Pradeep Nair , managing director, India and SAARC, Autodesk, talks to Fortune India about how the design and services company is integrating automation with design and helping the industry move towards generative design, offsite manufacturing, and 3D printing .
How is Autodesk trying to reinvent design?
Our customers are from five broad industries: architecture, engineering, construction, manufacturing, and visual effects. We help design professionals in these spaces reimagine design. Essentially, what we are saying is if you have an idea in your head of building a physical object like a car or a building, we help take what’s an idea and create a design to make it real virtually before you actually build it. We take what’s in your imagination and make it. So, traditionally we used to play, strictly speaking, in the design space. What we’re now doing is, we’re not stopping with design, we’ll help you make it too. So, as an example, take something that the government talks a lot about, housing for all. It wants to build about 20 million houses by 2022. That’s a huge goal. Now, the fact is that even if you had the resources, it’s an almost impossible goal to achieve unless we are talking about changing the way things are built in the first place.
What is generative design? How can it be applied in the Indian context?
It has use cases in transforming India’s auto and manufacturing industry and moving beyond prototyping. For instance, you are designing a car seat. The seat needs to be safe and have a certain amount of rigidity. If more metal than required is used, the weight goes up and it would need more fuel and the price of the car goes up. You need to have just enough metal so that the seat performs its functions and is optimised for weight at the same time. Autodesk allows you to run a series of simulations which test the seat for performance and tolerance. It enables one to explore the entire solution space. This is what we call generative design. Traditionally, as a designer, I had to design the entire process in my head, then use the software to iterate it one by one. Now I’ll tell the software that these are the levels of constraints, these tolerances. And the software will do it. Now you are exploring the entire solution space and coming out with the one that has ideal characteristics that you want. And you marry this with things such as 3D printing which enable you to make it in ways that were not possible in traditional manufacturing.
In traditional manufacturing, you need a blueprint and a design to visualise how it looks. What is Autodesk doing differently?
If you look at traditional construction, the architect will design and would send it to the client. Then you would call people doing various parts of design like the structural engineer, a consultant for electrical, plumbing, wiring etc. together on site and discover all the clashes on site. Hence, a lot of rework. The design industry has a common phrase called ‘clash detection’ because multiple stakeholders are responsible for the design. All of that is eliminated because you work off one single 3D reference model like in Google Docs.
Would things like artificial intelligence-based generative design and 3D printing lead to job losses in India as speculated?
I think it is rather more complementary. You are passing more and more of assembly line work to the software. It does the heavy lifting. And a designer is exposed to ideas that he/she might not have thought of. You are operating at a higher level of obstruction as a designer. As designers, we have evolved from doing more manual labour to more creative, more intuitive kind of things like making choices about materials to be used and aesthetics rather than the physical geometry, while technology takes care of the mechanical aspect. There will be more skill-based jobs. You are now uniquely positioned to make decisions as designers.
What are some of your success stories in India?
For example, we have a customer called KEF Infra. It has taken the construction process and turned it on its head. What happens typically when you build a house—you take a piece of land, get a whole bunch of material there and build it there. But KEF builds a factory for components of buildings. It is treating construction like manufacturing. It manufactures parts of buildings, brings them to the site and assembles them on the site. The process enables it to do this really quickly with a lot less waste and pollution. But it all starts from design. We help it build a digital model of the building. So, parts like doors, windows, partitions, walls, etc. are created separately and assembled on the site. It is now building a huge mall and expects to finish it in 21 months. This is offsite manufacturing. Indira canteens, a chain of subsidised fast-food joints in Bengaluru, were built in the same way in just a few months.
What are the design opportunities for you in India in the near future?
A lot of things that India wants to do such as ‘Make in India’—this whole idea of transforming how things are made in India traditionally. Our vision for smart cities is cities that are better designed, better planned. If you start from planning, you can come up with design alternatives that lead to much better outcomes. Essentially, it’s taking an idea and designing it better. Like in the BandraKurla Complex (in Mumbai), the government decided to build cycle tracks but nobody could use them as there are drains on the sides of the roads. So, we lost one foot of space on both sides of the road. It was a very smart idea but couldn’t be implemented because it wasn’t planned well. That’s where we think is the opportunity for India to solve its problems through better design and India can become the design centre of the world if we design in India before thinking ‘Make in India’