Autodesk and DATRON – Adapting to the Changing Workforce
It can be challenging for a research and design company, a company with limited fabricating experience or a start-up to implement a manufacturing discipline. Even the most experienced manufacturers face obstacles at times going from inspiration to parts in hand. Changes in technology, software, and the workforce that interfaces with them are changing. Autodesk recognized these challenges and created four Autodesk Technology Centers, based at Pier 9 in San Francisco, as well as Boston, Toronto, and Birmingham, UK, to help support the design and manufacturing community. These innovation hubs provide physical spaces for both internal and external research teams to explore new design and make possibilities. The internal researchers support a variety of fields such as robotics and design with external teams—who take up residencies in the Autodesk Research Outsight Network—comprised of academics, startups, and industry leaders. “We typically look for teams that are working within or adjacent to the industries we serve, so that would be architecture, engineering, construction, design and manufacturing, and media and entertainment.” states Orion Beach, Research & Design Engineer at the Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco.
Autodesk facilitates between 100 – 150 teams or projects that consist of about 1,000 residents that make up the Autodesk Research Outsight Network, globally at one time. “It is my job to scout and recruit for resident teams to join the Outsight Network.” adds Angie Foss, Strategic Relationship Development Manager of Research Network at Autodesk. “What’s nice is residency is an open program, so anyone can apply. We do have a website that has an application process. So, we do get teams, who somehow have heard of us, applying from word of mouth or maybe stumbled across our website. And then myself and my [Autodesk Research Network] team are also out there looking for teams that are aligned with the kind of areas and thematic topics that we are really interested in internally. We are looking for companies that are getting ahead of the curve and doing innovative work.” Autodesk does a combination of evaluating online applicants along with their proactive work looking for emerging technologies they would like to get involved with to determine their residents.
Finding The Right CNC Machine
The Autodesk Technology Center in San Francisco offers an abundance of manufacturing technologies such as traditional or manual equipment, subtractive machines including, mills, saws, lathes, lasers, and additive machines such as 3D printers. The shop that Orion manages has a variety of CNC equipment because Autodesk supports a broad spectrum of machines and capabilities serving both prototyping and their own research needs. They use the facility to make things, testing new additions, capabilities or workflows to their software, Fusion 360. The Pier 9-based facility has a dual purpose in supporting company innovation projects and testing their own software products that support the research, design, and manufacturing community.
One of the pieces of CNC equipment at the Technology Center is the DATRON neo. Orion explains “The DATRON neo fits a great little niche for us. It’s our highest spindle speed machine that goes up to 40,000 rpm. It has a relatively large working volume with an integrated vacuum table and permeable card system along with a touch screen control that makes iterating prototypes quick and super easy. You can usually set it up in about five minutes after you have your CAM program. We use it a lot for making parts for integrating into our different systems and machines. I think one of my favorite features is when you’re doing the parts setup and you’re running out touch probe routine and one of the probing cycles goes just outside of the travel of the machine. It will ask if you want to adapt that point inside the travel and you can answer that prompt yes and it will go as far as it can and then come in and touch the side which is great. It’s adapting the program intent to match what you want and it’s such a time saver as opposed to having to go back and re-edit every little touch point to be inside the travel of the machine.”
The DATRON Neo: Ease of Use
You can imagine it must be challenging to train and qualify users within the internship on all the various pieces of technology. For example, many of the residents at the Technology Center in San Francisco have never touched a CNC machine before. “Internally we have a training pathway. That includes some CAM training and some on-machine training, some skill check along the way and making some kind of part relatively independently.” explains Orion. “The goal is to take someone from not being able to use the machine to using the machine independently and safely as quickly as possible. We can usually accomplish this in a couple weeks with regularly scheduled training, but it’s possible to even squeeze all of this into a single week of training. The DATRON neo is the quickest that I’ve seen for taking inexperienced, interested folks, and getting them onto a machine”. One of the other challenges the Technology Center faces is that machine tools can be quite daunting to a new user. “I think CNC shops can be quite intimidating to folks who don’t come from that background. The neo and the interface feel so much more familiar to individuals who’ve never used a CNC machine. I think it’s also the size of it. The neo looks quite different than a typical CNC Mill, so it’s nice for newbies and we get a lot of those”. It is typical in a residency program you would have teams of designers outsourcing their parts.
