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I spoke with Autodesk’s Matt Berggren about the company’s Fusion 360 EDA tool and the new capabilities added to the software. Matt explains how Fusion 360 blends ECAD and MCAD functionality in one environment and at an affordable price, and why he believes it will help round out Autodesk's electronic portfolio with end-to-end capabilities.
Andy Shaughnessy: Matt, you’re the director of the Fusion 360 platform, as well as EAGLE and Tinkercad with Autodesk. Give us some background on yourself and the company.
Matt Berggren: I joined Autodesk about four years ago. I came into the company to build out an electronic design portfolio and a collection of tools that we would ultimately integrate into the design and manufacturing tool suite for the company. If you look at electronics design and manufacturing, it’s the next most obvious adjacency for a company that owns the CNC machining market and3D printing market. We have some experience with geometry, going all the way back to the days of AutoCAD.
The obvious evolution for mechanical design in manufacturing is to start looking more holistically at the product. What’s the physical product that somebody is trying to build? That’s what we would consider being surface modeling, creating shapes and things that entice people but are also ergonomic and make things easy to use and carry. The other side of that, which I think we had to recognize as a company, is that it’s about electronics and electrical intelligence that go into those things. I’d spent a better part of 13 years at Altium. I was at Accel EDA before that with the P-CAD team, so this is not my first rodeo building electronics design software, to say the least.
Shaughnessy: You look younger than most EDA guys, though.
Berggren: I’m a heck of a lot closer to 50 than I am to 40. The thing that stood out to me coming into the company was that the whole breadth of the portfolio in mechanical design because we have tools for CNC machining and from building injection molded parts. Coming into the company, it was very obvious to me that these people know geometry. We made a few strategic acquisitions to establish ourselves kind of in the market. We acquired EAGLE several years ago as a carve-out from Premier Farnell. We looked at the technology stack there and said, “It may be about wanting great routing features or more sophisticated high-speed rules or things like that, but as far as the share of market or voice, it’s huge.”
Shaughnessy: EAGLE has a lot of fans. I’ve told a few EAGLE users that they’re like a cult, and they chuckle.
Berggren: Yes, we acquired EAGLE from CadSoft, and that community is loyal, excited, enthusiastic, and passionate. I come into the company and ask, “What would happen if you had that community, and you started to build out the capabilities, functionalities, the features that we’ve added to these other packages?” I mean the X nets, lengths of differential pairs, series terminations, the sketch routing capabilities, and all of those things. If you ask me tomorrow how to build those, I can tell you. But if you told me, “How do I engage a community of millions and millions of people?” I would tell you I have no idea how to do that. I’m an electrical engineer, and I’m socially awkward. In a room of more than 10 people, I’m the one person in the corner talking to himself.
Shaughnessy: Fusion 360 was around for years as an MCAD package.
Berggren: Correct—mechanical design and manufacturing. One of the things that Fusion is best known for is the ability to drive multi-axis CNC machine equipment. It has great 3D printing tools, latticing tools, and a good surface modeling environment for industrial design. It’s probably one of the most beloved tools by industrial designers because it allows for good pushing and pulling of pixels. That environment is so much more oriented towards sculpting than it is drawing rectangular shapes and adding a chamfer to the edge.
It has great tools for industrial design. But over the course of the last seven years, there has been enormous investment in thermal simulation. The reference example I use for my team is a baby monitor. It has all of the complexity of contemporary design, much more than switches and routers. You have real safety issues and concerns that can stop a product from getting to market. For instance, if the surface of that is 50°C, you don’t want it hanging over the side of the crib. At the same time, you can send video wirelessly from one place to another. There are the FCC, CE, and UL certifications both for safety as well as general usage and reliability. You also have security considerations because you’re sending images to your phone.
Our position is to step into that consumer product space and round out the electronic portfolio so that end-to-end, you can both design and manufacture something that has a real awareness for all of the problems that today systematically we don’t have the good connectivity to facilitate. A good case in point is the inner exchange in classical ECAD, MCAD: Step model file exchange going one way and then going the other way. The same is true with IDF and DXF.
Shaughnessy: Totally dumb data.
Berggren: Right, but it also completely ignores that mechanical design, which shifted to parametric modeling 10–15 years ago; that means that there’s a timeline dependency. Events happen; there’s an origin, which origin drives a downstream outcome. I create a sketch, extrude, and change the sketch, extrusion, and geometry. That sketch was created to accommodate a circuit board and also has an outer geometry to it. We have linked those things together: component position, board shape, and the sketch that drives the mechanical geometry.
