Today at the AU general session, Autodesk CTO, Jeff Kowalski, kicked things off by talking about:
- Working from an expanded view of design -- one that looks at the whole design process;
- Focusing on people and teams, and what they really need to do their work;
- Connecting all of the elements of our projects through the power of the Cloud.
He started out by noting that, at Autodesk, we're toolmakers. We make tools for you guys: the people who are imagining, designing, and creating a better world. And because we're toolmakers, the big question for us is always: which tools should we make? To answer that question, we turn to our vision of what design is, what it could be, and why it's important.
Jeff touched the double-edge sword relationship man has with tools. He asked us to think for a moment about the impact that tools have had on our success and evolution as a species. He showed the oldest existing tool made by a human being: a stone hand axe that is 2.6 million years old. The ability to make and use tools like this is what made us human, and set us apart from the other animals. But our tools didn't just “make us human” - they literally made us. They made our hands and they shaped our brains, over millions of years of interacting with them. Our tools have changed the way we think.
In many ways, we literally see the world through our tools because it's often the arrival of a new tool that opens our minds to new possibilities that we would have never imagined before. New tools not only make it possible to do new things, they actually expand our very vision of what we believe to be possible. Even today our design tools have tremendous influence on what we can and cannot conceive and create. Tools may be one of our greatest achievements, but they're also one of the most powerful limitations on our capabilities.
When we look closely at the things we create, we can see clearly the traces of our tools -- their very features -- in the characteristics of those creations. There are many people in the AU audience who can look at a building, or a car, or a consumer product, and literally tell which piece of software was used to create it. Physical tools -- the chisel, the saw, the axe -- leave tool marks; and digital tools also leave their mark in the things we design. So the good news is that we can conceive and create anything our tools are capable of, but the flip side is that it's hard for us to think about or do things our tools are not capable of. The limitations of our tools have always placed a kind of outer boundary on the things we can conceive or create, and at Autodesk it's our mission to keep expanding that boundary.
Traditionally, design tools have focused mainly on the concept of form. Form creation is, of course, critically important, and it's something we've gotten really good at over the years. But there's more to design than just form. Today at Autodesk we've turned our attention to the entire design process, and have gotten some really exciting results. When we look at design in its entirety, we know it's also about:
- inspiring the imagination;
- improving the function of the things we design, and their performance in the real world;
- the art and science of making things, actually building or fabricating them;
- the process of design, and how we pull all these things together.
Today at Autodesk we're focusing on creating tools that address all of these important aspects of design.
Usually the design process begins with an idea - something that's inspired your imagination. Once that happens, the next step is bringing that idea out of your head, so that you can develop it and share it with other people. In the past, design technology hasn't been very helpful in the imagination stage of the creative process, but now we've developed some new tools that can help you capture, develop, and express even your most nascent ideas. Tools like Autodesk SketchBook are essentially digital sketch pads that work just like paper napkins, only better. There's also 123D Design, which helps you quickly explore your ideas in 3D, and 123D Make, which makes prototypes quick and cheap to build. All of these tools, taken together, are expanding the boundaries of what's possible for us to do in the imagination phase.
FUNCTION and PERFORMANCE
Think about the difference between what a designer cares about, and what an engineer cares about. Engineers don't really focus much on the actual shape, or form, of whatever they're creating. They focus more on what will it do, and how will it work, out there in the real world. Today we have some new tools that let engineers sketch out and explore multiple functional ideas before having to commit to any single idea.
After sketching out functional ideas, the next step is for us to actually experience how a design is going to perform before it's built, through simulation. Doing this can be very valuable - and not doing it can be very dangerous, as well as extremely expensive. Simulation can help us better understand, early in the design process, how a product will perform in the real world, through techniques like Finite Element Analysis and Computational Fluid Dynamics. And today simulation is rapidly shifting from a “nice-to-have” to a “must-have,” because the things we design today are so complex that simulation is a necessary part of the process.
At some point, whatever we've imagined and designed needs to be made real -- and recent breakthroughs in digital fabrication are radically changing the way things are being built and manufactured today. There are four types of digital fabrication:
- Additive manufacturing, like 3D printing;
- Subtractive manufacturing, like CNC milling and laser cutting;
- Robotic assembly;
- Nanobiology, where we're literally designing and making living things at the smallest scale imaginable.
This rapid, and in many ways radical, development of digital fabrication is very important because it's helping us close the gap between the increasingly complex designs we can dream up in the computer, and what we can realistically create out in the world.
Process management has traditionally been “underserved” in terms of good digital tools, and most of you would agree that technology could certainly do a better job at improving the design process. But recently we've made some exciting advances in terms of connecting all of the tools and data you need to do your work.
When we look carefully at the entire design process -- with all of its tools, technologies, and workflows -- it's easy to see how the actual people doing the work can sometimes get lost in all the excitement. In the early days of design technology, we all focused a lot on the tools required to do digital design, and then, when we had the tools, we turned our attention to the data we could create using those tools, but today it's important that we finally include the people, and the teams, who use those tools, and create that data. This focus on people and teams is already yielding some compelling innovations.
But for that insight to really matter - for it to really pay off-- the tools, the data, and the people and teams all need to be deeply connected. Which leads us to an interesting question: How connected are you today? I would guess: A lot! - and not at all! In fact, today most of us are suffering from a curious condition known as connectivity schizophrenia. Here are some of the symptoms: In our personal lives, we live in an extremely connected world, but in our professional lives, we work in an extremely disconnected world. Think about it: something happens in your personal life, like your daughter hits a home run. Within five minutes, everybody knows about it via Facebook. A whole community of people is instantly informed, even thought they may not be interested. But in your professional life, if someone on your team makes a critical change to a project, it's likely that you won't know it's happened, unless someone tells you about it later, in a meeting or in an email. That's connectivity schizophrenia.
We can solve this condition with a whole new set of cloud-enabled tools. For one thing, the Cloud is not just some kind of giant hard drive in the sky! Yes, it's an infinitely elastic computing resource, but it can also serve as a single point of connection -- a central coordination place -- for everything we need to know and do to complete our projects. One of the greatest benefits of the Cloud is its ability to replace the “dead air” between us with an always-on connection - a connection that goes beyond just the "potential for communication." What we're bringing you today is true connectivity. We're giving you…
- persistent awareness of what's happening right now on the project;
- robust context that helps you see and understand the big picture;
- the ability to look ahead and spot potential problems, giving you a chance to address them productively.
When you have true connectivity, your projects and teams move forward, together.
An expanded view of design is alive in the lab.
Thanks to the Office of the CTO team for the script upon which this blog article is based.