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What 3D integration means for the enterprise

Autodesk has rearchitected its core technologies for design to work in the cloud. Learn what 3D integration means for the future of enterprises.

The computer-aided design giant Autodesk Inc. developed a cloud back end for its core technologies in design to work in the cloud, called Forge. At Forge DevCon in San Francisco, experts discussed how they used this new service to streamline the integration of 3D data into enterprise applications. This promises a more Agile business cycle for business processes relating to the flow of physical things.

Today, engineers, product managers, procurement experts and manufacturers use different kinds of file formats that have been locked away in different silos. "It is clear to us that there is an enormous demand for an easy-to-use and scalable platform to build all sorts of manufacturing and AEC [architecture, engineering and construction] applications," Amar Hanspal, senior vice president of products at Autodesk, based in San Rafael, Calif., said at Forge DevCon. "There are endless opportunities created by a combination of our web service APIs and entrepreneurial developer talent."

This new 3D integration tier will reduce the impedance mismatch in business processes that cross these different types of workers. Autodesk has traditionally provided APIs into its desktop tools. Forge brings much of this functionality to the cloud through a collection of microservices. It includes APIs for viewing 3D data, translating 3D file formats, design automation, data management, 3D printing and reality capture.

Improve design agility

The last Industrial Revolution was about automation on the factory floor, but it was limited to the factory. That brought value in terms of high volume and efficiency, but there has been a gap in how enterprises could tie product design to the factory. This has made the business process around introducing new products expensive and slow. "Going from that design concept into production becomes the limiting factor for a lot of companies in terms of the ability to innovate quickly," said Robert Bodor, vice president and general manager for Americas at Proto Labs Inc., based in Maple Plain, Minn.

Proto Labs specializes in helping to turn 3D integration designs into injection-molded, computer numerical control and 3D-printed products. The company was founded in 1999 to help enterprises and small businesses put out bids for new injection-molded parts. The company wrote software that used 3D geometry analysis to calculate all of the steps required to manufacture parts. This could identify any challenging or expensive aspects of a design and automatically generate an estimate of production cost. This has reduced the amount of time to go from a design to a prototype from a few months to a few days.

The Forge cloud service makes it easier to pass data between different tools used in the design and production process. Customers can upload a file and get a quote in a few minutes. The Proto Labs application virtually manufactures the part inside a factory simulation and overlays this with manufacturing feedback that tells the designer how they could improve the design. This can reduce inventory risk and supply chain risk, and transform the manufacturing process.

Bodor said this same type of process could be applied across all types of manufacturing. For example, Proto Labs did some work with Lockheed Martin for a new search-and-rescue drone. This kind of iterative design-manufacturing process allowed Lockheed to cut many months off of its development cycle with software automation.

Integrate 3D data with other processes

Another use case lies in integrating 3D information with other enterprise cloud services. For example, JE Dunn Construction Group Inc. has been using Forge to improve its business workflow, cost estimation and project management applications. About 3,000 internal and 45,000 external users manage all aspects of the company's business processes using its internal Dunn Dashboard enterprise application. The integrated dashboard allows architects, sales managers, project managers and executives to have different views of the same data.

Mark Stocks, director of Information Architecture at JE Dunn Construction, based in Kansas City, Mo., said this consistent platform reduces training and allows them to integrate existing applications into a common user interface.

It ties into a variety of ERP, customer relationship management and project management cloud services to streamline workflows.

For example, JE Dunn has developed a back-end cost estimation tool, called Lens, which aggregates the cost history of constructing different architectural elements. Sales teams can quickly generate an accurate estimate. Designers and architects can determine when one type of window might have a lower product cost, but higher installation cost than another.

Construction workers tend to prefer working off of 2D drawings during construction, but might want to look at the 3D model to get a sense of what the finished design will look like. The Forge APIs makes it easy to automatically transform the 3D building data into any format preferred by users on the fly.

Three-dimensional integration makes it easier to manage clash between different construction work processes. Some processes, like framing, have to occur before others, like sheet rock installation. Other processes, like running pipes and wires, could happen before or after each other, but not at the same time. To address this bottleneck, JE Dunn built a tool to generate optimized workflows for allocating labor, which can be updated when teams fall behind schedule or finish things early. "We want to take data not just from AutoCAD, but from scheduling and other sources to deliver it to users in a unique fashion," Stocks said.

Autodesk has no immediate plans to build apps for specific products or businesses processes. Autodesk's Hanspal said he envisions industry-specific enterprises will create their own apps to offer specific services, or streamline their supply chains. These same sorts of architectures could be customized for things like fashion, automotive production, architectural design, shipbuilding and furniture. Autodesk is offering free, unlimited use of the Forge platform through September 15, 2016, to give entrepreneurs and enterprises the opportunity to dream up these applications.

Next Steps

Guide to enterprise 3D printing

API management essential guide

Intro to API design

Dig Deeper on Cloud data integration and application integration

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How has 3D integration improved your enterprise?
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From backroom development to public release, 3D has opened more than a few technical outlets for us. 3D design, implementation and on-set movement are now all part of our normal workflow. OTOH, releasing our finished products (motion pictures) in 3D has proven to be far less beneficial. The magic of movies has always been that movies are transformative and immersive. Now the audience is still undecided if 3D makes the magic more magical or just intrudes on the show. Other than a few notable outliers, few of us - filmmakers and audience included - have grasped the full potential of 3D. 
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