At the Technology Center, teams do their prototyping right here and through that design process to prototyping, they often iterate on their design because of the things they learn producing it themselves. “I think our ability to get them on the equipment quickly is very powerful and then I think machines like the DATRON neo just are so much more accessible to folks who don’t have a background” explains Orion. “I also think there’s some stigma around manufacturing. I was discouraged away from the manufacturing track. You don’t want to be in a greasy, dirty, dim shop. The neo can run in an office environment with a low pile carpeted and well-lit space. The neo operates with its misted, oilless coolant system that allows this. You can wear your nice polo shirt and walk out grease free. I think a lot has changed in manufacturing where it’s starting to become more of a cleaner environment with automation and parts getting smaller in general too. Manufacturers are trending towards a cleaner environment and 3D printing is a big part of that change”.
An example of one of the residents at the Technology Center is a company called Raise Robotics. This start-up is developing a robotic system that would install brackets and fasteners, securing façade panels on the exterior of large commercial buildings. The objective is this robotic system would perform the work faster, more securely and safer than traditional manual labor methods. They do about 90% of their research and development at the Pier. Angie explains “Raise is doing some novel work with the industrialization of construction using their robotic product and system that impacts the safety on a job site. When a resident team initially joins the Outsight Network, they sign a participation agreement which is good for one year. Some teams’ project scope might only require residency for six months, or four months being the shortest. Raise have been great residents and seeing their progress means we will likely renew with the team for another year, so Raise will have been a resident for almost two years.”
One of the Outsight Network residents with Raise Robotics at the Technology Center in San Francisco is Ansel Chan, a Hardware Engineer. One of the types of parts that Ansel made on the DATRON neo is called an end effector, which allows the robot to grab components and then place them where they need to be for the panel installation. Ansel explains “These components can range from bolts to little spring washers to nuts or those large brackets that we need to install. Sometimes when we need those tiny little fingers to grab nuts and bolts, it’s kind of hard for the larger CNC machines to get that precision that we need. So, we do like using the Neo for that tiny intricate work”. Orion also adds “Some of those small inside corner radiuses that you have on some of your parts requires dropping down to very small tool sizes. So, the intricacy of these holding mechanisms that you’re designing and making, really require the high-speed spindle to make them”.
The DATRON and Autodesk Combination
The program to train a resident on equipment is called Pathways. “I also did the CNC Pathways here at Autodesk and I went from someone who has never seen a CNC machine before to being on the machine and making parts in less than a month.” remarks Ansel. One month is a short timeline to learn a CAM software system, a CNC machine, and the skillsets such as cutting tools methodology and how to secure your part. This workflow also proves how efficient and seamless Fusion 360 works with the DATRON system. “One thing that I also really like about the DATRON that makes it really approachable is, that it doesn’t have a whole lot of buttons. A lot of the other CNC’s have this large layout, you have no idea what to do. But even though the DATRON doesn’t have a lot of traditional buttons on the control panel, you can still find ways to do everything that I’ve wanted it to do. I don’t feel lost, I don’t feel overwhelmed, I feel very comfortable” comments Ansel. “Often, I’ll get asked the question what my favorite machine in the shop is and it’s a very easy answer, I love the DATRON neo. You know, it’s my favorite machine because it’s so easy to use. It’s the one that I would want in my garage. It’s by far the most elegant machine” elaborates Ansel.
Raise Robotics has been a great example of the success of the Autodesk Technology Centers. “They have been great residents and it’s always fun to see their progress. We are very supportive and love to hear their milestone updates” remarks Orion. He goes onto explain “We also do community events, like idea exchanges. Sometimes we’ll feature a team with our Research Connections presentation series, which are Zoom calls where anyone internal to Autodesk can participate, including all our resident teams. So, it can be a really nice way for teams to exchange information”. Between resident engagement and the Research Connections calls, Autodesk is in constant contact with the research and design community.
