Fusion 360: An Integrated CAD/CAM Solution
Daniel Dobrzynski posted on July 18, 2016 |
A look at the benefits of Autodesk’s "all-in-one" cloud-based CAD platform—and how it compares with ...

I started working with CAD/CAM via one of the first commercial versions of AutoCAD; since then, I've grown to feel with great pride and respect but without any ego that I am part of Autodesk's history. The continuous succession of new products and ongoing improvements still causes me the same excitement as in those early discovery days.

One of these exciting new tools is Autodesk Fusion 360.

Fusion 360 is essentially a single package tool that promises to cover the stages of creation from design to manufacturing through collaboration, animation and simulation.

So far, this is familiar to CAD/CAM users. What makes Fusion 360 so special?

There are two very special and strong features about Fusion 360 which differentiate it substantially from some of its direct competitors:

It’s a cloud-based system.

It is a streaming application, so only essential portions of the software are installed locally on the computer while the rest of the code is delivered as needed through the network. This helps users stay up-to-date. Data such as models, animations and toolpaths are stored in the cloud, which centralizes the information. This allows full collaboration of engineering through permissions-based accessibility from any device with the necessary application, such as a computer, tablet or smartphone, and from any point on the earth (providing it has an internet connection).

It’s competitively priced.

Autodesk is not the only player when it comes to cloud-based systems for modeling, analysis, simulation and manufacturing. Several companies are progressing in this area, including Dassault Systèmes, Siemens and CMS, but Fusion 360 has a strong advantage in its pricing.

The software’s subscriptions are defined based on who a user is, what he or she does and what the software will be used for—and if the user is a student, teacher or academic institution, the software comes with a free three-year full license. Yes, free.

Hobbyists, enthusiasts, makers and businesses making less than $100,000 in revenue per year can obtain a “startup” license, which is free for one year. At the end of the first year, users can renew or change to a commercial subscription. It’s my thought that this demonstrates Autodesk's commitment to help people with great ideas to create innovative products.

Finally, commercial subscriptions are still within an affordable range at $300 annually or $40 monthly. Prices were reduced dramatically when Autodesk combined its Standard and Ultimate versions and kept the lowest of the two prices.

This subscription method allows users to optimize resources on a per-project basis, which can result in reduced project costs.

It’s interesting to note that some of the closest CAD desktop competitors for the commercial version of Fusion 360, such as SOLIDWORKS, Solid Edge, Creo and even Autodesk's own Inventor, have prices in the range of $4000. If we compare costs, we see that would take several years of subscription of Fusion 360 to reach that amount—and it doesn’t even include price increases from additional modules like CAM and Simulation with similar functionalities to those included in Fusion 360 for free.

This calculation also doesn’t consider the costs of annual maintenance and upgrades on desktop CAD software, which again is free with a Fusion 360 annual subscription.

Cloud-based CAD: A Refreshing Breeze, or the Start of a Storm?

When considering starting with or migrating to cloud-based CAD systems, my advice is to analyze carefully the pros and cons of implementing the system within a company.

Cloud is basically a network created by one company to provide a service.By putting all of a company's CAD data into this cloud, several questions and doubts open up:

Is the service provider stable enough? It's important to consider what would happen in the event that the service provider goes bankrupt, with all of your CAD data and software. However, this does not happen if, as in the case of Fusion 360, the vendor has the reputation, power, stability and security to guarantee continuity and support for data and software.

Is our data safe? This is a big issue, especially when it comes to intellectual property, and I cannot pass this point without emphasizing its importance. Autodesk ensures complete confidentiality and privacy of information on its cloud. Data is stored safely so that no one can access it in any way, either directly or indirectly.

Ultimately, this is a key point to discuss prior to the selection and implementation of cloud-based CAD. Companies working with international safety regulations in particular must keep the security risk at zero, so it is absolutely unacceptable to keep data in an external cloud.

