press releases would be a disservice to the deeper ideas and questions in play at the convention.

After attending AU for the past five years, I keep returning to this question: For all of Autodesk’s new technology and expanding market share, is the industry realizing the value?

Nearly 10,000 architects, engineers, builders, and designers gathered at Autodesk University 2017 to hear Autodesk leaders discuss the future of its technology.
Courtesy Autodesk Nearly 10,000 architects, engineers, builders, and designers gathered at Autodesk University 2017 to hear Autodesk leaders discuss the future of its technology.

In his first opening keynote as Autodesk president and CEO, Andrew Anagnost, previously the company’s chief marketing officer, positioned Autodesk as an automation company that helps builders do “more, better, with less.” Moreover, he refuted fears surrounding automation’s disruptive effects: “Instead of asking if automation will take our jobs,” Anagnost challenged, “we should ask where automation will take us."

This message comes during an interesting, if not pivotal, moment for the construction industry. Fifteen years after Autodesk acquired the Revit Technology Corp., recent surveys show that 70 percent of construction projects in North America are now delivered with BIM. Meanwhile corollary construction industry reports show a continuation of flat productivity, late and over-budget projects, and immense construction waste. While exceptional projects and businesses fueled by new technology exist, industry statistics tell a larger story of uneven impact where the promises of digital advances are not being consistently realized.

Today, construction professionals face an increasingly commoditized marketplace where tight competition and slim profit margins dominate business decisions. If the current digitization of the construction industry has not shown measurable progress in performance, will the next digital wave promoted by Autodesk produce a different result?

Based on the AEC Keynote, Autodesk’s answer is unequivocally and predictably “Yes!” Autodesk construction business line director Sarah Hodges, vice president of AEC strategy and marketing Nicolas Mangon, and BIM product line group vice president Jim Lynch each identified “data silos” and “fragmented processes” as reasons for wasted time and low productivity. What followed in their presentation was a vision for “Connected BIM” where Autodesk technology, such as BIM 360, will provide an integrated data backbone for design, fabrication, and construction. For example, Hodges cited the use of BIM 360 in the CITIC Tower project, designed by New York–based Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates, for reducing the number of RFIs by 80 percent and evading 6,000 construction-coordination issues. If this issue sounds familiar, it should: RFI and error reduction has been a staple of BIM-related discussion for years.

Meanwhile, the new focus on “connection” aims at longstanding workflow pain points deriving from a lack of data integration and interoperability among popular CAD and BIM desktop tools, including those produced by Autodesk. In fact, even the most tech-savvy teams still struggle to share their model geometry and data seamlessly across the multitude of tools and platforms available on their desktops. Often, they are left to make their own home brew of custom workflows to bridge the gaps between tools and processes. An example of this comes in the form of Thornton Tomasetti’s TTX platform, which was built internally to overcome interoperability challenges among structural tools, including Rhino, Revit, Tekla, and RAM.

However, Autodesk customers who have managed to navigate the shortcomings of tool interoperability should not expect to achieve Connected BIM vision without a premium. BIM 360, part of the growing set of cloud-based construction management tools, is available at a monthly subscription rate. Likewise, Forge provides software developers access to new APIs through the purchase of cloud computing credits.

With Forge, Autodesk has been making some interesting partnerships to create new services and bridge digital disconnects. At AU, Autodesk announced a partnership with Dropbox to provide compatibility for DWG files within Dropbox, using Forge. Today, 1.5 billion DWG drawing files are stored on Dropbox, according to Autodesk, but customers have been unable to preview them. With Forge on the backend, users will be able to read DWG files directly in Dropbox in much the same way as they can view images, PDFs, and videos.

The company’s ambitions for Forge go even further. Autodesk wants to establish Forge as its platform for data automation where partnerships, like those with Dropbox, will continue to expand its market reach. Autodesk is using its Forge Fund to partner with and mentor companies using their cloud APIs. Notably, Autodesk’s Forge Fund announced investments in Assemble Systems, Project Frog, and ManufactOn. Additionally, Autodesk is trying to encourage its customers to build their own custom applications with Forge. If this idea gains traction, this will surely drive up demand for coding and automation skills among the existing industry workforce but it may also expand the digital divide in a construction industry where these capabilities are already scarce.

With this in mind, the move towards Connected BIM should raise another question in the minds of customers: In addition to patronizing Autodesk’s design tools, are customers ready to have Autodesk manage their projects’ data for the entirety of the projects’ life cycles?

Autodesk CEO and president Andrew Anagnost discusses automation and the future of work in his opening keynote at Autodesk University 2017.
Courtesy Autodesk Autodesk CEO and president Andrew Anagnost discusses automation and the future of work in his opening keynote at Autodesk University 2017.

Anagnost seems to think so. In a Q&A session with the press, he fielded questions regarding Autodesk’s direction under his leadership as CEO. “Our customers want us to do it,” he says, “but some are also nervous.”

Nervous, indeed. Having one company position itself as the data automation backbone of the $1 trillion domestic construction industry is sure to draw some anxiety and skepticism. Yet, with its uniquely dominant market position among architects and builders, who is better positioned than Autodesk to deliver on the vision?

Anagnost continued his assessment of his customers’ readiness with even more bravado: “If a customer isn’t happy with the offering in the coming years, they are welcome to find an alternative.”

And who might that be?

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