The other direction with it is also equally important. Now, if I move a component in three-dimensional space, can you rip up and reroute the final connections into that part because I jogged the USB connector to the left by 20 mils? The tool can do that now. Ripping up and rerouting that last little leg in the journey is not a big deal. Is that wholesale autorouting? No, but you don’t get that until you start looking at the integration. It’s been my magnum opus, but it’s been a labor of love for my team over the course of the last 18 months.
Shaughnessy: People have been talking about MCAD and ECAD tools converging for years. Are these two environments that are integrated into one?
Berggren: It’s a single environment—not even integrated, but a single environment in which the data model is continuous through the pipeline. There’s one representation in the data. It’s shared at every level. It doesn’t preclude you from bringing in a model from something else or stop you from bringing in a step model from here or board shape from that tool. All of those capabilities still exist today. But the pipeline is designed to facilitate all of those new workflows that come from exactly that. And I’m guilty of some of these things because I worked in the product teams at those companies. Everything up until this point that people have talked about with ECAD, MCAD is about visualization.
In our case, we can do 60 frames a second on a six-layer board with fully extruded copper, negative extrude on the solder mask, and apply real material properties to the copper. Not pictures or pixels but real material properties that have an appearance that has ambient occlusion and lighting and all these other characteristics; they also carry with them all of the hard material science behind it that allows you to do real analysis on that data. That only happens when you optimize at the mechanical side to be able to deal with that much geometry. It has the full ability to highlight those individual segments; likewise, if I want to throw it onto a CNC machine and CNC a prototype, I can do it.
Shaughnessy: Will a PCB designer be able to start doing layout on Fusion 360, like they were using Mentor or Altium or whatever? Is it the same sort of interface?
Berggren: Yes. It offers PCB layout, multi-track routing, differential pairs, etc. It’s evolving extremely quickly because we’ve assembled the who’s who of talent from across the industry to drive this forward.
Shaughnessy: It outputs a Gerber file?
Berggren: Absolutely. There’s a web-based representation of things. There are mechanical drawings of the circuit board itself. All of the dimensioning tools that you expect from something like AutoCAD, which—for years—has been the gold standard as far as mechanical drawings. But we didn’t skimp on the PCB design capability. Over the course of this year, we’ll address all of the gaps that we need to on the critical path to replacing those tools. And the company is well poised to do it, with a highly diversified, broad product portfolio.
We’ve established a good team of exceptional geometers and engineers and physicists and scientists and mathematicians. And it all landed at a company that has all of the resources to solve complex problems. I’ve not been more excited to take on a challenge. I explained to my team that this had been a race to the start line. The marathon starts now, but we know what we need to do. We’ve done it before. We know how to win this.
Shaughnessy: What price point are we talking about?
Berggren: It’s $500 a year annualized subscription. For anything that starts to get into the bleeding edge of simulation where you need heavy compute power, we have the cloud backend to be able to facilitate that. If it’s heavy rendering and generative design—which is being able to define a general structure and letting the compute node solve for a whole variety of different options—we can do that on our cloud backend, but we charge for it consumptively. Rather than you having to go out and buy these sophisticated, advanced tools, we’ll charge you per compute, or we’ll charge you per unit time, but we won’t force you to own those tools 100% of the time when you only need them 1% of the time. Even after paying for 20 years, you’re nowhere near what you’d pay for the other EDA tools.
Shaughnessy: Who would be your ideal customer?
Berggren: We’ve also had some big institutional customers that are large companies that use the software on a daily basis. It’s a cross-section. But there’s also something that is underappreciated, which is, think about every test jig, clamshell tester, and programming configuration that somebody builds. It doesn’t matter the scale of the company; 100% of the companies I deal with have that problem. But there’s no tool that allows them to integrate the electronics and mechanics in an environment and build those bespoke tools that are going to help them to program flash the firmware 10,000 pieces and do the burn-in testing and everything else that has to go along with it. We’re poised to address those fundamental problems. You should be able to do electronics design in the same way that you would with any top-tier electronics design tool. As I say, we’re at the starting line. We have a marathon in front of us, but I’m looking forward to it.
Shaughnessy: Any final comments?
Berggren: The market is very mature. If you look at the history of the market, the growth rate of the market is pretty flat. The last numbers from Gary Smith kind of look like inflationary growth. For us to win, we have to do something differently. I don’t know if that means that we go off and grab somebody else. I don’t know how that’s doing something different but there is a huge opportunity in that space, and we’ll focus a lot of energy on getting that right.
Shaughnessy: That’s good. Thanks, Matt.
Berggren: Thank you, Andy.