In a large conference room in The Venetian in Las Vegas, the chief executive officer and chief technology officer for Autodesk Inc. sat before a panel of reporters and got grilled with questions for an hour. No punches were pulled at this media Q&A at Autodesk University 2015 on Dec. 2. What follows are the highlights.
Media Question: Bass, you’ve said, the world of construction and manufacturing are converging. I’d like more of your rational behind that statement. Also, how is that convergence influencing your roadmap? Also, anticipate the year 2020 and beyond?
Carl Bass: Let me take a shot at this. The Apple site is really an open-air factory. They were assembling on site, but most of it was manufactured somewhere else. So it looked a lot more like a supply chain from a typical large manufacturing facility but it happened to be outside, in Cupertino. Next look at ConXtech, that builds steel frame buildings all done one-off on the job site. They built robotic roping systems, the place was full of CNC machines, it looks like any other factory. If you walked into ConeXtech you’d say it’s a factory, but the final assembly ends up in the field. Those are my proof points. But I would say the most aggressive builders around the world—and this is becoming a worldwide phenomenon—are treating construction as a manufacturing process to a large degree. It’s taking large components and putting them together.
As for the world of 2020 I think it will start to be indistinguishable what our products are. There won’t be clear distinguishable products like we have now. We’ll have a platform of cloud-based products and services that people will put together in ways that make sense for them. They’ll access ready-made stuff and they’ll reconstruct that platform in their own way. It’s 1982 all over again, but in a world of much larger capability and computing power. That same idea of the desktop thing will now take place in this large place called the cloud. Look at what we’ve been doing with Fusion 360 or PLM 360; you can look at the work spaces in there which you can model and do analysis and simulations in, in the past each of those would be a product. In the future they’ll be workspaces that you can access through the web or iPad app that all share a common platform and share common services. Almost all of the computation will happen on the other side of the wall. It won’t just be us but almost every other software company, in just about five years.
Q: How do you define Autodesk as a brand?
Bass: I’ve been asked before, what car I would equate Autodesk with. So if Autodesk were a car, what would it be? Autodesk has been similar to a Toyota for most of history. It’s solid, reliable and gives good value for the money. The part that gets a bit more confusing and has changed over the last 5-10 years is that the Autodesk of the past might not be doing things like generative design with Airbus or 3D printing with Ember. Under John Walker that’s probably closer to the truth. But I think the brand has evolved. Because of the exposure through our consumer group to hundreds of millions of users there are many more people now, who know us through a completely different lens. So that changes the picture.
Jeff Kowalski: Using the car analogy—and not to be terribly arrogant about saying it—but in the most recent years I think we’re more like Tesla than any other car. Because many people who first stepped into a Tesla thought their experience would be compromised, they didn’t think that when they hit the gas it would just knock their socks off. I think the same latent expectation is true of Autodesk, maybe from its AutoCAD history, thinking it’s AutoCAD plus add-ons.
Q: What is your merger and acquisition philosophy?
Bass: We do 10-15 acquisitions a year. We look at companies in three buckets: small, medium and large. The smallest is a team in technology, people who are passionate, educated, and really love the thing they’re doing and know a lot about. The second is on that has a product already. The third a company that has a multiple products they’re selling. It’s kind of acqui-hire.
It’s usually that we have a product we don’t have in our portfolio and we think it’s better to buy than develop ourselves. It’s rare that we buy a company; we buy a product. We don’t buy products for user base and revenue.
Kowalski: The netfabb acquisition, for example, let us understand how to print a metal in specific parts. It was similar with SeeControl; the SeeControl team and our team thought likewise about how the Internet of Things would impact the manufacturing ecosystem. They have a cloud-first approach, like us, and it enables the gathering and analysis of data much more flexibly. We go after acqui-hires that have philosophical alignment.
Q: Can you talk about Autodesk’s relationship with drones a bit, and the Skycatch investment, and how you see drones being best used in the future of construction?
Bass: I play tennis with Chris Anderson from 3D Robotics. I would take a similar approach to drones as I do with 3D printing. I think most of the important applications with drones will come from industrial uses. Skycatch is on the a major Silicone Valley development, and morning meetings are an aerial survey of the day before. That’s what the project managers look at, the aerial survey. With lots of people building large things like rails and roads, it’s really inefficient to send people there so it’s a good place for drones. I think it’s an incredibly valuable thing. I’m 98% in the enthusiastic category with drones, and 2% creeps me out. But it’s like that with any technology. I generally don’t think that banning and overregulating the technology is the answer. Bad people are going to do bad things. Our friend, who is a futurist for the FBI, so whenever we see something and say, isn’t this cool? And he screams.
Kowalski: We brought a 3d printed gun to the UK and waved it around to Tech Global. We were trying to say that technology can be harnessed for good or it can be used and abused at the same time.
Bass: There’s the FAA concern…I don’t know why people are flying them into planes. But I also don’t know why people are shining lasers into pilots’ eyes from the ground. But I think we’ll see more industrial uses than consumer.