How Autodesk “Looks to the Edge” for Emerging Trends

By Scott Kirsner |  June 2, 2014

Autodesk, based in San Rafael, California, was one of the early pioneers of the PC software era. Founded in 1982, its first major product was AutoCAD, which let engineers and architects create sophisticated technical drawings for their projects. The company has since branched into software used for movie special effects, videogame development, and designing all sorts of consumer and industrial products. The company has about 7,500 employees and $2.3 billion in annual revenue.

But while Autodesk’s customers include giants like Marriott, Boeing, General Motors, and Gensler, Jon Pittman, Vice President of Corporate Strategy, says that when his group thinks about the company’s future, it tends to look to the edge — interest groups and individuals playing with new tools and technologies, even though they might not be users of Autodesk products today.

“We started right around the time the PC was coming into fruition, and we grew up into this more enterprise-y software company,” Pittman says. “But when we started, we were really focused on enthusiasts, the tribes who wanted to see what PCs were capable of in the early 1980s — not really the big companies.”

We talked with Pittman about Autodesk’s approach to tracking trends that could influence the company’s future product strategy.

Focus on the Edge, Not the Center

  • I’ve been at Autodesk 18 years. I report to our Chief Technology Officer, Jeff Kowalski.
  • When companies get big and successful, they tend to reinforce and amplify the things that made them successful. They focus on their core customers and provide them with incremental improvements that enhance their success. But focusing only on the things that made them successful leads to vulnerability. Sustaining success means not just perfecting the past, but creating the future. New, disruptive technologies and products tend to come from the edge, not the center. Thus, it is important to engage with the edge to see and understand new, potential disruptions.
  • Conferences and gatherings like Burning Man are one way you can meet people who are doing work on the edge. We also like TED, e.g., and Solid, which focuses on the convergence of the digital and physical worlds.
  • Last year we put together a program called Autodesk Idea Exploration (IdEx). We get approached a lot by employees saying, “Can I come work in your group, because you’re doing the sexy stuff.” But we don’t want the office of the CTO to become this huge corporate research thing. So IdEx allows Autodesk employees to work, for three months, on new ideas that are outside their regular jobs and of benefit to the company. The goal is to increase and accelerate innovation by encouraging “way out there” creative thinking and new approaches to problems from those with different experiences and training. The program is brand new, so we don’t have any projects currently underway. But we imagine they will be new product prototypes, new processes, or new business ideas.

Autodesk’s software was used to design the Shanghai Tower, China’s tallest building, now under construction.

3D Printing, Synthetic Biology, and Robotics

  • Over the past couple years, we’ve gotten very interested in areas like the “maker movement”, 3D printing, and using biological techniques to grow new materials. We’ve been investing in synthetic biology and programmable matter, which can morph and change shape. Today, we design things statically — a product or a building stays the same once it has been made. The designer has lots the connection to the thing. But a product that has sensors and actuators in it can change over time based on what the user wants or needs. Products and environments are going to become much more mutable than they have been in the past. Think about your iPhone: it’s a consumer electronics device that is very mutable through the operating system that Apple can send you over the wireless network, and the apps you put on it.
  • Robotics is changing from dumb robots that are programmed once to do the same thing over and over, to really smart robots. I was just visiting Bot & Dolly in San Francisco, which makes robots for the film industry. They developed a lot of the technology for “Gravity.” So there, you’re seeing robots used not in a factory anymore, but on a movie set. It’s amazing stuff. We have a conference coming up in June at our headquarters on robotics, where we’re bringing together about 30 experts to explore what robotics means for how things will get made in the future.
  • As all kinds of devices become connected to a network and can start talking to each other, which some people call the Internet of Things, it feels a little like the early days of PCs. You see Nest’s thermostats and smoke detectors, and you’re going to see lighting systems and electrical systems all getting linked up.

Innovation Is a Numbers Game

Autodesk’s Maya software is used in videogame development and special effects creation for film and television.

  • I don’t want to give you the sense that we’ve got it completely mastered, in terms of how all of these new trends get translated from our office to the business units. We do a lot of internal experiments. Our synthetic biology team is looking at making materials that are biologically-inspired. They do a proof of concept, and then we engage our manufacturing team and really build a joint project team, where there are members from the synthetic biology team who are the pioneers and the scouts, and they are connected to the more mainstream product teams that are thinking, “How do we bring this into our mainstream business?”
  • These explorations are centrally-funded by the Office of the CTO. In the budgeting process every year, we look at the various potential projects, and try to figure out what’s worth funding. They’re not funded out of business units.
  • What should we be doing more of? I think we need to have more of an international perspective, and do more in emerging markets.
  • You have to play a numbers game. Some of these experiments will be successful, and some will not. You have to set up enough experiments.