Automation has been changing how we work and what we make for centuries. From the first steam engines to the first mechanized assembly lines, and from the first mainframes to the first personal computers, each technological advance brings transformations to our world and our work.
Today, the transformative technologies that are impacting how we make and build include artificial intelligence, machine learning, virtual reality, intelligent robotics, and the cloud. These technologies and the changes they’re bringing were front and center everywhere at Autodesk University 2018—in hundreds of learning sessions and dozens of exhibits on the Expo floor. They were also the focus of the opening General Session during which Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost shared a vision for the future of work in an age of increasing automation, as well as his perspective on what it will take for individuals, companies, and communities to thrive. Watch the AU 2018 General Session >
“Automation can enable us to work better, do things better, and make better decisions,” he said, adding that the ways we adapt and the attitude we adopt will have profound effects on how much we can achieve. “In an era where the nature of change is changing, it’s not always the application that creates value, but the collective behavior of everyone plugged into it,” he said.
Agriculture, Anagnost noted, is an industry where automation has already had a powerful effect. “In 1900, 40% of the American workforce worked in agriculture. Today, only 2% does,” he said. “Today, thanks to automation, we have more access to better types of food than ever before—we can feed more people with less labor.”
“We did affordable food,” Anagnost continued. “Now, maybe we can do affordable housing.”
Building Better Using Technology
Automation is also aiding collaboration, no matter where you are in the project chain. Marc Durand and Annette Chapman of Atkins, a construction and business services firm, took the stage to share their progress with Project Caterpillar, an in-house app they developed that enables creators and customers alike to sketch an idea and move it directly into the 3D world of Revit. By taking the napkin sketch into the digital realm, they’ve been able to reduce the time needed for concepting by 60%.
Another example of collaboration? The role of Autodesk technology in the design of the Olympic Village for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles. In the past, structures created for the Olympics have become obsolete and eventually torn down or abandoned. This time, organizers wanted a structure that would serve its immediate need for the event, but also serve the community for years to come.
Instead of following the waterfall process that’s still standard in construction, in which stakeholders recreate data at each step of the process, and remodel what’s already modeled as the project moves from design to engineering to construction, the team shared a common building model from the beginning. The engineers and builders could give feedback on the design in real time, allowing more opportunity to collaborate and innovate, and ultimately empowering a better outcome. “The result,” Anagnost said, “was a reusable structure built with less friction and more fun.”
Automating Intelligence in Design
Machine learning and generative design are likewise impacting the design and build process across the world. Daiwa House, a Japanese construction firm, has harnessed these technologies to create architectural designs on spec to accommodate the shrinking supply of land parcels in urban Japan, many of which have unusual shapes.
Following set constraints for access, sightlines, demographics, cost, regulations, and ROI, these digitally generated designs not only greatly enhance the efficiency of the process, they get better with every iteration based on insights from previous rounds. “For Daiwa House, the process is delivering better housing and more economic value with less risk and investment,” said Scott Borduin, CTO of Autodesk. “Generative design is particularly good at reconciling goals that seem to conflict,” he added.
Generative design has also captured the attention of scientists, including those involved with interplanetary research. Autodesk is collaborating with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) on their concept interplanetary lander. Working with generative design for the first time, JPL has been able to reduce the mass of the lander by one-third without sacrificing performance. One day, JPL hopes to send the lander to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn to look for evidence of life.
Generative design has enabled JPL to explore more design solutions more quickly, setting constraints not only for mass and performance, but also for cost and, perhaps most importantly, manufacturability. Since additive manufacturing isn’t qualified for space flight and won’t be any time soon, constraints were added for proven processes like casting and milling using trusted materials like titanium and aluminum. “With generative design, JPL could explore the full design space and get a clear line of sight from the part to production to pricing,” Erin Bradner, director of robotics at Autodesk, said. “They could focus on the solution instead of the problem.”
Thriving in a World of Automation
As Anagnost put it, Autodesk is committed to helping those in industry adapt to these transformations and the opportunities they bring. “We want to help you build the skills you need to thrive in the new era of automation,” he said. In his view, the key necessary qualities are adaptability, resiliency, and community.
“Adaptability is about being flexible, evolving your business to meet new requirements, because the more you know what’s coming, the more adaptable you can be,” he said. “Resiliency is the ability to bounce back. And community is about bringing people together and bringing people along, so they’re able to handle what’s next.”
He shared how Autodesk is investing in training programs for trade unions, and how it’s partnering with other companies and organizations to train the next generation to work collaboratively with automation of all kinds. And he shared how Autodesk’s Forge platform is putting the building blocks of Autodesk tools into the hands of customers, enabling them to build customized tools that serve their unique needs.
The worlds of design, manufacturing, construction, and media have undergone significant change over the past 50 years, with more to come. But rather than mourn the jobs that will become obsolete, Anagnost encouraged us to prepare for the new jobs that will become available in the years ahead. “Automation is changing what we’re capable of making,” he said. “It’s changing how we work and what we work on. It’s helping us to create more meaningful things, and also create more meaningful work.”