“Only a handful of months ago, this whole thing was only an idea, and at times what seemed like a really crazy idea,” said Autodesk president and CEO Carl Bass. “Now it is the envy of everybody’s workshops.”
The leader of the San Rafael, CA-based design software maker was speaking last week at the official opening his company’s newest facility, a state-of-the-art fabrication workshop on San Francisco’s Pier 9.
A stone’s throw from the new Exploratorium, the workshop is designed to serve as a showcase and idea laboratory for Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK), while at the same time boosting efforts to bring more high-tech businesses to San Francisco’s historic Port district.
The 27,000-square-foot facility, which occupies the southern half of the pier, features a 3D printing lab, a fleet of huge computer-controlled rapid-prototyping machines, metal and wood shops, and office and conference space. It’s also the new home for Autodesk’s consumer products group, as well as an advanced research group in synthetic biology and nanotechnology.
“This is what the Port has always wanted—to get more innovation to the waterfront,” said San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee, who assisted Bass in a “ribbon grinding” ceremony marking the workshop’s debut. This being Autodesk, cutting a fabric ribbon with the usual big gold scissors would have been too easy. Instead, Bass donned safety glasses and sliced through a steel ribbon with a power saw. (See the slide show above.)
A large fraction of the objects manufactured using the latest generation of 3D-printing or fabrication software are designed using Autodesk programs like AutoCAD or 123D Design, 123D Make, or 123D Sculpt. Strangely enough, though, Autodesk itself never owned the right equipment to test out this process in-house.
That was a big part of the rationale for building the new workshop, Bass says. At the same time, the company needed a better home for Instructables, the how-to site for makers that Autodesk acquired in 2011, and for the teams behind the free 123D consumer apps.
“Yes, the Instructables people needed a shop, but at the same time we realized that Autodesk employees wanted access to this kind of stuff, and that we were doing a big business in manufacturing and making software to drive these machines,” Bass tells Xconomy. “So it just blossomed. One day we have a laser printer and a hot plate and the next thing you know we have eight 3D printers and five laser cutters and four CNC [computer numerical control] machines that fill up a room.”
Bass himself is one of the first users of the facility, which was completed several months ago. He and his son have been using the metal shop to build a go-cart. A coffee-table base that Bass designed was on display inside one of the company’s laser-cutting machines. A longtime sculptor and furniture builder, Bass is known informally inside Autodesk as the company’s “chief maker.”
“Carl was instrumental in helping us choose the equipment that is here, and I can assure you that [he] is quite capable of operating everything in this shop,” said Chris Bradshaw, Autodesk’s chief marketing officer, at the opening ceremony.
For Eric Wilhelm, the MIT-trained co-founder of Squid Labs who went on to start Instructables in 2005, the new facility is a huge improvement over his old digs: a cramped, cluttered office on the second floor of an old building on 2nd Street in SoMa.
“I saw an opportunity and I went for it big,” says Wilhelm. “This started out as, ‘Hey, let’s upgrade our shop a little bit,’ and as we got more excitement throughout the organization, it eventually turned into what will be one of the world’s best creative shops.”
Autodesk had three specific reasons to invest in the new workshop and the expensive machines inside, Wilhelm says.
“Number one, hardware-software interfaces are becoming more important to our business, and we needed deep, hands-on experience dealing with those, making sure our software and [other companies’] hardware work well together,” he says.
Secondly, Autodesk wanted a demonstration space where it could showcase the new technologies and their products. For instance, the room with Autodesk’s new laser cutter, metal milling machines, and water jet cutter features a second-story catwalk where visitors can peer down and watch artists and technicians at work.
Finally, says Wilhelm, “We wanted to push boundaries. Through our artists-in-residence program, artists can come in and use these machines. The cool thing is that because they don’t know the limitations of the machines, they are going to do things that we didn’t know were possible.”
“I’m hoping to have all kinds of projects that make us think and inspire us as a company,” Wilhelm says.
Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy.