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Autodesk University 2017 Recap: Automation

Sam Sattel


Autodesk University 2017 Recap: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Automation

Autodesk University 2017 has come and gone, but there’s still the elephant in the room that’s on everyone’s mind. Are we going to automate all our jobs away in this machine learning age? This year at AU 2017, the focus was all about automation, and for good reasons. There’s a lot of fear, a lot of misconception, and a lot of possibilities for what automation means for our industry.

Will Robots Rule the Future?

For years, Autodesk University has been all about the coming robot revolution. We’re seeing new technologies that are going to replace the tasks you do every day, but what does that mean for your job as a whole?

Is driverless CAD the future?

Or are we perhaps moving to a future a little less apocalyptic? One where we can meet the demands of a growing population by using less resources while still making more. To understand the impact of automation, we have to reach back into the past. Automation is nothing new; it has merely entered a new era.


Automation is nothing new and impacts every era. (Image source)

The automation dilemma has been around for over 50 years. Starting with the agricultural revolution to industrial, digital, then today’s machine revolution. Each era has seen its fair share of shakeups, but not in ways that people could have anticipated. Here are a few examples:

The Financial Industry

In 1969 the first ATM was introduced, and everyone speculated that we’d soon see the end of the bank teller. But something different happened. ATM deployment grew, but so did banks and teller jobs. That doesn’t make sense though, weren’t ATMs supposed to replace tellers?


The first ATM open for business. (Image source)

Here’s the trick with automation. Once you automate something, like the process of dispensing and depositing money with an ATM, you immediately free up resources. With ATMs beeping away, now banks could focus their resources on growing other areas of their business, which meant opening more branches, and ultimately creating more jobs.

The Desktop Publishing Industry

Everyone predicted that online media would spell the end for the desktop publishing industry. We’re talking about magazines, newspapers, books, etc. Yes, journalists were and still are affected, and yes, some newspapers closed their doors. But overall, the industry as a whole blossomed.


Blogging is a full-time career and one that didn’t exist 20 years ago. (Image source)

There are more jobs than ever for graphic designers, publishers, and writers. How about the career blogger? That line of work simply didn’t exist 20 years ago before the boom of online media, now it does. Automation has provided us with access to more content than ever before, and the publishing industry has reaped huge rewards.

The Filmmaking Industry

The same trend holds true for the filmmaking industry. The proliferation of streaming services has impacted movie theaters and redefined our relationship to televisions and cable service. But look at the other side of this perspective, and you’ll see an entirely new content ecosystem being born.

Thanks to automation we’re now seeing companies like Netflix or HBO use automation to create micro-filmmaking industries. It’s now possible to create content for a particular segment of users that’s just as profitable as blockbuster hits.

Automation didn’t ruin the movie industry; it just made a better one.


Brace yourselves; automation is coming. (Image source)

The CAD Industry

Before CAD existed, there were 300k drafters in the United States. It was a specialist position. These days there are more than 10 million people using design software to design and make things. We are now living in a Maker world.


The good ol’ days of drafting before CAD arrived. (Image source)

But we have some serious problems to face. In 2050 there’s going to be 10 billion people living on this planet. That’s 2 billion more than today. How are we going to deliver all of the electronics, infrastructure, new products, and resources to satisfy all of these people?

As engineers, we need to start working in a way that does more with less time, less resources, and less of a negative impact on our planet.

In other words, we need to do MORE, BETTER, with LESS.

But how?

It’s Time to Reimagine

We need to start reimagining how products are made, whether that’s for electronics, for infrastructure, or buildings (or all of them at the same time). We need to start using automation to make things better for tomorrow. Here’s just a few ideas that Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost had to share:

  • Road paving. What if we could design a machine that could automate the process of grinding old roads and paving new ones? We’d need people to build the machines, deploy them, manage them. Automation can do this.
  • Old cars. What if we could get all of the old cars off of the roads that are inefficient and pollute our cities? It’s possible, and we could use automation to dismantle existing cars to provide parts for new electric cars.
  • Infrastructure. What if we need to build new dams in the future, something at the scale of the Hoover Dam? China took 18 years and $27 billion to build the Three Gorges Dam and displaced millions in the process. Automation can help us to completely reimagine hydroelectric power to do better with less of an impact.

The Three Gorges Dam in China. (Image source)

Yes, these are all forward-thinking ideas that aren’t even possible right now. So you might be wondering, is automation even realistic for today’s business needs? One company at Autodesk University 2017 had their story to share:

The Transformation of Van Wijnen



Van Wijnen is a mid-sized firm that specializes in the design, manufacture, and construction of buildings in the Netherlands. In 2011 the country was in the middle of an economic crisis with the construction industry getting hit the hardest. Van Wijnen was struggling with high costs, product failure, and lots of waste.

