A look at Autodesk University 2004.

"Autodesk is a company that listens," said Autodesk Vice President Chris Bradshaw at the 12th annual Autodesk University event. And it seems that others are listening to Autodesk as well. Autodesk University 2004, held November 30 to December 3 at the MGM Grand Conference Center in Las Vegas, welcomed 4,500 attendees-a 30 percent increase over 2003.

A company that can claim a 30 percent increase in show attendance in the era of the "Goldilocks"* market is highly significant. Of course, Autodesk is not the "new kid on the block." The company is now more than 20 years old, and Computer Assisted Design (and/or Drafting) replaced the T-square and drafting table in most organizations quite a few years back.

Still, the company reports an impressive 20 percent increase in sales for 2004 and describes its product suite as "hotter than ever."

Autodesk University is advertised as "The Premier Autodesk Learning and Networking Event," and its mission statement, as described by the ebullient Mr. Bradshaw is, "to have users spend less time learning to use AutoCAD and more time designing."

Indeed, there is much that one can learn at Autodesk University. There are more than 300 sessions encompassing the whole spectrum of Autodesk products. At the 2004 event, more of the sessions were hands-on labs, allowing attendees the opportunity to work on the same exercises the instructors performed. A good deal of the material covered at the conference is made available on the Internet shortly after the conference concludes. That gives attendees a second opportunity at sessions missed, or a chance to review some of those attended.

The keynote speaker at the 2004 Autodesk University was Dean Kamen, inventor of the Segway Human Transporter, the world's first dynamic self-balancing electric-powered transportation machine, which works seamlessly with the body's movements. The Segway itself was on display in the Exhibit Hall where the Autodesk University sponsors and more than 70 other vendors had their latest offerings on display. Kamen's keynote topic was the decline in the interest of the sciences in America. He noted that 3.4 million engineers are graduated in China and India annually, compared to a mere 62,000 new engineer graduates in the United States in 2003, as an example.

Kamen's solution to this lag is mentoring. His company, DEKA Research, sponsors an annual robotics competition for high school students. The FIRST (For Inspiration & Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotic Competi-tion is a worldwide mentorship program. According to Kamen, "It's about learning to want to learn. Yes, there is a competition. But the competition is designed to be fun. It places students on teams with mentors, many of whom are affiliated with universities." The competition also awards $4.5 million in scholarships.

Conventional wisdom highlighted during the conference is that the building and construction industries are now the hot segments of the economy. And Autodesk has honed its message to address specific issues in this market area. Historically, activities in the building and construction spheres have been overburdened and often hamstrung over a dependency on what technical types refer to as "low value analog products." (Regular folk call these paper documents.) One of the "factoids" proffered was positing that "it would take four 747s to carry the documents necessary to get one constructed."

The familiar DWF (Design Web Format), Autodesk's contribution to reduce the flow in the office paper mill, allows a CAD designer to distribute and share his design data digitally. The DWF has been around for a couple of years, but the latest version can be rendered in 2D or 3D, and distributed in all standard digital formats.

During an interview with Chris Bradshaw, I accepted his premise that Autodesk is responsive to its user base. I asked him to elaborate a bit on the process. He noted that besides the online help users can access from within the drawing document, Autodesk programmers monitor a number of websites that deal with engineering, mapping and design. The product issues that generate the most discussion get the most attention by product developers in subsequent releases. This proves the concept that Autodesk is a company that listens.

Stay tuned for more Autodesk-related news in future issues. Autodesk University 2005 will be held November 28-December 1 in Orlando, Fla. Michael L. Binge, LS, provided this report.

*Market analysts describe this market condition as "Not too hot, not too cold."