If you are reading this, you are probably wondering what is up with Autodesk and their manufacturing program, especially after the recent purchase of HSMWorks. We got to see a preview of what the company was proposing at Autodesk University this past November, but it was little better than a teaser.
I am quite fond of a matured integrated Fusion 360 concept, with visualization, simulation, simplification, and CAM on board, riding a PLM / PDM strata. Notice I did say matured.
What is left unsaid is whether the product will be integrated into the company’s flagship engineering product, Inventor Professional. If so when, and how, and if not, what then?
I was introduced to Carl White in Las Vegas last year. Carl is the Director of Manufacturing Engineering Products at Autodesk. He was kind enough to speak with me on the record about their recent purchase and the new CAM features. He introduced me to Anthony Graves, Product Manager at HSMWorks, who joined in the conversation about the product specifics; well, sort of specific.
Why the sudden change of heart
John Evans: What has prompted Autodesk to move into the CAM industry? Can you address the comments previously made by the company, stating that the company did not want to move into a well-established area?
Carl White: We spend a great deal of time trying to provide our customers with a complete set of digital prototyping tools. One of the things that we don’t and have not provided is tools for manufacturing.
JE: Within the last two years there has been some turmoil surrounding speculations of why Autodesk wouldn’t make the move. The company has stated that they did not want to create a problem with their partner developers who already develop CAM solutions that work with (and within) Inventor. What are your thoughts now that these partners will suddenly be your competitors?
CW: There is really only one company that has done any real integration in Inventor, and that is SolidCAM (the InventorCAM product). We still value them as a partner, and their solution can still do things that ours can’t.
One of the reasons we chose to go to the market at this time is that the technology and platforms are ready for a change; we see the cloud as an interesting aspect of how we can do some new and different things in the CAM space.
There are lots of partners that we have, such as Vero and Gibbs and others. Every one of those CAM platforms have some specialized functionality….I spent a lot of time researching this market, and what I found that HSMWorks was doing things differently and that their CAM integration was very tightly knit. The people at SolidCAM do that with Inventor, and we’re confident that we can provide tightly integrated CAM as well as they have. I like the way their [HSMWorks] technology works; they thought very differently about the approach, it’s part of the workflow, and we like that.
JE: With CNC technology tied to a problematic automotive market in the USA, and the continuous expansion of additive manufacturing technologies, what strategy does Autodesk plan to use in order to gain a substantial market-share of the entrenched CAM industry?
Anthony Graves: We recognized that very few companies had been able to deliver a truly integrated CAM product (integrated CAM completely inside the design environment). When you do that, it opens up an entirely new market of users, like designers and engineers. It also introduces people that use traditional, standalone CAM products to design tools inside, for example Solidworks, or in the case of InventorCAM by SolidCAM, Inventor.
Between 20-30% conservatively of a CNC programmers work is prepping the part models for the machine manufacturing process. They are recognizing that no one handles design tasks better than folks like Inventor, Solidworks, etc., an arena in which the CAM companies just can’t compete. Every year the walls between CAD and CAM are coming down.
By integrating CAM into the CAD design environment, we are helping change the roles of designers and engineers into (machining process) prototypers. Furthermore we are opening up the market to a lot of individuals that want to design and start a small business, where there have always been a lot of barriers between them and interacting with traditional manufacturing industry like job shops. They are beginning to say “I don’t want to learn a CAM product, but I know my CAD tool, I just want a CAM product that works like my CAD tool so I can machine these parts.”
The reality is that the CAM industry is very mature, where the ‘Veteran CNC programmer’ will be retiring in the next 10-15 years.
For those individuals, you would have to create such a transformative technology in order to get them to drop what they are doing now, where they have made a significant investment in not only in dollars but in building a business process around that technology; that is not a realistic goal.
However a far more realistic goal is to offer an integrated CAM solution for those who are in their mid-forties [and younger] and are currently using products like Inventor or Solidworks, and other design tools.
The larger engineering software vendors have realized the value of integrated solutions, but just over the last 5 – 10 years we’ve started to see solutions for the mainstream users of products like Inventor and Solidworks users, mature to the point where now you have really robust tools. Many of these users are in their late 20’s to mid 40’s, they are open to looking at whether there are advantages to integrating CAM/CAM/CAE into PLM, etc., as well as new technologies. We have done a lot of work with people of ages ranging from middle school to university level, and made the technology accessible in such a way that the products are open to them.
