Fusion 360: Autodesk Wins the Race to Put CAD in the Cloud
Chad Jackson posted on December 05, 2012 |
Surprise! When Carl Bass announced that Autodesk had launched a reinvented version of their Fusion ...


When Carl Bass announced that Autodesk had launched a reinvented version of their Fusion CAD product for the cloud, it did certainly feel like a surprise. For all the angst, anger and concern over CAD in the cloud over the past couple of years, Autodesk dropped a bomb this last Tuesday.

In this post, we'll take a look at the background of the announcement, the capabilities of the Fusion 360 product and my own commentary and analysis. Strap in, because this is a big deal.


There are five major milestones that have lead up to the Fusion 360 announcement.

  • On February 4th, 2009, Autodesk announced their plans for a new technology called Inventor Fusion (press release). 
  • In March 2011, Autodesk announced that the Fusion technology would be included at no extra cost as a companion application to Alias Design and Alias Automotive, Inventor, Moldflow, Simulation and AutoCAD products (GraphicSpeak blog post).
  • On Tuesday, November 29, 2011, Autodesk announced their intent to release a new PLM product, PLM 360, that is based in the cloud (press release). 
  • In December 2011, Autodesk acquired certain technology related assets from T-Splines (press release).
  • In September 2012, Autodesk launched Simulation 360, an offering that enables simulation jobs to be solved in the cloud (press release).
  • At Autodesk University in November 2012, Autodesk launched a CAD in the Cloud offering called Fusion 360.

Capabilities Provided

OK, then, with that out of the way, what exactly does this thing do? Let me run down the major capabilities and capabilities that stood out.

  • It is a web app. That means it does not run in a browser. You download and install it. This web app connects to a cloud service where the majority of the CAD actions are taken. Right now, the executable of this web app is about 220 MB is size. Much more than half of that will disappear as they optimize its footprint. The app runs natively on Mac and Windows today.
  • Data management occurs in the cloud. As soon as you create a new design, you can start creating geometry. You never explicitly hit 'save' as every iteration is kept in a version history that sits in the cloud. You can make notes against those iterations to note where you might have branched off in a new design. Likewise, you can open existing designs and even any iteration of those designs. Each design and iteration has a visual snapshot so you know what you're opening.
  • Geometric modeling is direct manipulation based. The kinds of geometric creation and manipulation includes surfacing, sculpting and direct interaction based solid modeling. Note that there is no parameter driven feature based modeling in Fusion 360 currently. However, explicit parametric modifications can be made to geometry. The surfacing and sculpting capabilities came from the T-Splines acquisition.
  • Creating and modifying product structures. As you create geometry, they are bucketed into bodies. You can have multiple bodies within a single component. Furthermore, at any time while you are working on a design, you can create a new component, which essentially makes that design an assembly. Also, in the model tree, which sits on the left, you can drag and drop bodies from one component to another. You can designate that you want to create new geometry in a specific component. Last but not least, you can define something akin to assembly constraints between components. Unconstrained degrees of freedom allow kinematic movement of the assembly.
  • Model import occurs in the cloud. All you do, literally, is drag a CAD file from your desktop and drop it on the web app. From there, the file is uploaded to the cloud service and imported there. Autodesk boasts that they can not only bring in a CAD file in any format, but designs can be exported in any format as well. The costs of these translators are not passed on to the user.
There is more finely detailed capabilities offered by Fusion 360, but this is enough to talk about what all of this means.

Commentary and Analysis

So this is the first CAD in the Cloud app. Is it a big deal? To answer that question, you have to look at it from a variety of angles. Here's my take on each.

Geometric and Assembly Modeling

In my opinion, Fusion 360 does not represent a huge step forward in terms of geometric modeling. Yet, the T-Splines is a powerful set of tools, much akin to ICEM and other surfacing applications. Yes, the direct modeling aspects of Fusion 360 look pretty easy to use. Unfortunately, there are no parametric feature-based modeling capabilities today. With this sitting in the cloud, I fully expect that functionality will come over time. But this does not represent some huge leap forward for CAD software.

