Autodesk CEO: ‘Automation will solve the world’s capacity problems’

29 Jan 2019

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost. Image: Maxwell Photography

The CEO of Autodesk, Andrew Anagnost, tells John Kennedy about the biggest technological shift yet in the computer-aided design world.

If you are an architect, an engineer, a builder or a jet designer, you know Autodesk. In fact, if you design anything, you know or use Autodesk.

Since the early 1980s, the computer-aided design (CAD) software company has been the platform of choice of designers, architects and planners creating everything from homes, office buildings and vehicles to complex electronics products.

‘These are big tectonic shifts in the way people design things’

But now, according to Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost, the capabilities of the advanced CAD platform are about to be truly tested and transformed.

“The single biggest change we’ve seen since the 1980s to today is really the move from drawings to models, and now we are moving from models to systems.”

Designing a new world

I was speaking with Anagnost at the opening of Autodesk’s new EMEA headquarters in Dublin at Windmill Lane. Since the firm’s arrival in the capital, 170 employees have joined the Irish Autodesk team, supporting EMEA operations including finance, localisation and sales operations. The company’s products have helped design some of Ireland’s most iconic structures, from the Samuel Beckett Bridge to the Guinness Storehouse.

According to Anagnost, the CAD world is evolving from the design of static structures to include the designs of the actual systems that also run buildings, machines and more.

“These are big tectonic shifts in the way people design things. The idea of visualising design in 3D – how you construct or how it feels inside of it – that was foreign to people 10 years ago. Now, model-based processes are everywhere. So, a lot of architects design with a 3D model and share that, and what we’ve been able to do with the cloud is distribute the information that is hidden inside that rich model to more and more parts of the process.”

Anagnost said that even applications such as AutoCAD, which used to be the barometer of the company’s revenue, is 40pc of revenue right now while products such as Revit, a building information modelling software for architects and engineers, are ascendant.

According to Anagnost, the shift from models to systems is in keeping with the overall shift in technology from devices that used to sit on desks to intelligence, automation and collaboration being layered into everything.

“We’ve moved from drawings to models and we will move from models to systems where the computer is actually proposing outcomes that a designer can review, and those outcomes are based on the physical attributes of the building you are building.”

The AI revolution will consume architecture

A good analogy would be an architect designing a building but also collaborating with the technologists designing the building management systems, such as those in environmental, communications and security controls. Or a car body designer working more collaboratively with the engine and electronics designers all at the same time.

“What happens is, we can use technology to arbitrate conversations between disciplines that were typically siloed, and through things and over the wall to each other. We can facilitate conversations between them in highly automated ways and actually allow them to see the impact of each other’s work in real time and actually make better decisions.

“The idea is to drive down the cost and complexity of building things and at the same time enable people to build things a lot better so that buildings are more efficient. When we build them we can use materials so that there’s less waste at the construction site, so we are trying to use automation to really enable people to solve classical problems of capacity in the building world.

“It’s not just buildings; it’s roads, it’s bridges, it’s phones, it’s machines, it’s even robots designing robots. We are in every space. All of these are going to have automation assistants associated with [them] and it’s going to facilitate these multiple disciplines.”

Wait a minute, is Anagnost saying we can soon have buildings designed by AIs?

“Artificial intelligence is very hyped. It’s machine learning that’s the thing that works today. We’ve already introduced machine-learning algorithms that automatically generate geometry based on the specification of what the user was trying to do. Some of that geometry can be machined in a factory; we’ve taken into account the capabilities of the machine that makes the product. Cameras do tons of the work and all of that information is instantly accessible, so we will be making recommendations to our designers like, ‘Have you explored these 10 possible outcomes? This might be a more efficient design for what you are trying to accomplish.’”

In essence, rather than replacing or threatening the existence of designers or architects, AI and machine learning will augment and enhance their expertise by calculating new routes and possibilities.

“It is about understanding what the people or the person using really wants, and the better they understand that and can articulate that to the design system, the more robust and efficient options they will get back.

“Only the humans will understand the humans, and that ability to understand the humans and how that design impacts them is going to become critically important in this highly automated future.”

Designed in Dublin

Man standing on stage in front of a group of people.

Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost addresses guests at the opening of the new Autodesk building in Dublin. Image: Maxwell Photography

I ask Anagnost about Autodesk’s rapid growth to 170 people in Dublin more than a year after announcing its arrival. “That’s a testimony to the talent pool, to be frank, and the attraction of the area. If we couldn’t find the people, we could easily find someone that would move here. It really is a testimony to Dublin as a good choice.

“Finance, localisation, inside sales, client services, tax is located here; over time we will probably continue to add additional disciplines here.

“We are looking to Europe right now in terms of other centres around machine learning and Dublin is certainly in the running for that. There will be other disciplines that we will locate here. We like these multifunction sites because it actually encourages and helps us to do things better in the company and solve interesting problems that otherwise wouldn’t be solved.”

So, what does the future hold for Autodesk? “Fundamentally, everything is going to be in the cloud. Any software company that is relevant and important 10 years from now is going to be 100pc cloud.

“It is becoming second-nature. The cloud delivery and cloud-based products are going to be the dominant way and all of it is going to be about facilitating data flow across the entire process.”

Crucially, Anagnost is passionate about enabling construction in a world that actually needs more buildings, not fewer. “I am excited about bringing manufacturing methods to construction. We are going to be building buildings and bridges the same way we build aeroplanes and automobiles.

“Look, there is a fundamental capacity problem in the world. It is not about money; there is not enough labour or resources and not enough capacity in the environment to build what we need to build without destroying the planet.

“Automation is going to help us solve that capacity problem. Will there be fewer people working on a project? Yes. Will there be more people doing more projects? Yes, absolutely – and we’ll be dealing with a lot less waste.

“Look at the world around us right now, we’ve got to build a lot of stuff. Infrastructure is crumbling everywhere in the world,” Anagnost warned.

“I’m one of these tech optimists. The automation of technology is going to solve the capacity problem.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years