So we are not necessarily competing with the traditional market, as much as we are trying to drive the next generation from integrated CAM to these Fusion type products that I think are going to set the stage for the next couple of decades of design tools.
So next I asked about product features, and release schedules and was summarily chastened for my obviously ridiculous question, which really means my bribes are not getting into the right hands.
CW: What I will say is what we liked about the HSMWorks product is that it is foundational, that the kernel will function inside Inventor, the same way it works in Solidworks, and that whatever improvement we make to that kernel will be reflected in any technology we integrate it with.
Another thing that is really good about the HSMWorks product is their distributive CAM. They are the first in the market to do this. Today that takes the form of allowing the tool path generation engine to be distributed across multiple machines inside of you network. This allows me to farm out the creation of a tool path and free up my desktop. We are looking at some different ways of doing that, and if you look at what we’ve done with simulation you might be able to draw some parallels.
AG: The reason why we came out with distributive CAM was two-fold. First we recognized that the HSMWorks kernel is a native 64 bit kernel from day one, and it was the first multi-core 64-bit CAM product on the market.
With CAM, it’s a little bit of a unique technology, because in CAD, if you make a change to the Model, it may only take 15 seconds for the change to permeate through the entire assembly, but you might have 20 or 30 machining operations that are affected by that design change. Each of those operations requires a tool path calculation to occur.
So by having the ability to distribute the tool path calculations not only across multiple cores on a single computer, but utilise all the available cores on a network, you are able to compress the tool path calculation time down so dramatically that it can literally transform a business, mold and die, aerospace, consumer products; etc. Distributive CAM gives you a glimpse into the future, and Autodesk is going to take that to the next level.
JE: I’d like to discuss post-processing, and how Autodesk intends to make that easier to deal with for the end user.
CW: Post processing is an important part of the programming process and we have a super-strong foundation and a lot of experience when it comes to post-processors and posted code. We are certainly evaluating many different ways of how we can make that process easier for everyone involved in the CNC programming process.
JE: Regarding the Fusion 360 port of the product, will this be the first product released with that technology?
AG: HSMWorks is already out and has been out for 5 years, and we are releasing the 2013 version for Solidworks in Florida right now. As for the new products, the HSMWorks kernel was producing tool paths in the 123D share we did, before the new year.
CW: We are taking the core platform technology and looking at what it takes to put it on top of Inventor and Fusion. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions based on what you already know about the products today.
Later Carl added: We do a lot of testing with the customers. Their feedback shapes the way the product is ultimately shaped. Once we get to a point when we can receive that feedback, then we’ll know more.
JE: Any discussion open to the cost of the product?
JE: What about it’s release date?
JE: …a season [almost begging at this point]?
CW: [laughter] We want to get this out as fast as we can.
JE: I am very interested in the Fusion 360 PLM integration, and would like to know more about how the CAM technology will use it.
AG: This hasn’t really been asked up till now in normal circles. The integrated CAM technology is relatively new. Customers who have PLM often don’t consider whether the tool paths are being stored inside the model / design files or as a separate file(s). When looking at implementing PDM inside a manufacturing company, that can be the difference between a thousand files and six thousand files, depending of course on the particular integrated solution. I point this out because within the HSMWorks technology, all the tool paths are stored inside the modeling file. We will continue to use this approach with all of the development we [Autodesk CAM Development] do, because it is an important consideration. When you update the model, ensuring that all the other files are synchronized is a really difficult task if that data is not stored inside the model file.
It is clear that Autodesk has targeted small businesses and designers with the Fusion 360 integrated platform, a transformative product, with those who desire the capabilities and solutions that have for one reason or another been out of reach. While Carl did say that they are “Trying to cover all the bases” and looking into integrating HSMWorks with Inventor, it is clear that the Inventor solution is not on its way to its users at this time (nor will it be the first out of the gate).
Will the Fusion 360 platform mature fast enough to be a viable design tool by the time that the CAM integration is offered to the public? Fusion 360 has a lot of hurdles to cross, so that remains to be seen. However Carl made it abundantly clear that the company expects the next decade to be dominated by Fusion 360 type solutions.
I asked the duo if they had anything to add for the customer base that is waiting pensively, if not hopeful for the new technology to reach them.
CW: This is an exciting time for the company, and we are getting a lot of support for opening up a new market for Autodesk. This is good for our customers and extends the Digital Prototyping vision we have into a whole new realm. We are looking to go fast so stay tuned.