When you turn your focus on assembly modeling and product structures, however, Fusion 360 represents a significant step forward. It looked ridiculously easy to add components and move a set of geometry from one component to another one. That sort of flexibility has been sorely needed for quite some time.

Last, but not least, the import and export of CAD data is refreshing. Put it in and take it out in any format you like. There's no extra cost to you. That's all goodness.

The major advantage I do see in having CAD in the Cloud sits in leveraging all those compute resources, as I've written before in a post titled The Intersection of Engineering IT and the Cloud. Whether its working on ginormous assemblies or importing a ginormous model, having more chips, RAM and disk space to attack the problem is undeniably advantageous.

Product Data Management

I have to admit, I was most surprised and pleased by the capabilities of Fusion 360 in this area. Back in April, I wrote that PDM was Disruption Ready. In my mind, this was primarily due to the fact that data management technology approaches in this industry had been passed by. Look at Apple's Time Machine or Evernote for a couple examples.

The data management capabilities of Fusion 360, however, are about as hands-free as you could get. Again, it literally saves and tracks every iteration you make to a design. The goodness here is that with the cloud, there are abundant resources to track and manage all those designs and iterations. Overall, I'm very pleased to see Autodesk take this approach. Let's face it, manually managing design data was no value add to the engineering process.

Something else to watch on this front is the expansion of these capabilities to share on a wider scale with distributed team members as well as the supply chain. Think about it. Those designs will be in the Cloud. The Cloud is centrally accessible. If, and when, you share design data with others, it will be dramatically easier.

All Together Now

The biggest advantage in my mind with Fusion 360 isn't in the capabilities it provides on its own. Its what happens when you have CAD, CAE and PDM together in the Cloud.

Why? Well, I think everyone agrees that the cloud represents some serious potential in solving compute intensive activities like working with big CAD models and running big simulation jobs. The outstanding question has always been: how the heck do I get my huge files up there?

Well, if you use CAD, CAE and PDM in the Cloud, then you don't have to worry about squeezing those huge files through a tiny network pipe to your desktop. The bandwidth and compute resources in the Cloud make moving those files around far faster and, frankly, transparent to the user. This is where I think the biggest advantage lies. And furthermore, that's just about the only way it could realistically work.

A Couple Outstanding Concerns 

While I think there are lots of advantages to what Autodesk is doing with Fusion 360 and their move to the Cloud overall, that doesn't mean there aren't concerns. In particular, there are two worth noting.

Any time you start talking about moving stuff into the Cloud, there will be concerns about security. The debate will rage for quite some time on this topic. Yes, your design files will get outside your firewall. Yes, that can be very concerning. Make sure you very clearly understand what is happening with your data.

Another concern here is pricing. The Fusion 360 service will likely be based on a data usage model, much like Simulation 360 where you pay for a certain number of solves or jobs. Now, I'm not arguing with Autodesk's position on this front. If you use much more compute resources in the Cloud, that represents an increased real cost that Autodesk incurs. However, organizations will have to closely watch and monitor how much they use. Otherwise, they could end up in the middle of a budgeting cycle and have used up all of their data usage for the month or year.

Summary and Questions

OK. Let's recap.

  • At Autodesk University in November 2012, Autodesk launched a CAD in the Cloud offering called Fusion 360.
  • This web app provides surfacing, sculpting and direct approaches to geometric modeling. It also provides some design data and product structure management capabilities. Furthermore, it allows design data to be imported and exported in almost every format.
  • In my opinion, Fusion 360 is a step forward in managing product structures / assembly modeling and hands-free data management. However, the biggest advantage is in the benefits when your CAD, CAE and PDM capabilities sit in the Cloud together and interact with each other.
  • Security concerns as well as the need to closely watch data usage in this model stand out as concerns with this new offering.

That's my take. What do you think? How do you feel about CAD in the Cloud? Sound off and let us know what you think!

Take care. Talk soon. And thanks for reading.

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