Looks like Autodesk is making a bit of a splash about its flagship product, Inventor. It’s only been a few months since the initial 2016 release hit the streets, bringing a pretty good selection of goodies, updates and some new tools that are pretty damned impressive. The thing has been, for some time, that these types of updates come once a year (typically around March/April), then you’re on a cycle of service packs till the following year.
Well, it looks like Autodesk is looking up the ante and is making a lot of fuss over the 2016 R2 release. Whether as a way to prove to its customers that there’s an added bonus to being on subscription, to show users of other systems that it’s doing active development with Inventor or just because it’s got some fancy new bells and whistles to show off. Whatever the underlying reason, it looks like Autodesk is going to be delivering a major release each spring, then adding additional functionality as well as the usual bug fixes, with each service pack from now on (previously, service packs didn’t really add functionality, just fixed what was broken).
So what’s coming up?
The big news for this release is the incorporation of Shape Generator. This uses a pretty widespread approach to shape optimisation that uses topology-based method as the basis for that optimisation, rather than driving a parametric model (which has been inside Inventor for a while).
To clear up what that means, topology optimisation is a finite element based process that takes into account a starting shape, a set of boundary conditions (loads and constraints) and degrades the mesh, removing elements where there’s minimal stress or strain. The end result is a mesh that represents a guiding shape to show where material is and, perhaps more importantly, isn’t required.
This is pretty standard technology and has been in a lot of different tools over the years (the first I remember is Ansys DesignSpace, there’s also Tosca, now owned by Dassault – there are a lot of others out there).
The crux is that the end results are never really ready for manufacturing (using traditional methods or additive techniques) as they’re a mesh and you’re always going to end up remodelling the part to get a suitable form. Despite what many might say, additive manufacturing of these forms isn’t widespread and isn’t common at all – it’s 9 times out of 10 going to come back to machining a billet or a casting or a forging – something along those lines.
Topology optimisation has also available in other systems, such as solidThinking Inspire/Evolve combination (itself built on the OptiStruct technology from Altair) and there are others out there. By integrating this tool directly into Inventor, you’ve now got that same combination of an experimental optimisation tool closely matched to the tools you’ll need to take the ideas put forth by it, into a sensible shape. It’s also worth noting that this has been built from the ground by and is based on Nastran, rather than the other solves that Autodesk has access to (Algor or the other one I can’t remember the name of).
We’ll take a more in depth look at these tools when they roll out, but for now, it looks interesting. There’s control over which areas of your model are available for optimisation (and which aren’t to preserve interface features etc.) – which is essential. We also asked about adding more controls to both the shape controls (to account for manufacturing requirements/draft angles etc etc) as well as the ability to snap to the mesh geometry when building your model analytic model – as ever, that’s coming in future releases.
It’s also worth noting that this isn’t the additive manufacturing process focussed optimisation (Project Dreamcatcher) tools that Autodesk has been making a lot of noise about of late (particularly in relation to Fusion 360), but as yet, have yet to make available to the masses.
ForceEffect from the iPad and Browser to the Desktop
If you’ve got an iPad, the chances are you’ve had a play with Autodesk’s range of tools for it – after all, they’re probably the one software vendor in the product design and engineering space to adopt it. One of the most interesting is the ForceEffect set of tools – these combine a slick interface with free body diagrams.
This Inventor update brings this type of tool direct;y into the Inventor interface. It’ll connect via the web using the same set of tools that you can use in the browser (have a play here). That can then be progressed directly into your CAD models. The ForceEffect file is stored in Autodesk’s online collaboration platform, A360,
Electro mechanical design tools
This is an interesting one. Inventor has had IDF import options for a while allowing you to bring in PCB data from the format. The issue is that IDF can contain a great deal of information that isn’t necessarily required for mechanical design. These new tools give you a lot more filtering and control over the process and start to include some tools to automatically swap out the blocked out, rough shapes found in IDFs for more geometrically rich descriptions of your components when needed. It’ll also let you filter by component size, choose which portions of the IDF files you’re bringing (board size, board holes etc) to help reduce the complexity of the data if you don’t need it.
This is an interesting mid-schedule release and a departure for how Autodesk has traditionally rolled out its software – changing from annual to whatever the fancy name is for three times a year (there’s another similar update due before spring rolls around again). The big question is how its customers are going to react. Firstly, Autodesk has been moving towards a subscription only sell for a good few years. This shows that there’s a way to provide these types of updates that don’t rely on annual cycles when it comes to traditional installed desktop software.
But – and this is a big but – many companies don’t take on every update, every service pack or even annual release. Rolling a CAD system update out is a big task and when you’ve got systems that work along side it, that’s even more the case. Will this new delivery schedule change things or make them easier for those customers? Absolutely not. Will it make tracking what’s new and updated more difficult, as new functionality and tools are spread across three or four releases, rather than one big one? Damn straight it will.
Other than this (and it’s a big issue), this update is interesting.
It’s good to see Autodesk flexing some of the knowledge, technology and expertise in simulation and providing a set of tools that can provide engineering insight, rather than validation of ideas and concept (this is what topology optimisation excels at). Shape Generator looks good. Autodesk is making a lot of claims about this. “Shape Generator is not a game changer, it’s a whole new game”. Hate to be the picky one in the bunch, but this isn’t a new game. Topology optimisation in this form has been around for decades. Yes, this is the first time that it has been built into a mainstream tool – but something new? Not really.
The integration of the previous browser and iPad based ForceEffects is an interesting one. It shows that you can built in new tools, allow them to hosted online and still delivery them in a traditional environment.
As for the new IDF import tools, this looks like a case of catch up. SolidWorks users will, of course, have had this type of tool for quite some time (thanks to CircuitWorks which DS acquired a fair old while ago), so its good to see the Inventor community get the same level of tools. Interestingly and disconnected from this area of Inventor, the folks behind CircuitWorks set-up a new company after departing DS to do some very interesting things (ECAD.io) with electro-mechanical data and the cloud – and they got snapped up Autodesk a few months ago – so look out for some additional capability in this area in both Inventor and Fusion 360.
All in all, I like this way of delivering software updates (roll out and training aside). It might be entirely psychological, but having updates like this inbetween the larger annual updates makes you feel better about the subscription costs you’re paying each month. While I doubt that Autodesk will be able to roll out tools like this with each release, it does means that chances are the new tools will evolve much more quickly, gain more functionality, as things progress.
Oh – and if you’re on subs with Inventor, then this will be available around the 20th of October.