In a rambling Q&A session for media at Autodesk University in Las Vegas, on Dec. 3, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass and CTO Jeff Kowalski expanded on themes of their respective keynotes and fielded questions about the company’s strategy for developing products to serve the customers of the future.

Central to that strategy is their belief that technology is on the verge of radically changing the way people design and make things. With respect to designing products, they say the massive amounts of parallel computing power in the cloud that can be directed to product design means that designers will move away from building up designs by developing one incremental feature at a time. Instead, designers will work by defining the qualities and characteristics of the creation they seek, let computers suggest and optimize design solutions to deliver them, and then instruct 3D printers to build them.

“The designer may describe it should bend here, and there should be a joint… and it [the printer] deposits flexible material, or a hinge there, and the designer doesn’t have to specify that by building from the bottom up. He can describe from the top down what he is trying to do,” said Kowalski. “The designer says what he is trying to achieve and leaves those kind of design decisions and manufacturing decisions for later.”

Bass says that, “the full richness of manufacturability” to achieve this vision is probably ten years away, but “we’re in the stage of development where people can do some of that today.”

They say one way Autodesk is addressing the need for technology to support its vision is through the development and release of Spark, which is open, free, machine-agnostic software for controlling 3D printers. “Its not quite interoperability, but it is a platform, a foundation everyone can build off of once things are well-understood enough to get normalized and standardized. That’s what we’re trying to do with Spark,” says Bass.

Kowalski added that his vision of 3D printing is that printers will be able to simultaneously print with many materials at once. He says he wants a printer “where every dot can be different. That’s the capability we’re trying to unlock.”

The pending release of Autodesk’s Ember 3D printers, whose design the company will make public, is meant to help establish Spark as the standard 3D printing platform. The company has started taking orders under an "explorer program for “early build” models of the printer from material scientists, software developers, researchers and other industry leaders. The company says “approved Explorers will be able to purchase the Ember Explorer package, which includes the early build SLA DLP-based Ember printer, Ember Explorer supplies, Ember Explorer finishing kit, exclusive access to dedicated technical support, information and events, and the option to provide direct feedback and impact the final production of the Ember printer." Units are expected to start shipping in early 2015.

Asked about how the company maintains its progressive vision and how closely it monitors the moves of its competitors, Bass said, “I would say that our way of thinking about what Autodesk should do, is looking out to the future, somewhere on the horizon. You know it’s always an imperfect view, but picking things that we see—trends that we think are important, things that are going to matter in the future—and combining what we see coming in the technology realm with what we believe our customers will need, and really kind of point our way up there and we go after it.

“There’s wiggle along the way. Its not like our vision is perfect, but we’re pretty resilient and pretty purposeful about chasing what we think are the important things.”

Bass recounted an exercise a few years ago in which a number of teams of Autodesk employees were told to retreat and think about the future of design, and report back. He said as “us nerds sat in the audience waiting to hear how the most important tools of the future should be cool algorythms or faster processors or more connectivity, or something else sufficiently nerdy,” they were surprised to hear the same thing coming back from all of the teams: It was "who I was going to work with, how I was go to work with them, how I was going to share work and how I was going access talent from around the world. It was a very personal thing," Bass said. “Some of the stuff we built in A360 came right out of that,” he says.

A360 is a new social-media style, cloud-based Revit collaboration platform for designers and project partners with password protected access from any internet connected device. It is just coming out of beta and is available for free one-month trial use, Bass and Kowalski announced at the users meeting.

Of the moves of Autodesk competitors, Bass claims not to pay much attention to them. “We don’t spend a lot of time trying to decipher what our competitors do day-to-day…Its just not that interesting to me,” Bass said, adding, “I don’t think that’s a responsible way to run a company, and I don’t think that’s really what our jobs are.”

“I think we will all end up in the same place, but probably it was about 3 to 4 years ago we set out on this thing that said ‘the future of computing is going to be one that’s really one that is around the cloud and delivered to all kinds of devices, mobile devices—a big broad range.

"And if you go back 3 or 4 years ago people would have said there are a million reasons why engineering or design or architecture will not be done in the cloud.

"We took the point of view that this is silly. Of course its going to be done, just like everything else. There are tech requirements that are somewhat different, but they will be overcome just like everything else and that the future of engineering software is going to be cloud-based, delivered to all these things.”

He attributed a lot of the company's success to embracing visions of the future like that and sticking to it. "I think a lot of it is just having this kind of steadfastness," Bass says.