Fusion 360: a Q&A with Kevin Schneider

Last November, Autodesk introduced Fusion 360, the industry’s first cloud-based CAD platform that provides surfacing, sculpting, and direct modeling features to users for a monthly subscription price of $25.

Last November, Autodesk introduced Fusion 360, the industry’s first cloud-based CAD platform that provides surfacing, sculpting, and direct modeling features to users for a monthly subscription price of $25. We spoke with Kevin Schneider, director for Fusion 360at Autodesk, about how Fusion 360 was conceived and how he sees the technology evolving in the future.


Q: How did the idea of moving a CAD solution to the cloud come about?

A: After talking to many customers, we started thinking about how to develop new technology to address some of the common problems that they were having and that would match up well to emerging trends we were seeing. As manufacturing became more distributed, one of the common problems was not having a safe and effective way to collaborate across multiple geographically disparate sites. Many of them were using tools, such as Powerpoint and FTP sites, to do redlining and markup. We knew we could do better.


Q: What emerging trends did you identify?

A: If you think back 20 years there was a big transition from expensive UNIX workstations to more affordable Windows PCs, which were providing near enterprise workstation-level performance at a much lower cost. We saw pervasive cloud or infinite computing collaboration using new types of sharing services as sort of representing that same type of OS-level platform shift. It was clear that these customer problems mapped really well to what that platform change could offer.


Q: Did customers ask for CAD in the cloud?

A: No. I don’t think anyone would say that customers asked for the cloud. Customers have business challenges; they have everyday needs. We saw the cloud as a platform that could be a really good fit to deliver some new solutions to solve those problems and that’s what we set out to do.


Q: What do you see as the primary benefits to customers of CAD in the cloud?

A: Collaboration is a big benefit, but so is the ability to work just about anywhere, whether it’s on a mobile device, a desktop device, or a browser. Anyplace you have connectivity, you should have access to keep working and keep collaborating.

Another big benefit is the low IT complexity and expense of cloud solutions. As users, you’re not installing or administering, upgrading or updating them. You simply turn them on and use them.


Q: What was the thought process around offering Fusion 360 on a monthly basis?

A: We wanted to reduce the entry price for people to get into CAD. If you look back two or three years ago, if someone wanted to get into the design profession, it didn’t matter what software they were looking at, it was going to be a $5,000 initial expenditure to get started, just to buy a seat of software.


Q: How does offering Fusion 360 software-as-a-service (SaaS) change the dynamics of your relationships with customers?

A: It allows us to engage with customers in real-time and involve them every step of the way with a customer driven development process. We update our service about every 6 weeks. Customers are asking for the things you expect from design tools and in our most recent update, we addressed 8 of the user’s top 10 requests.

In addition, the common procedure for all software vendors was you’d work with one of their resellers or a direct salesperson and they would be very interested in your problems and they would be engaged with you. They would help you understand the benefits, you’d buy the software and typically you’d go to training. The investment for getting you to buy is all up-front. Once that’s done, the risk to make it successful was largely your own.


Q: So by offering your software as a service, you’re sharing the risk?

A: Absolutely. The customer has to renew and the renewal is an expression that the customer has gotten value from using your product or service. They are willing to continue paying for it. It really incents us as provider of these services to make sure we earn that renewal each month from the customer. If they don’t renew, we’re not doing our job. In our opinion, it’s a much better relationship between the customer and the service provider because the customer is paying for a benefit while they get it and the vendor has incentive to stay engaged and make sure the customer is really successful on a long-term basis.


From the Autodesk Gallery, created by Theirry Dalet as a personal modeling exercise of a concept car.

Q: What companies do you see benefiting most from Fusion 360?

A: It’s a great solution for companies that work on a contract basis. They don’t use it everyday and their work is cyclical so this allows them to move from a capital expense to an operating expense, allowing them to turn it off and turn it on, add or move seats really flexibly, which was something that customers we spoke with saw as a huge benefit. We’re also laser focused on very small businesses, 50 people or less. That’s the sweet spot for what we’re trying to do and what we are offering and where the best fit to customers’ needs is.


Q: Currently Fusion 360 uses direct modeling. When will parametric, feature-based modeling be added?

