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GrabCAD Workbench just got a lot smarter…

Today was an exciting day. I’ve been following the development of over the past year or two and they keep impressing me.

I’ve always been excited by companies that diversify in unpredictable, but sensible directions. GrabCAD is one of these. Starting out as an online CAD file sharing platform, they broke the mold in the way they delivered their product, not only by using community sourced content, but also by creating a fun user experience with innovative features like point ranking systems for popular files and users. As their geometry-viewing technology improved, the site morphed into more of a web app with a lot more useful functionality and social media integration.

GrabCAD's content sharing portal, with social media integration


When GrabCAD first announced Workbench as a cloud based collaboration tool, I was keen to dive in and give it a go. It was fairly basic at that stage and I looked at it as “a good start.”

The real diversification started however, when they decided to become more than a content sharing tool, and add content creation/editing tools. In a somewhat timely fashion, Autodesk’s new 360 products, namely AutoCAD 360 and Fusion 360 arrived on the scene, and a partnership was set up which meant that GrabCAD users could now create and edit 2D and 3D geometry inside the GrabCAD environment. It should also be noted that Luxion added a GrabCAD integration for their very popular Keyshot, to allow rendered images to be sent directly from their application to GrabCAD. A GrabCAD app for mobile devices rounded out the sharing/viewing workflows to make an all-round pretty useful toolset.

There was something missing though……

Collaboration quite often means multiple users actively working on the same dataset, and when this happens, version control obviously becomes hugely important.

So coming back to why today was exciting. There was an announcement that GrabCAD had added a desktop sync client (think Dropbox for engineers), version control, and partner workspaces. I’ll go through these in a bit more detail below.

Desktop Client / Version Control:

The desktop client is the link between your GrabCAD workbench (in the cloud) and your computer (in your office). To set it up, you just download and install it, and then map a Workbench project to a local folder on your hard drive. It monitors differences between the local copy of the file and the cloud copy using Git (Wiki reference) technology which was developed for Software version control. This technology looks at file at a bit level and creates snapshots of the data which can be compared to see where differences have occurred. What this means, is that if someone that you are collaborating with, edits your files, the GrabCAD desktop client will detect that your local copy is no longer the latest, and it will give you the option of keeping your version, or getting the latest one from Workbench. The conflict resolution dialog is slick and the feedback is clear and concise. The application also provides quick links to your local folder.


GrabCAD Workbench desktop sync screen showing 408 changes that need to be uploaded to Workbench.

Figure 1 – Sync Screen showing 408 file differences that need to be uploaded

GrabCAD Workbench desktop sync details screen shows specific differences and status icons.

Figure 2 – Details Screen shows specific differences and status icons

The version control extends through to the Workbench cloud app, where a version history is kept, and features exist that allow you to compare differences between versions. Of particular note, is the cool little version compare slider, which lets you visualise the changes using a clever colorization key based on whether material has been added or removed.

GrabCAD Workbench version compare shows material removed (in purple) in web app.

Figure 3 – Version compare shows material removed (in purple)

Partner Workspaces

This is probably the feature I’m most excited about. A very common hassle for designers/engineers is getting their manufacturing data ready to be sent off, and then the actual process of sending it off, to the suppliers. While many tools exist for rapid creation of data such as profile cutting data, there aren’t many tight workflows for actually delivering this data. Most companies I have seen resort to sending it via email. Everybody knows the frustrations of following conversations by email. Let’s face it, it’s an old technology, and while it has its place, I think the delivery of manufacturing data can be done much better.

Enter Workbench Partner Spaces….

Right-click file in GrabCAD Workbench to add to a Partner Space.

Figure 4 – Right-click a file to add to a partner space

Partner spaces can be created and assigned to external teams / contractors / suppliers. Any files that you send to Partner Spaces will be accessible to the collaborators that you nominate for each one. The file doesn’t get moved from your original location, but what ends up in the Partner Space is effectively a link. This means that you can easily control who gets access to which data. The nice thing about this, is that your partners can review / comment on data in the workbench environment, and also visualise version changes and updates. Sure beats a long email trail.

Files shared in GrabCAD Workbench Partner Space.