As you can imagine, a lot of these projects have sensitive or intellectual property concerns. Autodesk takes a different approach and calls it open innovation. In their participation agreement, it’s very clearly outlined that this is an open space. Autodesk does not take any IP from any of the resident teams. It is up to the residents to protect that or share wherever they’re comfortable sharing. “The resident teams often get out of the program what they put into it. So, teams who can share a little more or do more collaboration tend to have a great time, like Raise Robotics. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments where a startup, for example, is in a little bit of a stealth mode” comments Orion. “The Technology Centers really are research facilities in a space to support teams like Raise Robotics and help them work through their challenges and push forward for the industries that they serve.”
The other purpose the Autodesk Technology Centers support is helping Autodesk test and develop their software platform Fusion 360. The Autodesk Technology Centers are a resource for internal product teams to do development work. Autodesk’s research division, where the Technology Centers are based, is looking five to ten years out into the future of design and make industries, including projects around automation and robotics. Orion elaborates “We’ve been doing development work in several areas. One that I’ve been working on is hybrid manufacturing and hot wire deposition. We have been building out the hot wire deposition features and post processors using the Pier 9 facility. We also have been prototyping some of our adaptations for the machine and data collection using the neo. Just last week we made a weld camera mount to mount in our hot wire deposition machine so that we could monitor the additive welding process. I instantly turned to the DATRON neo to make up a quick mount for this weld camera and got it done in just a couple hours”.
The other important part of the Fusion 360 development for Autodesk is building the various CNC machine post processors. There are hundreds of CNC machines on the market that utilize Fusion 360 that require custom integration. The quality of the post processor is vital for the success and integration within the manufacturing workspace. Orion gives the example “The DATRON post for Fusion 360 is very mature. It hands off a lot of data to the Datron controller. Like, what tools are being used, the size of stock, the parts, the operations that all gets handed off from Fusion 360 through the post processor to the Datron control. It’s very seamless going through the cam wizard on the Datron control. It all loads in and auto-populates all those fields automatically, and that’s only possible because we use the DATRON so much here at the Technology Center in San Francisco and have used it for so long.” It is critical to select the right machine and software for your needs but the post processor that links the two is also a vital part to evaluate, as it can save hundreds of hours and reduce errors during the workflow process.
Looking to the Future of The Manufacturing Industry
Some of the challenges manufacturers will face over the next five to ten years is not just integrating the best hardware and software options for their process but adopting the right environment for the future workforce. Angie explains “We are on an interesting transition with things like generative AI, vision systems and robotics. Human tasks are going to change. We publish research on workforce talent as it relates to manufacturing and other industries. There will be a lot of retirees, so there is a new workforce coming up. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of DATRON and where it is going. I think these types of changes are a significant difference in developing that new workforce and looking for where things can be automated.”
The way a manufacturing facility is configured is going to influence the type of workforce talent it can hire. Orion shares an interesting insight, “I graduated with a machine tool technology degree with eight other graduates. There were 700 engineering transfer students the same year. That’s just a microcosm of academia of one year at one junior college. There were hundreds of engineers versus less than 10 folks doing manufacturing as a focus. If you multiply that by how many educational institutes there are, over many years, you can see where this talent gap is going to continue to grow. That’s why the DATRON, being so intuitive that you don’t have to be a machinist to run it, will close that gap”.
Manufacturing is going to experience a lot of change in the next five to ten years. The main driver of this change will not be trying to increase profits or trying to make different kinds of parts, it will be the workforce we have to manufacture them. Arenas such as the Autodesk Technology Centers and how we interface with production technology like the DATRON machines are changing the future of manufacturing. These forward-thinking advancements will pave the way for the next generation.
The Autodesk Research team left to right: Kimia Farahnak, Angie Foss, Adam Allard, Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough, Noa Kaplan, Orion Beach and Ian Kimmerly.
By Bill King, President of Datron Dynamics, Inc.
Autodesk’s mission is to empower innovators with design and make technology so they can achieve the new possible
Autodesk recognized the challenges of the ever-changing manufacturing industry and created four Autodesk Technology Centers to help support the design and manufacturing community.