Swinging by Pier 9

Though you probably know it best for its industrial CAD/CAM/CAE software, Autodesk has been doing more and more in the way of consumer-oriented products in recent years. Brent Balinski visited the company’s Pier 9 workshop to hear about what it learns from non-enterprise users.

“The main idea, for us, is figuring out the interface between our software and this hardware,” explained Bill Danon, Senior Manager at Autodesk, gesturing towards the Omax 60120 waterjet.

It is one of countless pieces of top-of-the-line kit at Autodesk’s Pier 9 offices/R&D center/gallery/makerspace-from-hell, located on San Francisco’s Embarcadero. About half of its 27,000 square feet is taken up by workshop space.

“You can operate these machines, but it’d be much easier if you could just plug in a USB stick with your file and then have the machine cut,” he added.

“So we’re not quite there yet, but that’s where we need to get to.”

Pier 9, home to 120 of the company’s employees, celebrated its two-year anniversary shortly before Manufacturers’ Monthly visited in October. It houses the software firm’s employees for its consumer offerings, such as its 123D series of apps and Tinkercad website, the Instructables team, and its life sciences division.  

A large part of what goes on in there is dedicated to testing the limits of both hardware and software, as well as – as Danon mentioned – figuring out the spot where the two meet.

As an applied research laboratory, the facility is home to the team that continues to develop the company’s 3D printer and its platform for additive manufacturing, titled Ember and Spark respectively.

“We’ve got that hardware team sitting really close to the software team,” Mary-Hope McQuiston, VP of Marketing, Business and Operations at Autodesk Consumer and 3D Printing, said.

“Which is really meant to take some of the complexity and inefficiencies out of software going from the digital design to the physical output.”

The limits of equipment, software and users’ creativity are all stretched during the twice-yearly take-in of Artist-In-Residence cohorts.

Over four months and assisted by a $US 2,000 monthly stipend (plus materials covered), successful applicants get the run of the place (with digital fabrication, woodworking, metalworking, 3D printing labs, industrial sewing centre, a commercial test kitchen and more).

“This really inspires a whole broad community of folks to think differently – starting with our employees, but also more broadly,” offered McQuiston.

Over 100 participants have come through, and are from a variety of areas, including artists, makers, academics, architects and designers. The have access to all of the company’s CAD/CAM/CAE products.

“So they come in and they can make anything they can imagine using digital modelling, if they’re using our software, but the interface with the machines is not always there,” said Danon.

“The artists… they’re not mechanical engineers or industrial designers or have any sort of idea about any of the limitations of what the machines in there can do.

“They’ll say ‘why can’t this machine do that?!’ and some of our engineers will have to come in and say ‘err, you need to create a new feature for that or find a better way to do it.’”

Many of the AIR works (such as the Manhattan Project, pictured, a hand-cranked cocktail mixer by artist Benjamin Cowden) are displayed in The Arcade, which also hosts end-of-residence showcases.

As well as needing to participate in the showcase, artists must provide their methods on Instructables. (The artist owns the intellectual property created.) A major benefit of the AIR programme for Autodesk is the creation of top-notch content for their maker website, which receives some 31 million visitors a month.

Though the main business of the $US 13.7 billion company is in enterprise-level software, Autodesk has courted consumer users (notably the maker movement) since about 2009 with their release of SketchBook Mobile.

Though he wasn’t sold at first, CEO Carl Bass is famously enthusiastic about the maker movement, as well as a maker, from way back, himself. Bass, like the company’s employees at all ranks, also has the run of the place to test its hardware.

“Over there was this big sculptural table that he’d been working on for a while,” pointed out Danon, while walking past a five-axis DMS router.

“He had a bunch of baseball bats he was making with the lathe. You just see things around all the time.”

The growth of Autodesk’s consumer group had had spillover benefits for professional products as well, according to Danon, who puts makers as somewhere in the middle of a spectrum between consumers and professionals at either end.

“We’re learning a tonne about user experience and UI and the kind things like that; with professional tools maybe we wouldn’t be forced to really simplify user experience and UI and get all that learning from the consumer aspect which migrates into professional tools,” he added.

Other users of the facility include “hands-on” Boston-based venture capital firm Bolt IO, which made Pier 9 its second site in January. Prototyping at the site is part of the guidance Bolt provides to start-ups it invests in.

Towards the end of the tour, we are shown the swinging conference table, which the company says is popular with both visitors and employees alike.

Besides the novelty of a part-swingset/part-boardroom table hybrid, the much-photographed item is for more than just show, McQuiston said. Though – like the space it’s housed in – there’s a definite “oh, cool!” factor, it serves a purpose.

“It’s a great reminder and physical experience: ‘you’ve got to think differently; there’s a different way of tackling these projects. Any sort of project or problem that we might be facing.’” said McQuiston.

“And it’s sort of a reminder to have fun on the way, too, and not take ourselves too seriously.”  

Below are some scenes from Pier 9.

  1. A 3D printed cityscape by Steel Blue, modelling the planned development of downtown San Francisco, and using “an incredibly detailed model in Maya.” With the assistance of Autodesk, engineers it turned it into something that could be additively manufactured, block by block, on Objet500 Connex printers. “The model was created to help real estate developer Tishman Speyer with urban planning and construction decisions.”

  2. “There’s very regular training – if you want to know how to use the bandsaw, there’s training on that,” said Danon. Staff can only badge on for what they’re qualified to use. The “Ferrari of the workshop” – an 11-axis milling machine – takes more hours than for most equipment. “If you want to learn how to use the Mori Seiki, it’s a much more elaborate training, you have to have various prerequisites,” he continued. “But anyone in the company has access to it.”

  3. Even for safety procedures, such as badging in, the workshop’s users try to make sure a sense of fun is not forgotten.

  4. Tools of The Mutant Variety by Iris Gottlieb. (“Graphite, paper, crown moulding frames.” – see here http://www.instructables.com/id/Making-a-Frame-from-Crown-Molding/)

  5. The XYZen Garden by Jonathan Odom. His Instructables description tells us the creation “consists of a wooden base, a custom wooden pulley system, brass tubing, and some brass hardware that all come together to make a manual machine that works like a classic Etch-A-Sketch using sand as the drawing medium.” (see here http://www.instructables.com/id/XYZen-Garden/)

(Swinging desk image from Patricia Chang Photography – www.patriciachangphotography.com)

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