Autodesk Factory Design Suite Lives Up to Name

Factory layout tool collection complements the components.

It takes more than a bigger package and new artwork to turn a collection of programs into a suite. It's even more work to take a collection of professional design tools and turn them into a purpose-driven suite. Autodesk has accomplished the latter, with its Factory Design Suite, a surprisingly affordable package that doesn't sacrifice any of the power or control that users of the company's design and presentation products expect from the software.

Factory Design Suite combines the architectural and mechanical design abilities of AutoCAD with media creation and presentation tools that are standouts in their own right, and adds an understanding of factory workflows and constraints that must have taken years to compile. The result is a polished set of tools that mesh well and often seamlessly. It's certainly more than the sum of its parts.

The common tools of the Autodesk Factory Design Suite fall into three categories: design and presentation applications, the Autodesk Vault repository and a set of utilities that were built with factory design processes in mind. AutoCAD Architecture 2012 and AutoCAD Mechanical 2012 make up the first category. As one might suspect, the former concentrates on the building fabric, while the latter addresses what's inside. After using both of these, and having looked at the general-purpose version of AutoCAD earlier this year, I'm even more impressed than I was: I didn't take into account what it might mean to have a implementation of AutoCAD purpose-built for a particular discipline, but now I get it.

In the bulked up versions of the suite, the common design tools are joined by Autodesk Navisworks, which offers advanced project review features that mesh multiformat data with 3D models to perform validation of physical designs, and Autodesk 3ds Max Design, the company's rendering and animation toolset.

Autodesk Showcase 2012 is also a common component of the Factory Design Suites and provides the ability to transform the engineering-focused AutoCAD designs into attractive presentations and visualizations. What really lets the suite live up to its name is the Factory Design Utilities package, which includes a large library of factory-related content including conveyors, robots and similar material handling equipment, the ability to optimize factory layouts in 2D for efficient material flow, and other enhancements that make the suite's tools more factory-oriented.

Autodesk offers three configurations of the Factory Design Suite. These bundles have unarguably more attractive pricing than the cost of the individual applications, as low as the cost of two or three components, in some cases. For example, the Standard version, which includes AutoCAD Architecture, AutoCAD Mechanical, Autodesk Showcase, Autodesk Vault and the Autodesk Factory Design Utilities, retails at $5,495. Purchased separately, the total of the MSRPs is $10,485. On top of that, the office-and-away licensing allows authorized users to install the suite on a second computer for non-simultaneous use.

The Premium package builds on the Standard, adding Autodesk Inventor, Autodesk 3ds Max Design and Autodesk Navisworks Simulate. The Ultimate version, which I tested, offers upgraded functionality in two of the Premium components: Inventor is replaced by Inventor Professional and Navisworks Manage takes over for Simulate. The price differences between the bundles and the per-component structure are even more dramatic in these versions, with Premium at $6,495 instead of $20,470, and Ultimate at $9,995 versus $29,270.

In the Premium and Ultimate versions, other factory-specific enhancements to Autodesk Inventor are packaged with the Factory Design Utilities. These include automatic conversion from 2D to 3D, the ability to drag-and-drop 3D elements onto a 2D floor plan, and an enhanced content library that offers 3D parametric factory objects. Navisworks also makes use of the Factory Design Utilities by simply implementing the concept of a factory floor and in the purpose-specific layout tools.

I tested Autodesk Factory Design Suite Ultimate on an HP Z600 workstation. This machine was equipped with dual Xeon 5672 processors, totaling eight cores. Thankfully, the software installs from a USB thumb drive, instead of optical media. Customers have the choice during initial installation between workstation-based licensing or network-based license management using Autodesk's own tools, and depending on available hardware, one can deploy 32-bit and 64-bit versions of the application from the same media.

Once the suite is set up and activated, users can access the software as individual components or from the suite's own front end, which provides access to factory-focused workflows and other features of the suite. Assuming that one's running the software on a reasonably fast machine with a sane amount of memory-for what Autodesk calls "complex models or large assemblies" of more than 1,000 objects, it recommends 8GB of RAM as a minimum, with 4GB as a baseline configurations-the suite should perform well enough for all but the most demanding task loads. My testbed machine had far more RAM than the minimum, and when processor time is money, I've always recommended as much as the machine will hold. Sometimes that argument has even worked.

Although the programs that make up Autodesk Factory Design Suite aren't going to be mastered in an afternoon, or even a month of afternoons, it's a testimony to the company's designers that the programs can offer such approachable tools without dumbing down what is, after all, a hard-learned body of technical knowledge. This is far more than a bundle of related tools, which is the sort of thing that's cheapened the concept of a suite. Instead, the Factory Design Utilities make this a suite in a musical sense, where the collection actually complements the components.