Kevin Parker: Autodesk as the un-PLM company

Autodesk, the supplier of product design tools, does well what every ERP vendor on the planet wishes it did better: serve small and midsize manufacturers through indirect sales channels. Autodesk's ability in this regard has made it, with revenues of $1.84 billion in its most recent fiscal year, the largest computer-aided design (CAD) vendor in the world.

11/01/2007


Autodesk, the supplier of product design tools, does well what every ERP vendor on the planet wishes it did better: serve small and midsize manufacturers through indirect sales channels. Autodesk's ability in this regard has made it, with revenues of $1.84 billion in its most recent fiscal year, the largest computer-aided design (CAD) vendor in the world. It also tends to make it the “un-PLM” company.

While the other large product-design vendors promulgate visions of product life-cycle management (PLM) as enterprise innovation engines, Autodesk remains more concerned with its customers' continuing transition from 2D to 3D design. Robert “Buzz” Kross, SVP, Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions, readily admits, “It's taken longer than we thought it would.”

The quickening pace of that migration, however, pushed Autodesk manufacturing division's revenues in its latest quarter a full 30 percent higher than they were for the same quarter the previous year. Kross says the industry-leading growth stems primarily from Autodesk Inventor, its 3D design solution. Today there are said to be more than 750,000 users of Inventor.

Yet at Autodesk Manufacturing Solutions' recent media event, held in Paris, it was at first difficult to understand why the division's management insisted it did not want anything to do with PLM.

After all, the computing power gains and improved integration that make PLM possible presumably should serve small and midsize companies as well as the largest corporations. Moreover, the ruling concept Autodesk executives did want to talk about—“digital prototyping”—bears some striking resemblances to PLM.

First realize that when Autodesk speaks of digital prototyping, it means more than the generation of a physical prototype based on digital information. It instead defines it as “a single digital model that can be used in every stage of production, bridging the gaps between conceptual design, engineering, and manufacturing teams.”

In muted contrast, Wikipedia defines PLM as “the process of managing the entire life cycle of a product from its conception, through design and manufacture, to service and disposal.”

Based on demonstrations at the event, Autodesk clearly is forging gains for users through bidirectional flow of concept and design information, by making analysis integral to design, and with more seamless translation of design information into manufacturing operations. Its ability to leverage available computing power was especially demonstrated in previewed capabilities for real-time ray tracing involving its creative design software, Autodesk AliasStudio.

It seems then that what Autodesk objects to is the connotation of complexity surrounding PLM as more and more functionality adheres to it. Most recently, PLM vendors have sought to join production management to PLM, to the point where it implies not just information about the product but about every product instance.

Measures of success in digital prototyping found in best-in-class companies, says Dr. Andrew Anagnost, VP, CAD/CAE products, include halving the number of physical prototypes, getting to market on average 45 days sooner, and seeing only about one-third as many engineering change orders, compared to companies deemed average.





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