For these companies, high security is in no way a cause for negotiation. To appeal to this market, perhaps Autodesk would have to consider offering alternatives such as private CAD clouds that would depend on the companies themselves without any security concerns.

“Dress me slowly, I'm in a hurry.” This famous quotation, attributed to King Fernando VII and Napoleon, has more in common with cloud-based CAD than you might think. The key consideration here is speed. An internet connection must be fast enough to allow CAD files to open and function properly so users aren’t left with slowly loading assemblies when they're in a hurry.

This point is critical for many users and the technology is making giant strides every day.Fusion 360 tackles the issue of slow or nonexistent internet connections with an excellent solution: its offline mode.

Figure 1. Offline mode.
Figure 1. Offline mode.

How does offline mode work?

First of all, we need to understand the process while we are in online mode. Fusion 360 always works with local CAD files, which are copied automatically from A360 to the local cache and synced with the cloud when saved.

If the user has not cleared it yet, this local cache remains intact even if Fusion 360 has been closed. This allows users to access these CAD files in order to keep working on them and even create new files in offline mode.

These new and updated files are automatically updated and/or overwritten the next time the user has an internet connection (within two weeks).

The Benefits of Cloud-based CAD

There's an overwhelming benefit to the ability to access CAD data remotely with the A360 cloud. It's possible to use any device from workstations to smartphones in any location, which allows users to work with up-to-date models in a collaborative engineering environment. Anyone involved in a given project can access CAD models based on permissions, either for editing or viewing purposes.

Now that we've looked at the pros and cons of cloud-based CAD, let's have a look at the functionalities of Fusion 360;what's good, what’s objectionable and how it holds up against some of its direct competitors.

Here's a look at the points of comparison:
  • Concept Design and Design with Sculpting
  • Parametric Design and Mechanical Drawings
  • Renderings and Animations
  • Legacy Data Migration
  • CAM
  • Simulation Analysis
  • Compatibility with Mac and PC
  • Collaboration, Access and Cloud Capability

Figure2. The Fusion 360 environment for design and collaboration.
Figure2. The Fusion 360 environment for design and collaboration.

Concept Design and Design with Sculpting

As a professional with extensive experience in high-end CAD and with the qualities of advanced surfaces, I am rarely surprised when analyzing surfaces in desktop CAD software. With that said, I have to admit that Fusion360 amazed me in this area with the variety and versatility of tools it possesses to create and modify surfaces. It’s not necessarily the tool for super-advanced aerospace surfaces, but for what industrial design requires, Fusion 360 exceeds all expectations.

First, let's look at parametric surfaces. Fusion 360 has the necessary tools to allow for easy and quick creation of surfaces based on sketches as a base, such as Extrude, Loft, Revolve, Sweep and Patch. Commands such as Trim, Extend, Merge, Stitch, Fillet and Chamfer allow for easy modification.

Second, let's look at what really distinguishes Fusion 360: its amazing Sculpt workspace, which is essentially a freeform version of T-Splines and is neither parametric nor history-recorded.

To clarify, T-Splines technology combines NURBS (Non Uniform Rational B-spline Surface) and subdivision-based modeling to provide great versatility in generating smooth and continuously curved freeform surfaces using T-point control.

Since Autodesk acquired T-Splines in 2011, it has been introducing and adapting T-Splines tools into different Autodesk products such as Inventor. The big difference, however, is that Fusion 360 was built upon T-Splines technology so that it can function properly in a parametric environment.

Where can I use Sculpt? This feature is mainly used in the conceptual stages of design and styling for its great ability to create and modify shapes through "push and pull" features. However, it lacks the pretension to create high-precision surfaces (e.g. for blades and cutting tools).

How does Sculpt make Fusion 360 stand out? First of all, it's worth noting that some competitors such as SOLIDWORKS don't have push and pull features with the same capabilities as Fusion 360. Sculpt also features some useful commands. For example, the Bridge tool can generate incredibly quick transition surfaces between two shapes that can be modified with push and pull features. The Symmetry tool lets users adjust one aspect of a design while modifying the equivalent on the opposite side simultaneously, which can be quite advantageous in that it prevents unintentional differences in symmetrical forms.
Figure3. An example of freeform surface modification using Sculpt.
Figure3. An example of freeform surface modification using Sculpt.

