So what is this Forge thing anyway?

I was lucky enough to attend the Autodesk Forge Devcon this week in San Francisco. If you haven’t heard of Forge, it is a platform of cloud based RESTful APIs and microservices, that allow 3rd party developers to harness a growing range of Autodesk technologies, to integrate into web apps. Many companies such as Cl3ver, hsbcad, and openBoM are already using some of these services to build or enhance very slick and sophisticated websites for doing powerful things with 3D content.

Autodesk Hipsters – This ain’t your Dad’s ADN…

I’ve been to a couple of Autodesk University events, and some other smaller ones. As those of you who have attended these will know, you get a feel, and an image of what Autodesk are about, from the experience. Forge Devcon was very different. Autodesk have become really cool, and I don’t mean cool in a CAD geek way, I mean cool in the sense that they are up with the latest web development frameworks, and they put on cool parties, and they’re at javascript meetups, and cool in.. you know… a software geek way. That might seem like an odd statement, but the Forge platform is cloud technology, and to attract 3rd party web developers to use the Forge APIs, Autodesk have had to shake the perception that they only do boring old desktop stuff.

Whatever they did must have worked, because to attract 1500 developers to a conference in San Francisco, the same week as Apple’s Developer Conference, is no mean feat. The energy and buzz that filled the halls, and conversations I overheard, suggested that these developers were sitting up and taking notice, that there is a powerhouse of technology available to them, that is completely changing the scope of what is possible in a web environment.

I woke up early on the first morning, had breakfast, and wandered down Van Ness to Fort Mason, which I knew nothing about. I probably didn’t take the most efficient route, but I ended up walking along the waterfront and up and over a hill, where I got a clear view down onto the buildings that make up an old military base. It was a beautiful morning, and there below a fantastic view of the Golden Gate sat the Festival Pavilion, with a large “Autodesk Forge” banner hanging proudly over the entrance. What a cool venue! I continued down the steps and entered the huge building on the water and got the registration details sorted out. There were a number of theatres set up for classes, surrounding a central area of booths representing various industry players. At the end of the building was a keynote stage with a monstrous 50ft LED screen behind it.

Forge Devcon - Fort Mason Pavilion

The Booths

There were some very exciting technologies on display, both from Autodesk, and outsiders that provide complimentary services or hardware for things like IoT (Internet of Things), VR/AR (Virtual and Augmented Reality), and 3D Printing and CNC machining. One particular highlight for me, was my first chance to finally try out the Microsoft HoloLens, courtesy of the guys from hsbcad. It was impressive to see their example building model sitting on the table, and being able to interact with it using voice commands. The space tracking seems to be very good, and the model held it’s position perfectly as I moved around, which was a dramatic difference from previous AR techologies that I had tried. Scott Moyse and I were lucky enough to participate in Autodesk Cloud Accelerator 2 with Bill and Kris from hsbcad last year, and they have really come a long way since then with their very clever hsbshare system which provides a dropbox connected online viewing tool for building model collaboration. Another cool booth was run by Taylor Stein from Autodesk, where you could design a badge using a custom Fusion 360 plugin, and then route it out on a tiny desktop CNC router.

Forge Devcon HoloLens

The Classes and Keynotes

There was a nice mix of classes run by Autodesk employees, but also by 3rd party companies that had used the Forge platform already. It was great to have both perspectives. The sessions that I went to had a good balance of high level application, but with enough code examples thrown in to get the gist of the low level functionality of the APIs. There were a number of keynotes, including a very interesting insight into Protolabs, who produce very fast turnaround production parts using CNC machining, injection moulding and other manufacturing technologies.  The exciting revelation there, was that the heart of what makes them successful and able to achieve such a rapid turnaround, is a very sophisticated software platform that automagically analyses the 3D models sent to them by their clients, but also works with a huge network of CNC machines and injection presses. If you use Fusion 360, you might have noticed the button that allows you to get a quote from Protolabs to produce your part. As far as I can tell, there aren’t any humans involved directly in the process from when you push the button, to receiving the quote.

The Platform

While I have been messing around with the Autodesk cloud APIs for a while, when they relaunched them under the Forge umbrella, I have to admit, I didn’t really get it. It seemed like they had just given a name to a bunch of useful, but disconnected services. The branding and marketing implied a single connected ecosystem, but the reality was very different. Fast-forward a few weeks however, and the message suddenly made sense. Just a week or two ago, a number of new APIs were released, and some existing ones renamed. These additions allowed data to become the center of the platform, and a whole range of new potential possibilities appeared. Most of us who use design software, currently live in a product-centric world, where the data we deal with needs to be in the appropriate format for the tool we use, to be most useful. Forge is working to change that, where the geometry and associated meta-data become what is most important, and the APIs allow you to manipulate and share that data through whatever tools are needed for the particular task at hand. It’s an exciting new paradigm, and I’m excited to watch it evolve. With this, the ability to work with what they term “high frequency” data will be realised, opening up a new range of potential workflows, including some interesting possibilities in the world of IoT.

To build this platform, and the awesome code samples, they have embraced current and popular web technologies like WebGL, three.js, and node.js, and provided a fantastic developer portal and documentation to boot.

The categories of APIs available currently are as follows:

  • Authentication (OAuth)
  • Data Management – Connection to A360 data
  • Design Automation – Effectively AutoCAD in the cloud, for massive scale processing of DWG data
  • Model Derivative – File translation, thumbnail generation, geometry and data extraction services
  • Viewer – Previously known as the “Large Model Viewer,” this allows you to embed a clever viewer in a webpage for working with just about any CAD format file.
  • 3D Print (BETA)
  • BIM360 (BETA)
  • Reality Capture (BETA) – For processing image files to create 3D scenes / models


Held on the Wednesday evening after Devcon Day 1 wrapped up, this initiative was unlike anything I’ve seen before. If you’ve ever been to an electronic music festival, you’ll be familiar with the computer generated visuals that are often played on big screens by ‘Veejays’ (visual DJs.) This event had that sort of feel to it, but the amazing thing about it, was that the visuals were being generated by the artists live, in a web browser, and piped to a massive 50ft LED screen. In combination with the music being pumped from the fairly large speaker stacks, the experience was very captivating and impressive, in a super geeky way. I particularly liked the work of Edan Kwon. The particle systems he builds are incredibly detailed, and breathtaking. The 3DWebFest is a really interesting initiative, and another example of the way that Autodesk are really making a name for themselves among the web developer community. I can’t wait to see how this festival evolves and grows.

Forge Devcon in closing

All in all, the conference was a great experience, and I came away with a much clearer picture of the future of Autodesk’s cloud offerings. Forge really seems to be gelling as a platform very nicely, and the rate at which it is growing seems to be accelerating. As Autodesk’s first developer conference in the web space, I thought it was outstandingly well put together, and hope to be able to report from the second one next year, as I’m sure it will be even better.

If you’d like to explore the offering, and have a go with any of the APIs, you can dive in here. They are available completely free for the next 90 days, well 87 or so now…