Digital Builder Ep 90: CAD’s Promising Future in AEC

I know the word "revolutionized" is often thrown around in the tech world and it has almost lost its meaning. However, CAD or Computer Aided Design, truly warrants this description because it completely transformed how designs are crafted.

Before CAD, designs were done on paper or whiteboards, and iterating was inefficient and expensive. The introduction of CAD changed the game by digitizing the design process, making it faster, more precise, and infinitely more flexible.

In this episode of the Digital Builder podcast, we have Marcus O'Brien, the VP of AutoCAD at Autodesk. Marcus and I dive into an exciting discussion on all things CAD—including its history, evolution, and where the technology is going. 

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On this episode 

We discuss: 

  • The history and purpose of both CAD and AutoCAD
  • Which ML & AI tools are making a meaningful impact in AEC workflows
  • How AI tools can avoid becoming another “Clippy
  • Organizational safety and data security when working with cloud-based AI tools
  • How AI tools can empower better and wiser decision-making when utilized properly
  • How AEC organizations are shifting from communication and documentation tools to collaborative tools
  • How common data environments could affect the future of AEC

A brief history of AutoCAD

We begin the discussion by talking about the beginning of AutoCAD. According to Marcus, the software was first introduced in 1982 and has since become an industry-standard in computer-aided design.

"When I think about AutoCAD, the first 20 years were really around that cyclical paradigm shift of going from paper to the digital world. AutoCAD was focused on automation, making it work faster and helping you to iterate quickly."

He continues, "After that, we focused on verticals—i.e., architecture, engineering, MEP, electrical, plant, etc. All of those vertical products that we have, we either acquired them or built them ourselves during the late nineties and early noughties."

Then, from 2010 onwards, Autodesk focused on multi-platform initiatives so teams could use AutoCAD on desktop, web, and mobile.

Where we are and what's next: the role of AI and ML

Marcus says the next frontier of AutoCAD is harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and machine learning to enhance design efficiency and innovation even further.

"For the last three or four years, the big push and the big changes that we've been making are our investments in AI and providing insights to users as they use AutoCAD."

Of course, Autodesk invests in AI and ML not just for the sake of it; ultimately, it's about transforming how we approach design and construction, making the entire process more intuitive and intelligent for AEC pros.

Marcus remarks that it's all about providing value to the users.

"Being able to offer the right information at the right time in the right context is key here. You can have the best algorithms in the world, but if you're not offering them up in the right context or you’re interrupting workflows, they won't be successful."

Case in point: Macro Advisor

An example of intuitive AI in action can be seen in Macro Advisor, an Autodesk feature that automates repetitive tasks in CAD workflows.

"Macro Advisor is a capability we released, and we've been continuing to update over a couple of releases. It basically watches you as you work in your CAD workflow and then offers recommendations in terms of macros. So, it'll send you a little notification to say that we've created a macro for you," Marcus explains. 

"It goes, 'We've seen you do these eight things in a row. You drew a circle, you drew a line, you copied it, you pasted it, then you moved it down here. We've watched you do that, and we've created a macro for you on that. Would you like to save that macro to your own personalized macro-overview?'"

"So, what we're able to do with that ML capability is offer personalized insight for users. We find that the majority of customers like that."

This great example illustrates how AI and ML can make the design process more efficient and user-friendly. When applied in the proper context and procedures, artificial intelligence can truly augment productivity and transform how construction pros approach their projects.

As Marcus puts it, "The ultimate goal with ML algorithms and AI is that it is a true partner that knows you well."

Building trust and protecting privacy

As exciting as AI is, there are some valid concerns about data privacy and intellectual property protection. This is why Autodesk is committed to stringent data security and ethical AI practices. 

"We are really, really careful about the data that we use to train ML algorithms. Trust is at the absolute forefront of everything we do. We will never do anything that would ever breach that trust," remarks Marcus.

Cementing the trust requires transparency and rigorous data governance.

"We make sure we have incredibly robust, rigid rules about how we use data and that data is abstracted so that your IP stays with you always. I think that's key in terms of trust.

Having robust security protocols is also a must, says Marcus. 

"Cyber-attacks and all of those things are very real for anyone who develops software today, not just in the AEC industry. Ensuring you have a robust product and you're on top of all your security is absolutely paramount. Autodesk has dedicated teams that just focus on that. So I think there's a couple of different aspects to trust there."

Moving more data to the cloud

Still on the topic of data, Marcus acknowledges a shift in how the industry views and utilizes cloud technology.

He points out, "If we were having this podcast five years ago, the majority of our customers would've said to us that they don't want to put their data in the cloud. They would want to lock down their DWG files or RT files or wherever they store their IP."

"I think the massive shift in full cloud adoption is realizing the benefit of having data in the cloud. It's, 'Hey, not only is this data helping me work more efficiently, but by leveraging the cloud, I can take advantage of that data so the AI knows me even better, and we can do even more things.'"

Looking further to the future

There are many things to look forward to in the realm of AutoCAD and construction tech. Marcus is particularly enthusiastic about Forma, a cloud software that offers sophisticated yet easy-to-use AI-powered tools for pre-design and schematic design. 

"I'm excited about our common data environment and putting our digital data at the center of everything we do. We've been working on Autodesk AI for a long time, and for that to be at the forefront of what we're talking about now is super exciting."

New podcast episode every week

Digital Builder is hosted by me, Eric Thomas. Remember, new episodes of Digital Builder go live every week.

Eric Thomas

Eric is a Sr. Multimedia Content Marketing Manager at Autodesk and hosts the Digital Builder podcast. He has worked in the construction industry for over a decade at top ENR General Contractors and AEC technology companies. Eric has worked for Autodesk for nearly 5 years and joined the company via the PlanGrid acquisition. He has held numerous marketing roles at Autodesk including managing global industry research projects and other content marketing programs. Today Eric focuses on multimedia programs with an emphasis on video.