A: We have a parametric version that we’re previewing for customers and we’re releasing a beta version at Autodesk University this year. It has been in development since we started the program and it represents a major investment on Autodesk’s part. It’s not a carbon copy clone of an Inventor or a SolidWorks; there are some pretty unique aspects in the history or parametric modeling experience.

Going back to the work we did with Inventor Fusion, we were the first to really advocate that customers shouldn’t have to choose between direct and history-based modeling. That’s a core feature of the history-based modeling tools. It’s also the only multi-threaded parametric modeler that we know of in the market so we see it as not only parametric, but also a major advantage for us moving into the future.


Q: What do you think prevents Fusion 360 from being perceived as “professional-grade” CAD?

A: In a broad appeal, two things stand out pretty regularly. There are things like table-driven parts and family of parts, which just naturally benefit from regenerative or parametric modeling approaches. Parametric modeling is a major aspect to getting really broad appeal. Second are associative 2D drawings and both of those will be going to beta in early winter 2013.


Q: Why is it important to be on the Mac platform?

A: It wasn’t even a question when you think about service-based offerings. They tend to be very platform-agnostic. You use them when and where you need them. Platform independence was a key characteristic of what we were designing for.

There’s also a mythology that there is no mechanical CAD Mac market. Approximately 34% of our customers are on the Mac platform and half of those are mixed users; they are using PCs at work and Macs at home. We offer access anywhere. You can log in at home, you can log in at work, your data is all stored in a project space and your license is your identity, not your machine.


Q: How do you address IP security concerns?

A: One of the first things I say to customers with concerns is to go to the Autodesk Trust Center (www.autodesk.com/trust). It’s very specific about how we handle IP security and our compliance with various IP security policies. It talks about both identity and information sharing. Most of our customers don’t have these concerns, but there are some. For those who are uncomfortable with it, Inventor is a fantastic tool for them. We’re not forcing anyone to go to the cloud if that’s not something they are comfortable with.

Strangely enough, I’ve visited with customers who will berate me with security concerns, and then talk about working with us on a specific engineering problem or a model, and that very same engineer will take a model and attach it to his Gmail account and send it to me so there’s a bit of education that will happen over time. People are afraid of change and they don’t understand how it will benefit them. I think over time, people will get more comfortable with it. We’re not seeing security as a barrier to success.


Q: So the bottom line is that it’s safe?

A: Absolutely. Our source control system is stored in the cloud so we’re taking the same risk that we are asking our customers to take, but, yes, we’re very comfortable that it’s safe.


Q: How will this move to the cloud affect third-party vendors?

A: Many of the third-party vendors we’re talking to are excited about it, but many of them are very small and don’t know how to start and get the infrastructure in place. We’ve been sharing with several of our partners the “how” part of getting started. I think it’s early and I expect it to grow. Partners that work with Autodesk will move more to what we call this “platform as a service” business model.

The core pieces that are beneath our service will be made available to partners to tie into and they will be able to offer extensions or unique products or services on top of them. So just like we saw third-party ecosystems grow up around Autodesk customization or Inventor aps, I predict in three years you’re going to see that same type of ecosystem offering products in this market. I don’t think there is inherently any limitation to the possibilities for third-party integration.


Q: What is the current pricing of Fusion 360?

A: It’s priced at $25 per month for an annual commitment or $300 a year. That includes all new releases. We’ve already done seven releases this year. We are discussing the possibility of offering monthly and quarterly price points for customers who want more flexibility. I think by the middle of next year, I pretty sure we’ll have at least a monthly and quarterly offering.


Q: What about customers not currently subscribing? What happens to their data?

A: If you’re a cyclical business and you’re buying it for one quarter of the year, you still maintain full access to all of your data. You can export it, you can download it; you can do anything you need to do to move it around and work with it within your project space. If you’re not currently subscribing, then you don’t get to do new stuff, or edit things, but you’re not locked out of the account. It is designed so customers feel in control and have full access of their data.


Autodesk has sponsored promotion of their design solutions on ENGINEERING.com. They have no editorial input to this post – all opinions are mine. Barb Schmitz