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Older but wiser: AutoCAD turns 21

01 July 2006

When 'one horrible night in November 1982'* John Walker tried hard to make lines meet on one of the first demos of his new-fangled product called AutoCAD, even he couldn't have foreseen what he was starting. I say 'even he' as Walker was undoubtedly one of the most awesome computer programmers of his time. But nobody could have known that his fledgling would live to become the longest serving software package yet.

As software is aged by releases rather than years, AutoCAD has just celebrated its 21st birthday. It has matured gracefully and with innumerable successes to its name. In fact, it has been behind the design of many iconic products of the last few decades, from Apple computers to the world's first disposable camera from Fuji. Over time Autodesk has built on the success of AutoCAD, developing cutting edge software solutions for its customers, including Autodesk Inventor - today the world's number one selling 3D design software.

If only Walker had known, on that stormy Californian night as he got frustrated with the limiting lines and circles. One day he'd be able realise his ideas as a life-like 3D model, change it around at will and know that everything would co-ordinate, rotate it and animate the mechanisms, run off bills of materials and feed this into further systems.

But hindsight is a wonderful thing. When a group of dedicated individuals from a full-service computer company, Marinchip, decided to branch out, they couldn't decide which way to jump. Their main aim was to create software to run on IBM's new PC platform but they were uncertain which horse to back. Autodesk was the name of a simple office software system. Was this the future - or should they concentrate on their other great hope, MicroCAD, a primitive, but promising, automated drafting package?

Then what about a name for the company? Should it be Integrity Software, Future Ware or even (was this really a serious suggestion?) Coders of the Lost Spark? These are all down in the records as possible contenders. Thankfully history took its course; Autodesk was born and AutoCAD was demonstrated at Comdex to rave reviews. After only a couple of years, by 1985, AutoCAD had become the most widely installed CAD system with 17,000 installed seats and the company went public the same year.

Now people tend to refer to AutoCAD releases as if they were old friends: "Do you remember release 13? That was a funny one - 14 was good though.. " and so on. This is only confused by changes in the numbering system - from versions 2.5, 2.6 etc to release numbers in 1987 and to dates (AutoCAD 2000, 2001) in 1999.

The software really began to be user-friendly by release 2.5 (1986) and by the following year version 2.6 had elementary 3D commands. In the US, these were famous (or should that be notorious?) for the hardware lock crisis.

The hardware lock was designed to prevent software piracy. However, to say this didn't go down well with analysts and the press is an understatement. As ever, Autodesk listened to the market and quickly removed the lock on the next version. Piracy, however, continues to grow and is a major problem.

With the dawn of the 1990s, Autodesk was working closely with Microsoft to achieve the right performance in the Windows operating system. By the end of the decade, its policy of providing 'vertical' solutions for the different core industries was well on the way with the introduction of Inventor in 1999.

It's arguable that 3D modelling and Inventor have had just as much impact on design as AutoCAD. The first revolutionary advance has been parametric modelling technology, which ensures that if one dimension is changed anywhere in the model, everything else, including the relevant documentation, is revised accordingly.

This has been key to great leaps in productivity for those using the software - it's not uncommon for customers to say that it enables them to work anywhere between 25 - 50% faster than they did before. You could also say that it helps design better products, as you can experiment with ideas without having to delete the whole file and start again.

But now Inventor is evolving further to ensure designers maximise the value of the data produced as part of the modelling process. Data management is becoming a major issue as manufacturers begin to recognise the value of a seamless transfer of data throughout the workflow - from front-end configuration through to production and maintenance.

Yes, we've certainly come a long way from those brave - but unsophisticated - lines and circles of the early 1980s. We're now talking about making design data available across an entire organisation - confident talk but perfect sense.

"If this fails, I will lose everything I've made for all the work I've done since 1977," wrote John Walker in 1982. In the summer of last year, Autodesk passed the $1 billion mark in revenue.
There's no doubt AutoCAD has come of age.

*Taken from The Autodesk Files by John Walker

From AutoCAD version 1 to Inventor 11

With more than 500,000 seats sold, Autodesk Inventor software is obviously the favoured next step for AutoCAD users. The latest version, Inventor 11 includes many new features including:

Dynamic Simulation enabling designers to determine how effectively a machine performs under real world conditions. This takes virtual prototypes to a new level, helping designers predict dynamic performance and peak stress without physical prototypes

Large Assembly Management provides greater control in configuring how much model data is loaded into memory. It also includes a capacity meter to monitor memory consumption

Assembly Configurations for designing and documenting families of related products in a single assembly file. Configurations simplify design with tools for defining product variations from a master model

Advanced Shape Description for creating cast and moulded parts that meet aesthetic and ergonomic design requirements. Includes tools to create complex geometry by combining solids and surfaces, and enhanced analysis tools for design validation.

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