Parametric Design and Mechanical Drawings

Fusion 360 allows for parametric or hybrid design processes, which are logical, friendly and easy to use. It combines parametric design and direct modeling, as well as parametric surfaces and freeform surfaces, into a single platform. I was pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of all major design capabilities in one place.
Figure4. Modification of a design by pulling.
Figure4. Modification of a design by pulling.

It's possible to create a traditional design with a similar procedure in software such as SOLIDWORKS or Solid Edge. This design would be based on dimensioned sketches, which would provide some degree of parameterization. The advantage to using Fusion 360 is that it allows for variables, relationships and constraints, resulting in a fully parametric final model that allows for easy modification and the generation of multiple family configurations.

For example, the software has a nice and very easy to use Parameters dialog, which contains all of the variables defined in the model. It also allows users to create User Parameters, which lets users change certain values and automatically recalculates.

This is essential for creating a truly parametric model because, for example, a user could edit the dimensions of a component and assign a relationship with a previously created user parameter. However, this list would be very large for complex models and would require a certain habituation and methodology of work.
Figure5. Assignation of user parameters on a sketch dimension.
Figure5. Assignation of user parameters on a sketch dimension.

User Parameters can also be applied to relationships in different instances of a model. For example, users can create an Extrude property and relate its Distance value with a predefined user parameter.

However, a possible improvement at this point would be the ability to access the Parameters dialog directly from the dimension to allow for quick assignment.
Figure6. The Parameters dialog box.
Figure6. The Parameters dialog box.

To reiterate, the advantage to a system like Fusion 360 is the functionality and time-saving capability it presents by combining different tools in an environment that requires only a simple switch between workspaces.

To record history, or not to record history? Fusion 360 includes a few options for adapting to different workflows. One of these options is that of recording (or not recording) the history of a design. Design histories shows the sequence of operations for the creation and modification of geometries. This is called a History in SOLIDWORKS, for example, but Fusion 360 presents it as a Timeline at the bottom of the interface.

In this Timeline, a design's history is recorded only when using Parametric Model and Patch operations but not when using direct modeling. By accessing the different instances of the Timeline, users can edit operations, delete or add new operations, or navigate in an animated continuous or step-by-step manner, either forward or backward. This recreates the chain of commands performed in the model.

This Timeline is also independent of the browser tree, which shows the Features' types, names and state (show/hide).

From my point of view, the Timeline is an excellent aid but the user needs to understand methodology, especially in complex models which can be a complicated selection of the many operations.

Figure7. The Timeline.
Figure7. The Timeline.

This control over a model’s history is an amazing functionality because it can be enabled or disabled for each particular feature, allowing parent geometries to move without affecting or having problems with their children’s operations. Simple, powerful and straightforward.

Figure8. The Materials library.
Figure8. The Materials library.

A different way of creating assemblies: In traditional systems such as SOLIDWORKS, Inventor and Solid Edge, assembly modes allow users the ability to add multiple parts into the design space, mate them together and see how they all fit and function together as a whole. These modes also allow the use of methodologies such as Top-Down for relational control of multiple parts.

At first glance, it seems that Fusion360 does not have a dedicated assembly workspace in the same way that the other CAD software does.

At a closer look, however, Fusion 360 has a solution for assemblies which is totally unique: it uses the same type of file as parts without any external references. This eliminates the risk of losing external links, which happens all too frequently in traditional CAD.

To use the terminology of Fusion 360, imagine a part composed of several bodies in which the user was to create geometry to add or remove a feature (e.g.Extrude, Revolve, Form, Box, etc.) to obtain a desired final design.

