Make Anything? Autodesk’s Birmingham Tech Center Proves It.
Roopinder Tara posted on July 06, 2018 |

Engineering.com visited Birmingham, UK, nearing ground zero of the Industrial Revolution—the original one in the 18th century, which sprung from the textile factories and steam engines of England’s Midlands. The historical significance of an industrial revolution may have been lost on the participants at the time. Several technology companies are convinced we are going through yet another one, the 4th, and making sure we don’t miss it. It’s being called Industry 4.0, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and maybe other names. Birmingham aims to participate, once again, and Autodesk is doing its best to help.

Autodesk purchased a single seat (when do you see that?) high performance sports car to dazzle visitors to their Birmingham tech center. No one is allowed to drive it. Not even press. We asked.
Autodesk purchased a single seat (when do you see that?) high performance sports car to dazzle visitors to their Birmingham tech center. No one is allowed to drive it. Not even press. We asked.

If the low-slung, high performance, super-impractical, single seat, carbon-fiber encased millionaire joyride that Autodesk has bought to just sit in the showroom doesn’t convince you that Autodesk is serious about manufacturing, some of the parts being machined inside the Technology Center in Birmingham will.

Welcoming us to Autodesk Birmingham are Mark Gadsden and Clinton Perry. They offer to take us on a tour of the recently opened center (one of the four Technology Centers).

Perry has been with Delcam/Autodesk for 23 years. Once a machinist, he now does marketing and leads tours through the center.

“I come in here sometimes just to smell the cutting fluid,” he says.

The Tour

Don't play with the robot, dear. Lethal weapons, like a red-hot slicing extension, are kept in the locked cabinet.
Don't play with the robot, dear. Lethal weapons, like a red-hot slicing extension, are kept in the locked cabinet.

We notice jet engine turbine blades.

“Rolls-Royce?” we ask. Rolls-Royce, maker of jet engines, has headquarters in nearby Coventry.

Our hosts look nervous. We can’t say. And no pictures, please.

The fact that Autodesk is making anything, much less jet engine parts, will come as a surprise for those who think that software companies only manufacture software. But much of Autodesk’s software portfolio is now CAM software. Along with the acquisition of the venerable Delcam, Autodesk inherited Delcam’s habit of machining an occasional piece for nearby companies. It’s one thing to wave “Make Anything” banners (as Autodesk was doing at Autodesk University London, recently concluded), it’s another to perform real, advanced manufacturing. 

Autodesk tech centers around the world. (Picture courtesy of Autodesk)
Autodesk Technology Centers in the US (San Francisco and Boston), Toronto, Canada and Birmingham, UK. (Picture courtesy of Autodesk)

The Birmingham technology center is one out of four, the others being in San Francisco, Toronto and Boston. The Birmingham office was the original home of Delcam, acquired in 2014, and is now totally branded Autodesk.

If you had come here during the Delcam days, you would not recognize it today, according to Perry. No doubt, there were no Autodesk emblems flying, nor a shiny showroom full of the latest robots and racecars.

Don’t eat it, it only looks like chocolate. A 3D measuring arm has been reconfigured to cut clay into the shape of a car.
Don’t eat it, it only looks like chocolate. A 3D measuring arm has been reconfigured to cut clay into the shape of a car.

The turbine blades are a notable success story. “We got the process down from 200 hours to 35 -- an 83% saving,” says Perry. The main reason was the implementation of a barrel-shaped cutting tool, which conforms much more to the contours of the turbine and is able to produce a smoother shape with fewer passes than a sharp-cornered or straight-edged cutting edge.

“Turbine blades wear, and they wear fastest on their far edge,” he says. “We can add material to the edge with a directed energy deposition process [DED] and surface it smooth and to size. It’s like capping a tooth,” says Perry.

Autodesk won’t reveal how much a DED printer costs.

“We’re told not to talk about cost.”

3D Printing and Generative Design

While much of the center’s tools do cut, more and more of them are 3D printing robots… That’s Autodesk dragging Delcam into the future.

And this is how a fish crawled out of the ocean and became a human. Sort of. Okay, more like this is how a part was optimized for a load case and shed weight as it did so, using topology optimization. The parts were 3D printed, but unlike most parts that result from the topology optimization process, these parts look like they could have been machined.
And this is how a fish crawled out of the ocean and became a human. Sort of. Okay, more like this is how a part was optimized for a load case and shed weight as it did so, using topology optimization. The parts were 3D printed, but unlike most parts that result from the topology optimization process, these parts look like they could have been machined.

In keeping with Autodesk’s push into generative design, the shop had a few parts in evidence to show off this new initiative. The algorithms used in generative design and topology optimization routines typically produce a part so oddly shaped—bumpy and organic (they are a result of bone growth algorithms after all)—that they can only usually be made with 3D printing. But Autodesk’s Fusion 360 has introduced a setting that smoothens the normally bumpy shape of a topology optimized part for it to be machined.

There’s lots more subtractive manufacturing machines than there are machines for additive manufacturing, due to Delcam’s long history with CNC.

Lethal Weapons

Kuka robots with cutting tools caged in glass. Most factory robots can take your head off. But the robots here may be especially dangerous. Their most dangerous weapons are kept in locked cases, such as a long hot rod that slices through foam “like a knife through butter” and a chainsaw attachment.

We are shown one robot arm whose artificial intelligence brains let it take on the rather complicated art of polishing, after seeing a polisher, an old world Italian craftsman, who volunteered to surrender tricks of the trade learned from 50 years on the job.

Is Autodesk putting this old guy out of a job?

We are assured it was nothing of the sort. The polisher was actually ready to retire. His job was not taken away by a big bad robot army. And also, robots will have to have someone to design them, program them, manufacture them, maintain them. Robots can produce more jobs than they take away.

And, did you know about white finger syndrome? Apparently, the act of polishing year after year takes a toll on the workers’ hands. Robbed of circulation, nerves deadened, their hands turn white. We’re doing polishers a favor.

Autodesk says a robot can do 90 percent of the polishing, the hard, hand-numbing work, the grinding out of the human workflow. What’s left—what’s too demanding to program, still requires a craftsman.

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