When a company really commits to community engagement; or How Autodesk is changing the world

I’ve been away from mechanical design and modeling for more than four years now, due to a pretty significant career change. Last week, I had a sudden and unexpected need to draft a simple metal bracket for a volunteer project.

Knowing it had been a while since I had been in the space, and also knowing my trusty DraftSight 2D package was still available, I decided to take some time and see if there were any new entries or better options. I found AutoDesk Fusion 360, a full featured parametric modeling package with batteries included, and by that I mean it comes standard with simple simulation, environmental rendering, and CAM in the base package for $300 a year. Even better than that, it’s free-as-in-beer for enthusiasts and pre/early-revenue entrepreneurs. While there are certainly some idiosyncrasies to overcome for someone used to one of the industry standard packages like SolidEdge, SolidWorks (my favorite) or even AutoDesk’s own Inventor, Fusion 360 matches them on most fronts, nearly feature for feature. I had so much fun modeling the bracket, I didn’t stop, and ended up modeling the entire bench…

Render of multi-material park bench in one of the default included environments

Why am I bothering to write a medium post about my learning of old news in the PLM space? (Fusion 360 launched in 2013, but it was pretty rough around the edges then) Because of just how much a shift in AutoDesk’s business model and company culture this product and it’s continued improvement represents. PLM (Product Lifecycle Management) software companies are mostly large behemoths of organizations that got that way either from simple old-age (AutoDesk) or market consolidation(all of them). They’re not exactly known for nimbleness(of particular note, Siemens PLMs website currently uses Flash on the homepage), and indeed their business models have looked about the same for decades: large up-front license cost, and annual maintenance for upgrades and support. By the way, that feature you need for X? That’s a separate large up-front license cost and annual maintenance, the more niche X is, the larger the cost, and these options can easily eclipse the base software cost. Most of them have some sort of SaaS model these days, launched in the past few years, but it looks more like a lease of a high-value piece of capital equipment than what most of us in the IT world think of as SaaS.

I’ll take a second to cover the historical market acquisition model as well, because really only large enterprises and dedicated professionals were perceived as the target market, the major thrust was through partnering with educational institutions to standardize on a particular platform for their students, thereby creating a ready-made market of folks who were already familiar with your product at their entry to the workforce.

In the last decade, that market dynamic has started to shift, with the advent of affordable FDM 3D Printing, and the spread of cross-discipline makerspaces, FabLabs, hackspaces and the like, a new market has emerged, the serious hobbyist. (It’s worth mentioning here that this market has always existed in some capacity, and the traditional way of addressing it was just making your software piratable in some way. While these large PLM companies are some of the most vocal anti-piracy voices in the market, they had to be looking the other way at some level to allow the rampant piracy to go on as long as it has)

Apparently once I start modeling, I can’t stop…

These users are creating amazing things, and have been using some really rough tooling to do so, I have a friend that 3D prints incredibly complex designs, and has never used a design tool other than directly writing software to generate the geometry. There was definitely a demand for better tools, but these users simply couldn’t afford to drop $2–5K a year on a single software package just to design a widget that they may never make more than one copy of.

Enter AutoDesk. They were early in the game of paying lip-service to the emerging maker market, but as someone who was intimately acquainted with their business practices I was a bit skeptical. Even in 2015 when I toured their Pier 9 Workshop in San Francisco, a facility specifically built to show off how they could engage with artists and designers in innovative ways, the incongruousness of $600K multi-material 3D printers attached to workstations with $20K software packages in the name of reaching out to makers and creatives stuck out to me. (to say nothing of the top-of-the-line 7-Axis milling machine I drooled over) Sure, if you happened to land a sweet residency at the Pier 9 facility you could create just about anything you could imagine, but how was that effort supporting the maker movement at large? How did those artists amazing work with corporate budgets for materials and equipment translate into my local high-school’s FabLab? AutoDesk’s answer is Fusion 360.

Fusion 360 is the culmination of AutoDesk responding to changes in market dynamics and being intentional with culture and the engagement level with the maker community. I was so delighted with having access to such a great tool that I spent another several hours this weekend designing and modeling a micro-excavator just for fun (or not, we’ll see where that goes)

To close I just want to say kudos to AutoDesk for really asking itself if things had to be the way they were, and then working to answer the question of what they could be, and I can’t wait to see what’s next in this space.