Short review of Autodesk University, London

Inside of Tobacco Dock, Wapping Lane, London

For the first time ever, Autodesk University took place outside of the United States this year. The venue was Tobacco Dock in London, on 21st and 22nd June. These were two incredibly hot days, and the open air parts of the venue were very popular!

The opening keynote address was a very impressive start to the conference, and it reminded me of a scaled-down version of an Apple WWDC or launch event: plenty of energetic music, fantastic big screens, slick presentations and even some whoops from the crowd. The tag-line for the event was “The Future of Making Things”, and one of the most impressive presentations in the keynote was about the concept (and indeed practice) of generative design: this is a shift in design approach from where the machines/computers are a tool to be manipulated by humans, to where the machines actually come up with the designs themselves and the human involvement is primarily to say “yes, I like that design, make that one for me.” In a well-rehearsed section of the keynote, Chris Bradshaw interacted with a voice assistant (“Echo for design”) with commands in an exchange that was seriously impressive. You can watch that section of the keynote here (from 1:04 to 3:15).

In a matter of minutes 10,000 floor plans options were generated by the machine without any physical human involvement. (Aside: bye-bye architecture as a profession?)

It was a very impressive display of what they called “generative design”. And just to show that it is not all drama and no substance, they showed the chassis of a sports car that a computer designed (and manufactured) by itself based on observed data obtained from a human-made chassis which had hundreds of sensors built in. The computer version had just as much structural integrity, but came out 20% lighter based on its design. Slightly less impressive, but an equally good example of such generative design, there was a chair on display at the venue that was designed and 3D printed by a computer working alone.

Over the 2-days there were so many break out sessions available (with some interesting ones overlapping, unfortunately) that it would be a disservice to try to capture the whole thing in a short post. However, two things stood out:

Firstly, AutoCAD is going nowhere soon. There is much talk of Building Information Modelling (BIM) in the construction industry lately, and within that field practitioners tend to think of high-level 3D modelling using very advanced (and cool!) tools such as Revit Architecture, Civil 3D and Navisworks. Well, if the break-out sessions are anything to go by, the “lowly” AutoCAD still has plenty of life left in it, and Autodesk does not look like getting rid of it any time soon. I find that AutoCAD is an excellent entry point into computer aided drawing, and it forms part of the first year learning on the Civil Engineering degree that I teach on.

 

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Secondly, the hands-on sessions were a highlight of the conference. In particular, the session on Photogrammetry was excellent. Using the Autodesk “Recap” application and nothing more fancy that a smartphone camera, you are now able to generate a 3D point cloud model of any scene. The video below shows a model generated from about 600 photographs taken using a drone-mounted camera. The results are very impressive considering the low-level of technology required (I’m thinking here about a comparison with laser scanning where the hardware alone could be in the region of €50,000-plus).

 

Whilst the video above shows a complex point-cloud generated from 600 drone captured images, we also got the generate a 3D point cloud ourselves, based on about 150 images taken of a site using just an iPhone. This is what captured my attention: here we now have the technology in our pockets to create (reasonably accurate) 3D models of areas we can photograph. Naturally, the “heavy-lifting” is done in the Autodesk servers online, so it does take more than just an iPhone, but there is no need for any new hardware costs. This is probably the biggest takeaway from the conference for me, and I’m looking forward to trying out Recap with my students.

Overall positives:

  • The venue was excellent, I’d look forward to going to another conference there.
  • Fantastic networking opportunity.
  • AutoDesk staff were friendly and knowledgeable.
  • Plenty of vendors in the exhibition area, with a good variety of offerings.
  • The hands-on lab session was a highlight.

Overall not-so-positives:

  • Gaps between talks were too long, which was frustrating considering many of the ones I wanted to see overlapped. These could have been spaced out a bit more, in my opinion.
  • Arguably not enough hands-on labs and sessions.
  • Whilst the exhibitions and vendors were interesting, there was little reason to interact with them on Day 2, as the gaps in the programme left enough time to see everything on offer in Day 1. The logistics might be difficult, but having at least some different things on offer on Day 2 would have added some value.

(Photos and video all my own)

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