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Autodesk Develops Own Kernel?

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by MARTYN DAY, editor, CADserver

September 30, 2001

In a surprise move, Autodesk announced that it was going to develop the next generation of modeling kernel for its design products (AutoCAD, MDT, ADT, 3D Studio, Inventor etc.), outside of its existing relationship with Spatial for its ACIS kernel. To do this the company was going to exercise its contractual right to take a perpetual license of the current version of the ACIS, for a fee, and do its own kernel development work from here on in.

The MCAD market splits into two camps, those that develop their own kernel - PTC, VX, think3, etc. and those that use 'components' from third parties - SolidWorks (Parasolid), Autodesk (ACIS), ImpactXoft (ACIS) etc. The last two years have seen a consolidation within the market, with the mighty Dassault Systemes purchase Spatial and EDS, (formerly UGS and SDRC) promoting its Parasolid kernel through Solid Edge, Unigraphics and other products.

The mid-range modeling market has become a highly competitive area, with two main contenders, Autodesk and SolidWorks, battling it out in a do or die struggle. SolidWorks has the lead having had a head start, although Autodesk's Inventor is hot on its heels, with both companies being hungry for new features to get the upper hand. In a bold move, which will add substantially to its R&D costs, Autodesk has decided to freeze ACIS at the version they currently use and take on development of new features within the company.

To understand the ramifications of this move it's probably helpful to know a little of Autodesk's history. Back in the early nineties, one of the major advances in AutoCAD R13 was the inclusion of Spatial's ACIS solid modeling kernel, providing 3D solid modeling capability into what was, at that time, a 2D product. The decision to put ACIS in AutoCAD was part of a larger plan for Autodesk to 'verticalize' and develop products of each of it's core markets, the inclusion of ACIS was a symbol of the company's intent to develop a solid modeling solution for the MCAD market. The result of this was Mechanical Desktop (MDT), which provided tailored functionality to move users from 2D to creating 3D parts and assemblies. To really compete with the PTCs and SolidWorks of the world, Autodesk decided to develop a new modeler based on the vastly improved ACIS engine and Inventor was borne.

By signing up with ACIS, Autodesk was instantly Spatial's biggest customer and pretty much had the Spatial developers catering to its feature wishes, driving the modeling kernel's rapid enhancement. The CEO of Spatial at that time, Bruce Morgan, told me that Dominic Gallello (the VP of MCAD at Autodesk at the time) was a tough customer but his demands helped drive the ACIS development.

"The industry pondered what this would mean for Autodesk to be a customer of one of its biggest competitors"

A year ago, Spatial and ACIS came up for sale, to fund the CEO's vision of a web services company with model healing technology, called PlanetCAD. Morgan told me that the sale of Spatial was essential as aggressive competition from UGS's Parasolid business group had reduced the margins of kernel sales considerably.

With a copy of ACIS in nearly every professional Autodesk product, many expected Autodesk to purchase Spatial but this did not happen, instead Dassault System's, owners of Inventor's biggest rival, SolidWorks, bought up the company and the technology. The industry pondered what this would mean for Autodesk to be a customer of one of its biggest competitors. At the time Autodesk said that it did not want to get into the kernel business and so buying Spatial was not an option. But now, only a year and a half later, Autodesk announces it's developing its own kernel, still insisting 'it's not in a kernel business'.

Conference call

Robert Kross, VP of MCAD at Autodesk explained the reasons behind the move in a conference call to journalists. The new kernel technology will be called ShapeManager and will be based on ACIS 7. To assist in the development of the kernel, Autodesk has recruited a team of rocket scientists from Cambridge (which is a hotbed of geometry development), together with the assistance of D-Cubed (also in Cambridge), who used to work for Spatial.

Despite my haranguing, Kross was adamant that Autodesk was not getting into 'the kernel business', stating that the Autodesk developments will not be licensed to any other company but did say that the technology would be deployed in other Autodesk products, namely, AutoCAD, ADT, MDT and 3D Studio. As all these products feature ACIS anyway the benefits of developing on top of ACIS meant that there was no migration problems between products. So, Autodesk definition that it isn't in the 'kernel business' means that it's not in the solid modeling kernel component business, competing against ACIS and Parasolid.

The decision to be in control of its own kernel development was made because Autodesk feels that it can make more rapid improvements to the engine than Spatial. As it stands, Spatial develops in its own timeframe, with Kross highlighting that Inventor 5 came out a month before ACIS 7, which was a missed opportunity. The first task for the team will be to get better performance from ACIS, together with the ability to handle more complex parts, with more shape descriptions. Kross indicated that the installed base was rapidly moving to 3D and it made sense for Autodesk to be in control of its core 3D technology.

When Autodesk first signed a deal with Spatial, it included a clause that would allow Autodesk, for a price, to walk away with the current version of the ACIS kernel as a perpetual license to do what it wanted. Obviously, Autodesk decided to execute that clause and has spent considerable sums to buy the license and recruit some of the top developers in the field.

I asked what this meant for data transfer and Kross said that he wanted to rapidly enhance the kernel and to guarantee forward and backward compatibility would be too limiting. Support for the ACIS 7 version of the SAT file format 'is a given' but no promises could be provided moving forward. Autodesk has been working separately on its own surfacing technology which should be in the next release of Inventor and this deal should not impact on that.

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