Can CAD-in-the-Cloud Handle the Entire Product Lifecycle?
Scott Wertel posted on November 26, 2013 |

The gauntlet has been thrown.  Can the entire product lifecycle live on the cloud?  Several companies have ported their offerings to the cloud, but Autodesk is by far the clear winner in creating native cloud-based design applications.  Does Autodesk have a viable offering to unequivocally state that the entire product lifecycle can exist desktop free?

Defining the Product Lifecycle

Most everyone is familiar with a version of the V-Model for design and verification.  To make sure we are all on the same page, I’m going describe the V-Model I’m most familiar with, taken from CMII theory.  (More information is available from the Institute of Configuration Management.)

Figure 1. The Entire Product Lifecycle Based on CMII

Figure 1 describes the entire lifecycle of a product, separating the “V” into five distinct phases of:

  1. Concept,
  2. Design/Develop,
  3. Build/Produce,
  4. Maintain/Modify, and
  5. Decommission. 

Figure 2 is a closer look at the “V” itself.

Figure 2. The CMII V-Model

But, since we are talking about design software, we aren’t talking about physical hardware and therefore only need to focus on the left side of the V-Model, shown in Figure 3.

Figure 3. Design Side of the V-Model

I hypothesize that if Autodesk has a native cloud product that fits each of those boxes in the design side of the V-Model, then indeed the product lifecycle can live in the cloud.

Definition (Application Requirements)


What do we need to design?

What does the customer want?

What are the contractual and legal requirements of this product?

Requirements need to be captured and flowed down.  Flow-down of requirements is an issue for companies of all sizes.  The grapevine and chain-of-command are the two most common ways to flow down requirements.  Many organizations try to capture requirements in PLM systems.  Autodesk PLM 360 is such a system.  Is it as fully featured as an aerospace and defense module from incumbent PLM vendors?  Not yet.  But it does have all the basic necessities of a PLM system including: metadata, workflow, change management, and integration to other business systems.

When requirements come in a more tangible form, such as a written report or a contract, making that document available to users is also a method of requirements flow-down.  With cloud-based file sharing applications like Autodesk 360 or Buzzsaw, employees anywhere with internet access can view the latest version of the document.  Do your employees at remote locations have access to internal documents?

 Now I’m not going to state that these products are the best tools for requirements flow-down, but they are equivalent to many desktop applications I have tried.  I give Autodesk a green check that its cloud applications can satisfy the Application Requirements block of the V-Model.

Concept (Design Basis)


Based on CMII theory, the Design Basis is the original brainstorm of the design that meets the functional requirements.  Initial concepts can take many forms, from layout sketches to virtual mock-ups.  Depending on whether the requirements are a completely new design or a new configuration of an existing design, Autodesk has a cloud application that will work.

A team can sketch in AutoCAD 360 to create layouts and early renditions.  Or, they can customize existing products for quoting using Configurator 360.  How about actually roughing out some parts and assemblies in Fusion 360?  And finally, they can create and collaborate with customers in real time with Mockup 360.  I give Autodesk a green check that its cloud applications can satisfy the Design Basis block of the V-Model.

Planning (Physical Item Hierarchy)


The physical item hierarchy is a visual tree (like an organizational chart) of the bill of material for a product, including second and third level documentation that supports the definition of the physical item.  An office application or other tool specifically designed for org charts may be more efficient, but any 2D CAD tool can also be used.  And I’ve seen it done!  AutoCAD 360 can be used to create the physical item hierarchy.

Once the physical item hierarchy is produced, it is easier to plan the phases of the design.  Make/buy decisions for each level of the BOM can be defined and clearly documented.  Although many desktop CAD applications have reporting abilities that will generate a BOM, the master BOM should reside in a PLM tool such as Autodesk PLM 360. (I did not verify Fusion 360’s reporting features.)

Although not the most ideal tools for the job, Autodesk does provide cloud-based applications that can be utilized to aid in product planning.  I may not like the hoops I’d have to jump through, but I give Autodesk a green check that its cloud applications can satisfy the Physical Item Hierarchy block of the V-Model.