With only one right-click on each of these bodies, the user could transform them into Components and almost without realizing it, create an assembly composed of several interacting components. These components are the equivalents of part files in traditional CAD such as SOLIDWORKS or Solid Edge. Fusion 360 also incorporates sub-assemblies, which it calls Component Groups.

It can be somewhat confusing at first to work with assemblies in Fusion 360, as it requires a global vision of the whole assembly rather than tunnel vision on individual parts, but I believe it is simply a matter of habituation and will ultimately help the user when working with assemblies.

How do I handle interaction between components? In SOLIDWORKS or Inventor, mates or constraints are used to control the different degrees of freedom. Instead, Fusion 360 uses what it calls joints to enable movements rather than restricting them.

I found that these joints allowed for speedy and easy application, especially compared to traditional CAD—where SOLIDWORKS would require restriction of three degrees of freedom to apply three mates, Fusion 360 required one joint.

Additional features: An interesting feature that caught my attention was Feature Scope, which lets users choose which bodies and components are affected by a cut and which are not. It’s also worth noting that Fusion 360 imports files with various CAD formats (CATIA, SOLIDWORKS, NX, STEP, IGES, etc.) for insertion as components in an assembly.
Figure9. An excellent example of a planetary speed reducer assembly with joints. (Image courtesy of Giovanni Piffer/the Fusion 360 Community.)
Figure9. An excellent example of a planetary speed reducer assembly with joints. (Image courtesy of Giovanni Piffer/the Fusion 360 Community.)

Renderings and Animations

Fusion 360’s rendering module outputs images of good quality. It’s fairly simple to operate and although it has a limited range of options, it has everything necessary for a high-quality presentation in the design and prototype stages.

The Renderer has essentially the same components as found, for example, in SOLIDWORKS and differentiates between a Local and an In-Canvas Renderer, which is for more photorealistic images. The big difference is in the Cloud Renderer, which uses A360 resources to allow users to continue working using local resources while images are generated on the cloud.

Cloud Renderer is a great feature for those who work with devices with limited graphics resources because it uses the power of graphic calculation from the A360 cloud. This generates two significant savings:
  1. Users can save money because they do not need an expensive computer with great graphics power; and
  2. Users can save time by working simultaneously on their machine while the cloud handles renderings.

Perhaps the only criticism I would express when it comes to Cloud Renderer is that I experienced some crashes and loop delays, which occasionally forced me to restart the session.

Figure10.Cloud Renderer.
Figure10.Cloud Renderer.

Figure11. An example of an assembly rendering.
Figure11. An example of an assembly rendering.

Additionally, the Animation workspace has all the necessary tools to create a presentation that includes exploded views and functionalities of parts and assemblies.

Legacy Data Migration

Fusion 360 can import data directly and easily from more than 100 different CAD file types, including SOLIDWORKS, CATIA, NX and ProEngineer, STEP, IGES and more without any special module.


Specifically, Fusion 360 incorporates integrated CAM—it is capable of integrating all HSM machining technology from Autodesk without adaptations.

Integrated CAM is the total integration and associativity of the fabrication of a part with its design—meaning that if the CAD design changes, the CAM process, toolpaths and instructions also directly change. This prevents duplication of work, greatly reducing the time required for modifications and the possibility of errors.

How is this different from Fusion 360's competitors? Neither Inventor nor SOLIDWORKS has a native CAM module. It's possible to use an existing CAM add-on such as Inventor HSM or HSMWorks, but while this would provide all of the same features and technology, it would cost thousands of dollars more to purchase the add-on when Fusion 360 has the same capabilities for free.

Fusion 360 does well when compared to the more powerful CAM applications on the market. It has all the common operations and standard toolpath strategies for milling—including 2-, 2.5-, 3- and 5-axis positional—and turning. I found that it is very easy to learn and to reach a production level.

