Inventor’s Death?

Is Inventor’s death a real possibility? How could Autodesk kill a product that is a market leader, is used by thousands of people, and has a strong (loyal) community of users? They definitely can and have done so before.

Mechanical Desktop

Picture this. It is 1999 and the so-called midrange modelers are now the dominate players in the 3D modeling market. Autodesk’s Mechanical Desktop, the new-to-the-market SOLIDWORKS, SolidEdge, and others were really changing the playing field. No longer were the old-boys club of ProEngineer, Catia, and Unigraphics ruling the roost. No longer did you have to spend tens of thousands of dollars to do 3D modeling. For most organizations, you could be very proficient spending just between $5000 and $10,000.

MDT 4 Box Shot

As already mentioned, the main 3D mechanical modeling system for Autodesk at the time was Mechanical Desktop (MDT). MDT was based on AutoCAD, acquired technology, and internally developed features.

When I entered the workforce in 1998 it was for an Autodesk reseller. MDT was an easy sell. It was an Autodesk product and existing AutoCAD customers could upgrade to MDT for a significantly less amount than buying SOLIDWORKS or SolidEdge.

In addition to costing less, as it was based on AutoCAD. We would show existing customers that they could continue to use their AutoCAD templates, borders, title blocks, layer schemes, block (symbol) libraries, and the icing-on-the-cake easily move their 2D drawings to 3D parametric models. Since it was based on AutoCAD, MDT’s detailing and annotation tools were easily the best in the market. I might even argue that there is no system today that provides the same level of flexibility to detail, as well as MDT could.

MDT 2004

Add it all up and selling MDT was as much of a slam dunk as you could have…. well, at least for existing Autodesk customers.

The next versions of Mechanical Desktop, based on AutoCAD R14 and 2000, brought along significant new features, functionality, and workflows.

But then something happened….(dramatic pause)…. Autodesk released Inventor (gasp)!

A New Beginning… Autodesk Inventor

Autodesk passed on the opportunity to purchase SOLIDWORKS as they were secretly working on their own “modern” system. This product, codenamed Rubicon, would go on to become the Autodesk Inventor we all know and love.


New Beginning by Scott Robinson

Autodesk recognized they were seriously handcuffed developing on top of AutoCAD. They knew they needed something built from the ground up, focussed solely on mechanical 3D modeling for manufacturing.

As easy as it was to sell MDT to existing Autodesk customers, it was almost impossible to sell to non-Autodesk customers. As it was based on AutoCAD it seemed adequated and difficult to use, especially compared to the likes of SOLIDWORKS and SolidEdge. In addition, MDT was actually cumbersome to use plus it lacked some of the advanced bells-and-whistles as its competitors.

Autodesk Drops the Ball

What was a bit scary at the time for resellers, now seems a bit humorous. Autodesk so badly read the market and stumbled out of the gate with Inventor.

Autodesk touted Inventor as the “ProE Killer“. This was at a pre-Creo time, where ProEngineer was still king of the market. Autodesk sold hard on Inventor’s adaptivity, its large modeling database, its ease-of-use, and modern “clean” user interface.

The message from Autodesk to its resellers was to continue pushing MDT on the existing customer base and aim high by selling Inventor to the ProE, Catia, UG, and Ideas users.

As you can imagine things fell apart quickly. Autodesk Inventor, as a release 1, lacked features to really complete. Although Autodesk worked hard by ramping up the releases quickly there was no way Inventor could compete with ProE, UG, and the high-end modelers. A ProE killer it was not.

Inventor 1.0 could not import 2D DWG nor could it import MDT 3D models. Since Autodesk was looking elsewhere, they did not think it was important to include AutoCAD with Inventor. They didn’t want to murky the waters.

As much as the Autodesk customer base liked MDT they immediately felt betrayed and many pissed off that Autodesk was introducing a new product. The way Autodesk marketed and promoted Inventor and almost instantly ignored MDT, made customers start to question the life of MDT. It didn’t help that the quantity of new features in MDT quickly started to dwindle. The writing was on the wall.

Inventor Rebirth and the Struggles for MDT Users

Fast forward two years (say 2001ish) and Autodesk did an 180 when they realized they missed the boat. They first started including AutoCAD with your Inventor purchase. Then soon after started including MDT. This correlated with Inventor’s new abilities to import both 2D AutoCAD drawings and 3D MDT models.  They decided to leave the old-boys club alone and focus on their existing customer base and the other mid-range modelers.

The problem was it was not always such an easy task for MDT users to make the switch. Sure, you could import your existing MDT models and for the most part, it did a really good job. However, many organizations had processes and workflows (like data management) in place that worked with AutoCAD and MDT but could not work with Inventor without a significant investment. Also, MDT could annotate and detail well, while Inventor really lacked in this area.

death - a self portrait

Death – A Self Portrait by Liz Kcer

MDT 6 was the last release to include new features of significance and MDT immediately went into maintenance mode (although this was never made official at the time). Autodesk continued to rev bump MDT but the only new features were whatever was new in AutoCAD. Eventually, they made the decision and officially killed MDT. Now MDT users HAD to make the switch.

Autodesk Fusion 360

Now we fast forward to 2014. Inventor, which was once touted as cutting edge and the future of modeling, is now the grizzled veteran. Autodesk has sold Inventor into thousands of companies and it has a very large and very loyal user community.