So they start to look at their business processes at a deep level in an effort to future-proof themselves. This led them to look beyond their profession at other thriving businesses in the automotive and software industries. How did these successful businesses innovate and ship their products, and how could Van Wijnen do the same?

It turns out that what Van Wijnen and many construction-focused companies lacked, was a focus on process and standards. In the construction industry, it’s normal for each building to be unique. This leads to a bunch of one-off custom jobs, with different teams at every site, and lots of mixed processes getting in the way of progress.

Van Wijnen focused on standardizing their processes with the help of automation. Their goal was to reduce costs by 15%, build 50% faster, and reduce defects. To achieve this, they made the major shift from using 2D to 3D building information models (BIM). This shift allowed Van Wijnen to develop a process and platform around designing modular components for homes.

With a modular mindset, the company was able to deliver homes that could be designed by the client, and then shipped and made on site in only 3 months, with the actual building process taking only 3 days. This entire process took 6 months before this automation transformation occurred. Clients could also view their designed homes in virtual reality, and all of the documents needed to produce modular components were available at the touch of a button.


Modular home systems make it easy to reuse components. (Image source)

Van Wijnen took it even further though and started to look at the design and layout of neighborhoods using generative design. Using this automation technology, they were able to program constraints for a neighborhood layout based on several constraints, including:

  • Solar usage
  • Energy potential
  • Program profit
  • Project cost
  • Backyard size
  • Design variety

With all of these factors in play, the power of automation went to work to generate hundreds of design variations. With the help of a human designer, the most balanced and elegant solution was selected that met a net zero energy requirement.


Generative design at work to design a neighborhood. (Image source)

Today Van Wijnen’s business is booming. The company adapted, saw how automation could be a positive force in their industry, and the results paid off. Van Wijnen is now delivering a better experience for customers, with the process of using less materials on the job site, less time on the design phase, and less energy to light and heat homes. More, Better, with Less.

That’s the power of automation today, and Van Wijnen is not an isolated example. There’s automation making positive changes happen all over the world:

In South Carolina

What was once a dying textile industry is now a hub of manufacturing prowess for huge players like Bosch, GE, and BMW. When Greenville, South Carolina hit a slump in the 1990s, they invested money into new automation technologies and technical colleges.


Greenville, South Carolina is booming as it embraces automation. (Image source)

In France

Bosch was struggling with a plant that was facing pressure as an automotive supplier. Instead of competing with the low-cost labor of Mexico and China, the company decided to reimagine its plant and its skilled workforce to service startups needing smaller quantity product production. Instead of just being a manufacturer, this plant also used the power of automation to offer logistics routing, repair, and consulting support.

bosch -electronic-manufacturing

The Bosch electronic manufacturing plant in France. (Image source)

There Are Challenges Ahead

We can’t be naive about the challenges that automation presents for all of us and how we’ll work in the future. Between each era of automation, there’s a gap in time between the past and future. There’s a space where the old economy dies out, and the new economy arrives. This period is rough for many people, where skills that were once in demand begin to shift.

We’re currently in this gap.

Some people see this gap as an opportunity. Technical skills are more accessible than ever, and we all have time to shift our skillsets in this new era of automation. The gap might be shorter than it was in past eras, but it’s definitely there.


Autodesk CEO explains the gap between each automation era. (Image source)

To succeed in this new era of automation, we’ll need to embrace three skills:

  • Adaptability. We’ll need to stay on top of our game to evolve our skillsets and be willing to embrace new skills.
  • Resiliency. We’ll need to learn how to bounce back when technology disrupts business and our ways of working.
  • Community. We’ll need to come together to accomplish common goals instead of working alone.

For Autodesk, our interest is in seeing you transition through this period of automation as smoothly as possible. We’re not here to automate your jobs away. Driverless CAD is not a future that we believe in.

We believe that humans and technology can accomplish more working together than alone.

For ECAD and MCAD we’re already seeing this happen. Take a look at Autodesk EAGLE and the new Fusion 360 integration. What was once manual ECAD/MCAD disparate process is now completely automated, and you benefit from it. No more slugging through emails or spreadsheets. It just works.

We’re removing the barriers in our software for engineers to work together to build more, something better quality, in less time with less resources.

As a company, we’re committed to investing in the adaptability and resiliency of our customers while supporting communities around the world. With the right tools, anyone will be able to navigate this gap in our automation era smoothly.

It’s up to you to see this gap as a leap of opportunity, or a valley of dread. Choose wisely.

Be sure to watch the full Autodesk University 2017 Keynote Speech to learn more about the future of automation. We’re excited about what’s in store, and hope you are too.

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