Figure 5 – Files shared in a Partner Space

Here you can see files that have been assigned to Roy’s Router Room Partner Space. A short list of the files can be expanded in the browser, or full details viewed in the main window. On the right you can see the access control list. What I’d really like to see GrabCAD do now, is to make available some more property information, as well as filters, so that model files in the main Workbench project folder can be sorted and grouped by material, thickness. When this is possible, categorising your files to send to partner spaces will be a very very nice way to work.

Well done GrabCAD, keep up the good work and I look forward to hearing more exciting developments.


Fusion 360 Goes Live

Fusion 360 priceFour years to the day after Autodesk announced Inventor Fusion as a technology preview, Autodesk announce that Fusion 360, their cloud accessible 3D CAD modeling platform, is commercially available. The licensing cost is $25 USD / Month / user, however beginning today there is a 90 day free trial. Although significantly, the product will be completely free for Students and Enthusiasts, that’s a game changer right there.

Fusion 360 offers easy to use, easy to learn interactive direct modeling of solid objects, as well as complex surfacing capabilities via the integration of their T-Spines technology. One of my favorite parts of Fusion 360 is the ease of assembly; the interactive assembly joints are quite easy to apply and manipulate. Not only only do they get recognized within the simulation environment, but you can use them to create motion studies

Fusion 360 keeps track of your model version information in an easy to use project workspace, and keeps track of that information automatically. This frees the user from checking data in and out.

Fusion 360 implements the new Joints approach previously seen in Inventor 2014


Fusion 360 motion study

One of Fusion’s earliest claims to fame is their far reaching model format translation, able to import almost any format of 3D CAD model into their projects. Furthermore users can control which team members have access to the project data. The project data is tied to a Fusion 360 account that is perpetually available on the cloud, including when you don’t wish to license the service.

Fusion 360 Surfacing

Fusion 360 allows users to open the data and export it, you simply can’t edit it until you need to license the service again. This makes Fusion 360 possibly the most flexible, collaborative 3D modeling tool available.

A significant part of Fusion 360 is its Social Collaboration tools. The product leverages Autodesk’s 360 storage technology and builds a social interaction layer over the top of it. This allows users to interact with each others models, commenting, reviewing & requesting changes to better suit the overall design end goal.

Fusion 360 Project

Another announcement is coming in a few days that ties in another partnership with this service. Check back in this week for those details. In the meantime go download your trial and start playing with this awesome bit of kit:

Fusion 360 Download Link


PLM 360 | Is Your Existing Management System Losing Money?

I’m sure you’ve noticed that my PLM kick isn’t quite over. Yes we’re still on top of the Autodesk manufacturing industry, but I need to get through all this PLM stuff that’s trying to get out of my head.

I was performing a simplified cost analysis of a company’s existing management system, compared to the capabilities offered by PLM 360, as they relate to searching alone. This was important to me because I’m the poor bastard that often has to do all the seemingly complex data search tasks that no one else wants.

Existing ‘Not So Free’ System

Autodesk PLM 360 vs Time Many companies refer to their existing management system as a free system. Most of us use Microsoft Office products such as Outlook, Excel, and so on to do many project management tasks. Since we still need email and Excel for other purposes, and still have to purchase the licenses, the cataloguing expenses can be seen as essentially nil. Well, that’s not exactly true.

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Civil BIM | Is it Coming to my Cloud?

Scott and I have been working to bring out the best in Autodesk Vault and Autodesk PLM 360 as most of you know. Additionally, we’ve been looking at numerous Autodesk Labs offerings that are cloud based, as well as unmentionable non-Labs software that leverage the cloud in various ways.

Autodesk BIM 360

So I was interested when Autodesk announced BIM 360, the cloud centered civil collaboration platform. I asked about what other applications are planned for the civil side, and threw in Civil 3D. I ask this because of the continuing saga of transportation and BIM, or the lack thereof. Segments of the user community have been requesting more BIM functionality within Civil 3D, seeing the great benefits where applied in other circles, such as Revit. The specifics of these requests and which concentration of users are not important in this article, but might be worth mentioning later.

Infrastructure Modeler takes to the Skies

Infrastructure Modeler has been initiated on the cloud, with increased capabilities and the ability to pass information back and forth with Civil 3D, something that seems to be getting better as the product matures. I was given a link to a great article on the subject at Informed Infrastructure.

At present the tool is only capable of conceptual planning and collaborative design, but it is still a wonderful time saver, as it is much easier to perform numerous what-if scenarios, where the complexity in civil 3D is a hindrance… and my best client like to change his mind A LOT.