However, Autodesk has decided to dive into “the cloud” and other new bleeding-edge technology head first. Their existing product has too much history to be adopted to the cloud, so they have introduced a new product. This new product is developed from the ground up to utilize things like the cloud to its advantage. This new product, Fusion 360, quickly becomes Autodesk’s poster child. Fusion is arguably Autodesk’s most marketed products. All sounds too familiar, doesn’t it?

All sounds too familiar, doesn’t it?

What’s Old is New Again… or is it What was New is Now Old Again?

Inventor’s Death must be upon us, right? That’s the view of many people.

During the Autodesk Keynote, there was very little on Inventor (or Revit, or Civil 3D, or AutoCAD, or any desktop product). It was clearly apparent that Fusion 360 has the bling, the bam, and all the swagger. Walk around the AU exhibit hall and again it is all about Fusion and the customers who are using Fusion.

Inventor along with all of Autodesk’s desktop software is going to disappear. The writing is clearly on the wall. However, I don’t think it is going to happen as quickly as what some are predicting.

Things are much different this time compared to the introduction of Inventor. I think Autodesk learned their lesson last time and will not let history repeat itself (let us all hope at least).

First, Autodesk is not aiming pie-in-the sky with Fusion. Currently, Fusion 360 is aimed at individuals, hobbyists, start-ups, and smaller companies. This is currently much different market than Inventors. Secondly, Fusion is not aimed at “killing” any one system… it is the killer of all of them! (sorry, couldn’t resist)

I also truly feel Autodesk recognizes the value they have with their Inventor product and the significance of the large and very loyal customer base. Inventor’s Death does not feel imminent as Autodesk appears to be in no rush to move us Inventor users into Fusion 360.

Inventor Still has a Heart Beat

At Autodesk Univerity, I heard Carl Bass (Autodesk’s CEO) twice publically commit to Inventor having 5 to 10 years to go.  He did say however that we will start to see it become more focused, especially in areas of its strengths like industrial machinery design. He also did not say that Autodesk would be actively developing it during its entire “life” either.

Autodesk is also maintaining a substantial development team on Inventor. In fact, they just added to it by moving the Vault development team within the Inventor group. The Inventor beta program is the envy of all the other Autodesk product groups, and even non-Autodesk developers. We’ve seen two Inventor 2017 subscription releases providing strong feature enhancements. What I’ve seen upcoming for Inventor 2018 is very promising.

Let’s Get This Rolling!

I would love to start using Fusion 360 in my day-job, especially for conceptual design…. but I don’t (at least for now). Why? Numerous reasons, the biggest being the lacking detailing tools and the inability to get the data into Vault, attached to items, and sent to our ERP system when the conceptual model is ready for production.

Why did it take MDT users so long to move into Inventor? Because it was all-or-nothing. You could tinker with Inventor but could not seriously use it with the lack of integration with existing processes.

Autodesk has already provided access to Fusion 360 to Inventor users in the form of it being included with the Product Design Suite / Collection. However, if Autodesk wants Inventor users to start moving to Fusion 360 now, they should make it easy for them to utilize Fusion data within Inventor. Then the Inventor user can use Fusion 360 where it makes sense, yet still incorporate the data in with their existing processes.

STEP 1 – Connected AnyCAD for Fusion 360 Data

Think about it, I’ve got countless assemblies, parts, components, drawings, and a content library of hardware that I’ve spent a significant amount of time developing. I’ve also got well-established processes.

So step 1 should be an easy and eloquent means to associatively use Fusion 360 data within Inventor.  No more exporting to STEP and non-associatively attaching / importing into Inventor. Let’s get Inventor connected to A360 so that I can associatively place Fusion models into my Inventor assemblies. As the Fusion design changes, it would update within the Inventor assembly. I would call this Connected AnyCAD as it combines the AnyCAD workflow and the Connected Design.

It is probably too late for this for Inventor 2018, so let’s get this in for the Inventor 2018 R1 update.

Autodesk would then expand on this to include Fusion multi-body support. I want to open the Fusion design in Inventor as multi-body parts. I don’t expect to modify them within Inventor, perhaps just add features, but I want the ability to use the Make Components feature to generate parts and build the assemblies. You could then detail those parts within the much more robust drawing environment and generate the required Bill of Materials. And I can place the assembly further up the hierarchy. Again it is all associative meaning that it changes in Fusion it changes in Inventor.

Step 2 – A360 Data Management within Vault

If I place a Fusion 360 model into Inventor I want this link tracked within Vault. I envision a system where clicking on the file within Vault opens a window into A360 in which I can preview the file. It should lock the file within A360 only allowing editing once the file is checked-out. It’ll be a somewhat unique scenario where that actual data does not reside on the local server, but in the cloud, yet Vault is still managing its lifecycle. I’m ok with this being a Vault Pro only feature, as really the true goal is linking it to an item so that it can be pushed in PLM or ERP systems.

It’ll be a somewhat unique scenario where that actual data does not reside on the local server, but in the cloud, yet Vault is still managing its lifecycle. Or perhaps its shared ownership between Vault and Fusion Lifecycle.

Let’s Wrap This Up

Inventor’s Death is coming but I don’t think its time to proclaim the sky is falling.

We still have years of Inventor usage in front of us. However, you would be foolish to not keep an eye on Fusion 360 and even go one more step of trying it out. Fusion 360 is included within the Product Design Collection and is free for individuals. You have no excuse to start using it now to prepare yourself for the inevitable.


Feature Image “Cemetary” by Karoly Lorentey