Autodesk is Shipping Up to Boston


Hey guys, so if you haven’t heard, AEC software giant Autodesk is opening up an office right in Builtr’s backyard! The new office is expected to open in the Seaport District of Boston in the fall of 2015, and is great news for anyone involved in the AEC industry in Beantown. This office isn’t going to be an ordinary, run of the mill, cubicle-filled workspace. It’s an experimental approach to Research and Design facilities, where employees can craft digital models and then see them constructed in real-life without even having to cross the street. At the center of these ideas sits the BUILD Space, or Building, Innovation, Learning and Design Space. This state of the art lab sounded about as close to Tony Stark’s workshop as we’re ever going to get — but don’t take our word for it. We sat down with Autodesk Senior Director Rick Rundell to find out what to expect from the new office, and the results did not disappoint.

Builtr: So, Rick, why Boston?

Rick Rundell: When we looked at all of the areas where Autodesk could possibly grow and evaluated where we had people and where there was a population of potential employees, Boston rose pretty much to the top of that list. There are a lot of schools in Boston, there’s a lot of talent in Boston and there’s a tremendous amount of innovation happening in Boston. It’s a very energetic innovation community to be a part of. And we have an investment in a team here, in the Boston area, which is targeted at one of the largest industries that Autodesk addresses, which is the AEC Industry. We have a team here and we have the resources of a world-class city, colleges and universities. So that’s why Boston.

B: And I imagine the fact that the seaport district has been called by many “the innovation district” of Boston probably also influenced your choice.

RR: It did, the particular location was influenced by our desire to combine a more office like environment for our software engineers, marketers and sales people, and our employees generally, with more industrial, workshop R&D space for digital fabrication in the AEC industry. It was a very unique opportunity for us to find a facility that could accommodate both of those uses in a single building.

Autodesk’s new neighborhood. Photo courtesy of Paul Sullivan, Autodesk.

B: I’ve heard the space compared to the Autodesk Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco, would you say that that comparison is accurate?

RR: It is in principle. Our Pier 9 Workshop is really built as a similar facility for research into advanced manufacturing techniques for manufactured objects. Our facility will be for advanced fabrication techniques targeted at the building industry. So we will have relatively more room to build things inside the space, a lot of the space will be simply reconfigurable project areas where people can build a panel that might go on a building or something that might end up being a piece of a large furnishing for a space, or a small pavilion, for example.

B: Who has access to the BUILD Space?

RR: We will develop a process around that. I think we’ll be soliciting proposals from researchers and schools. Some of the first groups that use the space might be those that we’re talking to over the course of the design and construction of the space.

The BUILD Space, in a nutshell is an R&D (research and design) facility for investigating digital fabrication in the AEC industry.

B: So I understand that the new office is going to be involved in the STIR Program (Start-ups In Residence). What kind of companies will be backed as a part of the STIR Program?

RR: In general, we’re looking for companies that are doing interesting things with Autodesk tools, and that would include designing products, or buildings, companies that are involved in clean tech, who are doing something in the AEC industry. It’s a pretty large group of categories that we have that we’re interested in for that space. We’ll be increasing the number of startups we’ll be able to support in the in-residence programs, and also we’ll be able to provide them with workshop-like spaces to do some of the things that they need to do which have proved to be a little more difficult in the traditional office spaces.

I didn’t get the chance to ask Rick, but I’m sure they’re planning on putting a few chairs in before the office opens. Photo courtesy of Paul Sullivan, Autodesk.

B: The BUILD Space itself, could you describe what your vision for it is?

RR: The BUILD Space, in a nutshell is an R&D (research and design) facility for investigating digital fabrication in the AEC industry. Now let’s unpack that a little bit. Increasingly, designers expect our tools to be usable for driving fabrication and production directly as opposed to simply documenting something that is going to be created. It used to be that people would design things using our tools and then produce drawings from those tools that they would hand off to somebody in a workshop to actually make the thing. And that person would take those drawings and fabricate the artifact. Now, with the development of numerically controlled machines and robotics, our tools, or the design data from our tools can drive those processes directly, which gives the designer more engagement with the final artifact. Basically they’re closer to crafting it physically themselves through the direct digital fabrication. One thing this enables is to create things that would otherwise be too expensive or too difficult to accomplish. So an example of that would be the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which is currently under construction, and includes over 700 composite panels on the facade, not a single one of which is like the other. They’re all different and they’re being fabricated by a shop outside of San Francisco using computer numerically controlled equipment (CNC) to create the forms for laying up those composite panels. Without being able to drive the machinery numerically it would be cost prohibitive to have each one of those panels created by hand. When they are mounted on the building it creates an overall effect on the facade of the building that’s very different from a facade that would be comprise of panels that were all the same. Digital tools are restoring some of the ability for designers to craft facades of buildings in a more elaborate, different and sophisticated way than mass production techniques have before. So the BUILD Space is intended to do research into that process.

In practical terms, what it is, is a shop full of numerically controlled fabrication equipment, so there’ll be a five-axis CNC router, a water jet, and a bunch of robot arms of different sizes that are used with other machines to create building components in unique ways. There’ll be a wood shop, a precision metal shop, and then a lot of studio space and project space for users. We intend to have colleges and universities who are interested in teaching studios using the equipment in the shop, so we’ll have space for that to happen.. We’ll have practitioners and other people from the industry as well as researchers, and we’ll provide space for them to be “in-residence”, to do research using all of the capabilities of the facility. And we’ll also have space for bringing in the community — school groups for example — and potentially hands-on projects they could do in the space to learn something about how buildings get built.

Is the Dropkick Murphys’ song stuck in your head yet? How about now?

B: Any specific goals in mind with the BUILD Space?

RR: Our goal is to help further innovation in the AEC industry, in broad terms. And to become part of a larger network of practitioners and manufacturers and builders and academics who are interested in furthering research in design and construction automation in the industry. The BUILD Space will be part of a larger network of institutions and other R&D facilities that will be collaborating on different kinds of products.

B: Do have an aspect of the BUILD Space that you’re the most excited about?

RR: I’m very excited about design robotics, which is the use of industrial robots to help explore the creation of form. I’m working with a researcher at Virginia Tech who recently hosted a design robotics summit and we had several of our employees attend that. These employees programmed robots using different tools to produce very interesting forms, sculpted in this case out of polystyrene foam and the results of that have been really interesting. I think there’s a lot more that we can do in that area.

Our goal is to help further innovation in the AEC industry…

So there you have it — Autodesk is going to create a state-of-the-art R&D facility in the heart of the Innovation District in Boston. They’re going to be working to create smarter design tools and better robotics, and improve interfacing with robots so that they’re easier to interact with… Erm… well, maybe don’t make the robots too smart, okay Autodesk? The last thing we need after this winter is an army of sentient robot arms and water-jet cutters flooding the streets of Boston and initiating the rise of the machines — I mean, never mind a few weeks, the T would probably be shut down for a year. But I’ve always been more inclined to worry about the robot apocalypse than most, so I’m probably over reacting. Either way, Autodesk’s new office and the BUILD space are sure to create amazing things. I personally can’t wait to see what they come up with.

There really couldn’t have been a better time to write an article that necessitated a picture of a sentient robot creating an army to take over the world.
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