Tuesday January 27, 2015

Autodesk Fusion 360: The future of CAD, pt. 1

This week, at Autodesk University 2012, Autodesk unveiled Fusion 360, a new cloud-based mechanical CAD solution. What they didn’t do, however, was tell everyone the real significance of Fusion 360. They actually intentionally underplayed it.

Here is the real story: Fusion 360 is a major generational change in CAD. It represents Autodesk’s best thinking on what the future of CAD is going to look like. And it’s a future you’re likely to find mighty interesting.

You might wonder, though: Hasn’t Fusion been out for several years, as a technology preview? Yes, indeed: When it first came out in 2009, Fusion was called “Inventor Fusion.” It was seen, by most, as a technology experiment in direct modeling CAD. A response to the challenges offered by Siemens PLM’s Synchronous Technology, and SpaceClaim’s eponymous direct modeling CAD system.

Direct modeling, a method that allows users to push and pull on CAD models, with the system figuring out the technical details necessary to make sensible edits based on those actions, was (and is) a major threat for traditional feature-based parametric CAD systems. It introduced a level of flexibility and intuitiveness in use that is hard to match. Yet, it’s not a panacea: There are many modeling tasks, especially families of parts, for which the feature-based parametric approach is better.

Inventor Fusion was actually a very capable direct modeling CAD system. What was surprising was that Autodesk seemed to be in no hurry to commercialize it. They made it available through Autodesk Labs, with no hint at trying to get people to pay money for it.

Now, with the announcement of Fusion 360, it all makes sense: Instead of integrating Fusion into Inventor, Autodesk has used it as the basis of a brand new cloud-based CAD application.

My initial guess, when I first saw Fusion 360, was that Autodesk had just taken the existing Inventor Fusion technology preview and added some cloud-based storage and dashboard features to it. I was wrong. The Fusion development team went much further than that.

Fusion 360 consists of two parts: A cloud-based back-end, running on Autodesk 360 web services, and a “thin” desktop client.

The Fusion 360 client is a functional CAD system at heart, but quite a bit of the overhead functionality you’d expect in a CAD system has been pulled out, and moved to the cloud. For example, all of the importers and exporters for various file formats now reside on the cloud. So do file management services, rendering services and quite a bit more.

The Fusion 360 client is based on Webkit (the open source web browser engine), and uses HTML5 and WebGL for UI and graphics. It includes a somewhat thinned down version of the Autodesk Shape Manager (ASM) geometric modeling engine and an internally developed constraint solver, and does most CAD operations locally, to keep interactive performance up.

Provided you have a good internet connection, and you’re working on reasonable size models (up to a few hundred parts), using Fusion 360 probably won’t feel a lot different than using a local desktop CAD application.

One of the most important things to recognize about Fusion 360 is that it is not Inventor. Though it may share some concepts and component technologies with Inventor, it is a new CAD system, with a new software architecture, enabling capabilities that would be exceptionally difficult (and possibly even impossible) to implement in Inventor.

In the next part of this article, I’ll talk about some of those capabilities, tell you what I learned by talking to some of the folks involved in the creation of Fusion 360, and let you in on some of the secrets I discovered by reading between the lines, and asking careful questions.

  • Mike Hore

    An interesting article. I also thought that this was a low key announcement and I’m surprised by the apparent lack of hooray & hoopla from Autodesk.

    I wonder if this has anything to do with the anticipated Solidworks V6 announcement expected in January and if Autodesk will release more Fusion 360 details during Solidworks World to act as a spoiler of some sort.

    As a CAD newbie I was an early adopter of Spaceclaim and have been amazed at how intuitive direct modelling was and how quickly I was able to iterate different designs. However I have been frustrated by Spaceclaim’s limited ability to easily produce some models that required very specific curved surfacing.

    Fusion 360, with the inclusion of T splines technology seems to have this area covered well, and if Autodesk also include their other ace (Sketchbook Designer) either integrated within Fusion or available as a separate application, then they really will be well placed in the conceptual design market. However I have recently been informed that Autodesk have stopped selling Sketchbook Designer as a standalone app, instead requiring you to purchase a design suite instead (which is upwards of £4k) this struck me as an unusual choice since I would have thought ‘Designer’ and ‘Fusion’ would have been a more natural pairing for the conceptual design market, these conceptual designs later being passed onto engineering partners using the expensive ‘Inventor’ suites for full production engineering and development – Just my 2 cents.

    Looking forward to reading part 2 of the article and hopefully sampling the Fusion 360 beta for myself, as well as anticipating the forthcoming ‘V6′ announcement as well. Interesting times for designers.

  • Katnavar13

    In my opinion, Solidworks is by far better than AutoCAD.  I have been running both since 1995.  I feel like I’m wasting time when I have to work in 3d Autocad. Thats my 5 cents.

  • Ray Marrs

    I agree with Katnarvar13 on this matter, I have used all sorts of CAD systems and coming down from somthing like Catia V4 & V5 to AutoCAD 3D is like giving up the car for a pair of walking boots, not for me.

  • JD Mather

    What does AutoCAD have to do with this article?

  • http://www.facebook.com/brian.holst.floe Brian Fløe

    we are linking to this on MyAppleSpace – and I’m still trying to find out what all this is about. Sounds interesting ….I think?