Fusion 360's CAM workspace includes great advanced features such as:

  • Adaptive Clearing technology, which helps to reduce the cycle time and results in a sensible reduction of wear on a tool to prolong the CNC machine’s lifespan
  • Integrated 3D simulation with different modes and collision detection
  • Verification and CNC edition tools, such as a powerful CIMCO
  • A powerful post-processor system, which includes more than 100 ready-to-use generic and customizable post-processors for most popular controls and CNC machines
  • A complete, editable tool library.
  • Stock simulation
  • Powerful machine simulation, which allows early detection of potential collisions between all machine tool components such as axis slides, rotary tables, turrets, spindles, tool changers and fixtures and between the part, tool/holder and machine components
  • The ability to see all toolpaths in a simple browser

Fusion 360 also includes various multi-axis milling strategies for complex parts, including 5-axis contour, 5-axis swarf and 5-axis tilt. Autodesk reports that 5-axis simultaneous machining will become available in Fusion 360 Ultimate in the coming months.

Simulation Analysis

Fusion 360’s integrated simulation analysis feature works in the same design environment and is fully associative with a model. If the design changes, it is immediately visible in the simulation, allowing for quick validation of changes in the design stage.

A broad strokes simulation in Fusion 360 has similar functionalities to that of SOLIDWORKS Simulation Professional (which costs several thousands of dollars), but without spending a single extra dollar. Fusion 360 can also run stress analyses such as static stress, modal frequencies, thermal and thermal stress.


Compatibility with Mac and PC

CAD users are no longer restricted to desktop computers. It’s possible nowadays to use platforms like Fusion 360 on PCs, Macs, tablets and even smartphones.
Figure12.Fusion 360’ssmartphone application.
Figure12. Fusion 360’s smartphone application.

Collaboration, Access and Cloud Capability

Access from wherever and whatever: Anyone with permission and an internet connection can access all parts of saved projects in Fusion 360 from a PC, Mac, tablet or even from an Android or a simple browser. This includes models, assemblies, CAM toolpaths, simulations and more.

This feature is a personal favorite of mine and it’s my thought that few other products on the market have integration of this caliber without extra installations or fees.

A collaborative environment: Fusion 360 has spectacular facilities to foster collaborative review, including Live Review, Redline and Markup. Version management allows for easy control over these reviews.

Parent-child relationships: The Where Used feature lets users identify each instance of a component in a project and provides information on parent-child relationships. It also keeps and maintains these links, even when users rename components.

Always room for more: Autodesk keeps an open channel of communication with its users about the future of Fusion 360, which is revolutionary in its own way. The company always announces its intentions to introduce improvements, features and new modules in coming versions.

It's also very open to comments and suggestions from the community, which leads me to recommend a few possible suggestions for improvement:

  • Introduction of a Sheet Metal module
  • Introduction of a Plastics module
  • An improved interface for model parameters with easier direct access
  • Integration and improved management of PDMs in A360
  • Introduction of tools and catalogs for components such as gear generators, shafts and springs, found in competitors such as Inventor or SOLIDWORKS
  • Catalogs for fasteners and standard parts from common suppliers, including McMaster-Carr Supply Company
  • Reverse engineering capabilities

The Bottom Line

Fusion 360 is really an all-in-one cloud-based CAD/CAM application. It combines all stages of creation from design to manufacturing, including CAD, CAM, simulation, animation, rendering and collaboration and much more into one single and powerful platform. It appeals to the industry with a minimal price and is free for students, teachers, academic institutions and enthusiasts.

I highly recommend it for startups, hobbyists and companies which won’t have a security conflict with placing their CAD data onto the cloud.

With Fusion 360, Autodesk has taken the lead on the road to the future—and other CAD/CAM vendors will have to follow.

Autodesk has sponsored ENGINEERING.com to review this product. It has provided no editorial input to this review other than verification of the technical facts. All opinions are mine. —Daniel Dobrzynski

About the Author

Daniel Dobrzynski works as CAD/CAM/CAE/PLM manager, design expert and CNC programmer. He has more than 30 years of experience in the industry.

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