The software company Autodesk doesn’t manufacture anything. But it stills play a role in the manufacturing economy: engineers, industrial designers, and factory builders rely on its design software to plan out and improve on their ideas before making big investments.
Design can offer ways for companies to sell products for more money even as they lower the costs of making them. Yet with a growing trade deficit in manufactured goods, the United States now designs many products that it no longer makes. Autodesk’s CEO, Carl Bass, believes that must change.
Manufacturing and product design make up the fastest-growing segment of Autodesk’s $2.2 billion business, representing 30 to 40 percent of revenues today. Now the California-based company has started to sell Netflix-style subscriptions that let customers access its prototyping, simulation, and process-modeling software on the Web. This change is more fundamental than it seems—it allows designers and engineers to exploit far more computing power in product testing.
Bass, a hobbyist who last year designed his own Christmas gifts and had them produced on a 3-D printer, spoke with MIT Technology Review business editor Jessica Leber about the role of design in manufacturing.
Why do you think manufacturers are the fastest-growing category of customers for Autodesk?
No manufacturer anywhere feels safe from international competition anymore. They’ve driven down the prices, and there’s only so far you can go. Then you have to start competing on other attributes. Design can help sell products for money, and well-done design also helps bring down the cost of production.
Our software has always been used in manufacturing, but more for documenting products, like making the blueprints. Now it’s used from the very earliest stages of conceptual design, through industrial design, engineering, and manufacturing, and then to managing the whole life cycle of the product.
How much more design is making its way into manufactured products?
You can’t exactly estimate it, but you can see manifestations. You’re starting to see [more design] even in industrial settings, like in medical equipment or factory machinery. People are selling based on the design of machinery. That’s a change. A well-designed forklift might take new factors into consideration like how much energy does it require or how long between servicing, as well as how much it lifts.
How is technology changing how product design is done?
Cloud computing is becoming this infinitely scalable, elastic resource that can be applied to a problem. A CPU-hour costs a couple of pennies. I can put a thousand “cores” to a problem for less than what a person costs.
That’s really changed the way we do simulation, [and] it’s allowed us to move from simulation to optimization. I used to have to come up with a design, then test it, then do it again, until I ran out of time or money or patience. Now I can run those tests simultaneously, and I can use statistical techniques to find the optimal design by stress or strain, or cost, or some combination of those. For the first time, we’re really getting what the field has promised for 30 years, which is true computer-aided design. The computer is not merely doing what you tell it.
Can you give an example of why that matters in manufacturing?
I was talking to an engineer the other day at a consumer electronics company. They use our software for doing the analysis for plastic injection molds. To make a mold [out of steel] is at least a hundred thousand dollars, and the choices you make in how you design that mold affect the yield and quality of millions of parts.
He used to run a simulation that took 36 hours, and some of the molds that he wanted to run were too big for the computers he had. Now [his] time has gone down to less than three hours. And what he finds himself doing is running multiple simulations at the same time and choosing the best answer. It leads to a cheaper and better product. You’ll have fewer failures.
Will computer simulations someday design perfect products on their own?
Everybody always gets into this question: is it going to replace the designer or the engineer? We’ve seen it in [some] fields. In the world of chip design, people design at an abstract level, but they don’t go in and lay out each transistor. They use the computational power to do it. I think something very similar is possible in industrial and mechanical design.
Are design and manufacturing moving closer together or further apart?
During the period where people tried to exploit offshoring and outsourcing, manufacturing and design got divorced from each other. Now companies are realizing that if you get too divorced from making the product, you don’t understand how to improve it.
I was walking one day through this factory in China where they make a huge percentage of the world’s laptops. On one floor there were five different brands of laptops being made. The people who knew about making it were all in this factory. This outsourcer used to just do the manufacturing, but they told me now they’re doing the routine engineering, too.
Do you think the U.S. can continue to design great products without making them?
I don’t think you can just design and not manufacture. That was one of the problems we saw with the laptops.
We can have more manufacturing in the United States than has gone on in the last 10 years. The exodus is going to reverse itself because companies are going to make products close to the markets that they serve, with variations and customizations in the product for that market. As opposed to manufacturing happening for the entire world in southern China, the trend is we are going to a more distributed model. You see that with the global car manufacturers today, with Japanese and German companies having plants in the U.S.
Autodesk talks a lot about “democratizing” design so that everyone can do it. Is people’s ability to manufacture those designs keeping up?
Both design and manufacturing are easier. As a consumer, I’ve had access to design tools that I never would have had five years ago. On the fabrication side, there are so many ways to get high-quality things made. I can go online and have people around the world bidding to make it, whether the lot is one or 1,000 in size. What you are getting is access to [manufactured versions] of more people’s design ideas.