Autodesk’s Pier 9 – Making something from nothing


Besides the bridges, the bay and a lot of hipsters, a big part of San Francisco is its piers. If you stand at the Ferry building in the middle of Embarcadero on the northeastern curve, they fan out on either side like the city’s fingers – odd numbers to the left and even to the right. Less than a century ago they were an integral part of the city’s economy, but as San Francisco’s interests moved out of the sea and into Silicon Valley their functions became purely aesthetic– tributes to what America used to be.

And then there’s Pier 9.

Pier 9 houses a design-led revolution, and it’s thanks to a company you’ve probably never heard of. To put it simply, Autodesk makes design software. In 1982 their flagship AutoCAD was one of the first computer-aided design applications for microcomputers. Today they have over 100 products and user numbers that run into 9 digits.

Initially serving mostly professionals, the advent of 3D printing and the maker movement offered them new customers with new ideas, and so a new approach was taken.

“When most people talk about design, they think of a noun, the beautiful object. But we think of design as a verb – really a way to solve problems,” Autodesk VP Brian P. Mathews explains, “If you think of the world’s problems today, whether it’s the rising cost of energy, how do we feed and house people, the scarcity of water – these are all design problems because the design process is an iterative process that’s not reductive like the way MBAs think. So we’re trying to help our customers solve problems that are too complex to use normal business type methods and one way that we do that is through an iterative process.”

Autodesk’s Pier 9 workshop facilitates that process and is the perfect example of the company’s hands-on approach. The idea was to bring the people that make the software together with those that use it. Then you throw in some state-of-the-art fabrication equipment and rapid prototyping and see what they come up with. The fact that they’re quite literally floating on the bay just makes it that much cooler. Autodesk staff work in the same space as artists-in-residence, and collaboration is key.

Pier 9“We think that some of our best innovations come from taking ideas in one market and bringing them to a different market,” says Mathews. “If you look at one of the top trends in the last couple of years in the architecture space, it’s called building information modelling – BIM. The idea for BIM really came out of the manufacturing space that was about ten years ahead. So because we play in the manufacturing space and know those methods we spent a lot of research and applied that to the architecture space where it became a pretty big innovation that’s taking off worldwide.”

BIM is one example of design (the verb) put into motion. By combining the design revolution with the rise of data, it provides insight to help plan, construct, and manage buildings and infrastructure. Sensors around a building monitor absolutely every aspect of its use. When you feed this into a CAD system the result is a highly detailed digital representation of reality. And then you can start fiddling.

“What we can then do is we can run simulations. So we can take the building, select the floor and then do big data analytics on the building. So we can see where it’s performing poorly, we can now visualise it over time with all the sensors and do simulations to see if I had to make a change what difference it would make – so electricity, people patterns and how they move, do I want to cool the whole building and so you gain a lot of insights through that.”

The applications extend to more than just buildings – coupling big data with design software essentially creates virtual worlds that you are free to manipulate. Virtual wind tunnels can refine the design of a car before it’s manufactured. Virtual bridges can be tested against virtual earthquakes. Virtual medicines in virtual blood cells can be made to combat virtual viruses.

“Our customers are the people who make the machines of the world, whether it’s in the automotive industry, aerospace, you name it, but it’s not just the people who make the machines, our customers are also the people that make the machines that make the machines – whether it’s the process, the robots, that kind of stuff. It’s about the architects and engineers who build the buildings we live in. It’s also about all the other trades people who build the systems who run those buildings. It’s about the infrastructure in the world, those who build it and the infrastructure that supports that infrastructure,” says Mathews.

The end goal is sustainability. By using design as a verb instead of a noun, Autodesk believes we can significantly improve the state of the world, and they seem to be getting it right. They’re leading the design-led revolution, with a manifesto that clearly states “This is the era of design. Where human intention, empowered by technology, is re-shaping everything.”

Kind of like turning an unusable pier into the one of the most functional spots in the city.


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