Design (Detailed Designs)


Once the planning is done, it’s time to get down to details.  Autodesk provides several tools for detail design.  A desktop application like Inventor that ties into Autodesk’s cloud-based offerings is one example – a combination of desktop and cloud.  Or, if you prefer, keep the design on the desktop but optimize the design with Optimizer for Inventor.  There is, of course, Fusion 360 which is specifically developed for detail design on the cloud.  It also “plays nice” with other data types so you can import existing files from suppliers or your own library of parts.

For analysis of the design, Autodesk provides Sim 360.

And to make sure those design reviews go off swimmingly, presenting customers with beautifully rendered images by Rendering in Autodesk 360 or through the Publish to Keyshot tool.

 Importing, creating, analyzing, and rendering geometry on the cloud is well covered with Autodesk applications.  And additional tools like Mockup 360 can be used to collaborate with customers during the detail design phase.  I give Autodesk a green check that its cloud applications can satisfy the Detailed Design block of the V-Model.

Manufacture (Detailed Processes)

Manufacturing and Detailed Processes come in many forms, from Purchase Orders for outside vendors, Statements of Work, Travelers, or Manufacturing Operations and Tooling (MOTs).  Not all parts are CNC machined, but even CAM paths can be considered Detailed Processes.  Much like the Physical Item Hierarchy, Manufacturing process may be better defined by standard office applications rather than a design or data/lifecycle management tool.

I can’t find anything in the Autodesk cloud playbook that supports manufacturing.  But, I do know that Autodesk recently rolled out HSMWorks for Inventor, which means they are continuing their investment in CAM solutions.  They are just not on the cloud yet, but there have been strong hints on the Autodesk CAM site that this may be coming soon. 

 Some may say that CAM is not the sole definitive factor of manufacturing, but since general office tools are better suited for most work instructions and Autodesk does not yet have a CAM cloud offering that I can see, I cannot give Autodesk a green check that its cloud applications can satisfy the Detailed Processes block of the V-Model.

Data Management

This particular topic is not defined as part of the V-Model, neither in CMII nor any other design process that I know of.  But, it is a very important topic in terms of the enterprise managing its intellectual property.  In prior sections I mentioned how Autodesk 360, Autodesk PLM 360, and Buzzsaw can be used.  In addition to those benefits listed above, each of these tools is designed specifically for data management.  Sharing, viewing, editing, and managing data in the cloud are key features of any cloud-based solution.  What good is the cloud if the data is locked on local storage inaccessible to remote users?

Additionally, Autodesk has partnered with GrabCAD to include a Publish to GrabCAD feature within Fusion 360.  GrabCAD recently announced a new Collaborative Product Development (CPD) feature within its Workbench Application.  Because it is so new, there is no word on how the Publish to GrabCAD integration works with the new CPD feature, but the fact that Autodesk is not monopolizing its own product lines for cloud-based solutions means that there are applications to fit every enterprise.

 The cloud has many layers: application, data, and compute are three main classifications.  The data layer on the cloud needs to managed and Autodesk provides multiple ways to manage data and other intellectual property.  I give Autodesk a green check that its cloud applications can satisfy an enterprises’ requirements for Data Management.


These examples are utilizing Autodesk’s 360 family of cloud-based applications.  Autodesk provides even more solutions using its 123D family of products, which are also available online.  Likewise, Android (Chrome) and iOS applications, like Force Effect and Force Effect Flow, are also available.   Combined, Autodesk provides an entire suite of native cloud applications that nearly satisfy the entire product lifecycle.  The only thing missing is its ability to handle Detailed Manufacturing Processes.  As I mentioned earlier, Autodesk recently acquired HSMWorks which adds CAM capabilities to Autodesk’s portfolio.  Will we see CAM in a future cloud offering?  Only Autodesk knows for sure.  But since Autodesk is keen on creating native cloud-based applications and not porting existing desktop applications to the cloud, I do know one thing for certain, we need to wait and see.

Based on my hypothesis, Autodesk does not yet have a suite of products to manage the entire product lifecycle on the cloud, but it sure is close.

Autodesk has paid a fee to to promote their cloud solutions.  They have not had editorial input to this post. – Scott Wertel

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