Autodesk Imfrastructure Modeler

Will this product be expanded beyond conceptual design?

The Recent Carl Bass Statement

Autodesk was a usual reluctant to make a statement regarding the specifics of and future plans. I specifically mentioned company CEO Carl Bass’ comment that everything Autodesk offered would be available on the cloud within the next three years, which indicated to me that there was likely a company mandate to do so. I imagine the company reaction going something like this: “Oh crap, did you hear what the boss just said? Well we’d better figure this one out fast”.  Hahahaha… who knows, but still, it’s funny because it could have happened that way.

Autodesk’s Response:

“Autodesk is very excited about the possibilities for cloud computing to enable our customers to do things that they simply can not do today.  We’ve already seen how Autodesk 360 is helping some customers with rendering, simulation and analysis using an almost infinite amount of computing power, and how other customers are achieving new levels of collaboration between stakeholders and in the field using mobile technologies.  You will see new cloud services and technologies from Autodesk that will help our customers move from a tool-centric approach to an information-centric approach, and enable companies and organizations of all sizes do more with their Autodesk software so they can imagine, design and create a better world.”

Some Painful Reality

Sentiments range from indifference to bitterness over Autodesk’s apparent lack of enthusiasm for a Civil 3D / BIM / Object oriented model structure, where structure is the key element. Two hurdles lie in the wake of Civil BIM.

  • The need for rigid composition in specific structures
  • The need to code a new product

From my perspective, there is nothing, and I mean nothing that will be done to accomplish this task within the AutoCAD environment where Civil 3D currently sits. For Civil 3D users, AutoCAD is not the limitation, but is freedom. Freedom to do things in a non-perfect world is not an occasional requirement, but is the norm. There is nothing regular about the field, and the name of the game is quantifying and working within irregularity.

Can Autodesk make a new Civil product that is BIM-centric? Sure, but think of the limitations that a non AutoCAD platform would require. Are you willing to give up the flexibility that you have. The painful moaning would never end…. Well, it would ebb, but only after many software cycles, and the ‘I used to be able to do this in Civil 3D’ griping would go on forever.

What I think

When you develop something as widely used as Civil 3D, you are always going to hear griping. You cannot make everyone happy, all the time.

  • I do not believe that Autodesk is the evil empire, where they are bent on screwing their customers.
  • I do however think that they are faced with innumerable desires and views of how their software should be developed, and only so much time in order to make the best products on earth.
  • I do believe that increased revenues help develop increased capabilities, and naturally they will continue to try to pick up  a greater consumer base.

I feel that it is extremely unfair, and unreasonable to say that any product is useless or offers no value to a group, when you  or I are only a tiny portion of any group on this planet.  I also feel the same about accusation that a software company has ‘ignored us’ or similar statements.  Have I felt let down before? Sure, but that’s part of the process, and knowing that my ideas are not necessarily what drive a development team. (In fact, it seems quite the opposite is true  ;-)

I feel reasonably confident that the development of the products surround the simple process of deciding what is possible, that will provide the best benefit, over the greatest width of the plans for the future, with the resources and time that is available… just like everything else that is accomplished in our personal day-to-day lives, from your grocery list to your child’s future and education.

While I am of the opinion that a BIM oriented Civil solution would be great (and I’d be glad to go that route), it’s not up to me. It’s not my product to develop, and I’m not the only one using it. I am however, keeping my eyes on that cloud growing overhead.

Carl Bass | Think of Computing as Though it Were Infinite

TechCrunch is running a series of videos recorded at the Berkeley ‘Innovation Event’ last week. In this video, Andrew Keen challenges Autodesk CEO Carl Bass with the question “Why is Autodesk Relevant today?”.

Carl said that “Companies don’t die easily, but they become increasingly irrelevant…I don’t think there is any inalienable right for companies to continue to exist, you have to earn that every day…” I like that because it is quite true in our time.

Carl BassThere were a few other interesting quotes like “The most interesting people use our products”, and while totally related to the question, I wanted instead to point out a few other things that Carl went on to say. I felt the following is very representative with Autodesk’s actions in the marketplace, where they likely see themselves (and you) in the near future, and perhaps an idea of what direction will come after the next horizon.

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