How Carl Bass is crafting Autodesk's push for makers like you

The software company known for projects as far afield as One World Trade Center and Grand Theft Auto is bringing its tools to DIY-ers tinkering fixes to everyday problems.

Dara Kerr Former senior reporter
Dara Kerr was a senior reporter for CNET covering the on-demand economy and tech culture. She grew up in Colorado, went to school in New York City and can never remember how to pronounce gif.
Dara Kerr
8 min read

Autodesk CEO Carl Bass is used to putting machines to work at his personal metal working shop in Berkeley, Calif. James Martin/CNET

BERKELEY, Calif. -- Carl Bass opens a drawer lined with black-handled chisels, picks one up and carefully runs the steel blade along his arm as if it were a straightedge razor.

"See all those little hairs there?" he says, pointing to a dusting of black hair that settles into the drawer. "That's how you can tell if they're sharp."

Bass is in his element. He hurries around his spacious, cement-floored woodworking shop, showing off both rudimentary hand tools and a collection of complex machines. Bass set up this workspace and a personal metalworking shop down the street as hobby spaces. But they both also serve as testing grounds for the company he runs: Autodesk.

While design professionals are familiar with Autodesk, it's likely the multibillion-dollar company most people have never heard of. Autodesk makes more than 100 software products that millions of engineers, architects and animators use to design and model everything from bridges, buildings and roads to cars, planes and video games. Many of the creations you see around you -- whether it's One World Trade Center on the New York skyline, Grand Theft Auto on your game console or even a soldier's prosthetic leg -- were designed or modeled with Autodesk software.

Now the 33-year-old company is pushing into the consumer realm, bringing affordable software to the masses with the goal of helping people create. And that puts Autodesk smack in the middle of the Maker Movement that, at its core, encourages tinkerers and hobbyists to think of new ways to solve everyday problems. Makers combine do-it-yourself invention with technology -- which could also describe Autodesk's approach to design, simulation and modeling.

That positioning is just fine with Bass, who took over as CEO of the San Rafael, Calif.-based company in 2006.

"One part is creativity, the other part is solving problems," says Bass. "You can step back and say we are trying to use technology to solve problems."

Rather than looking like a buttoned-up executive, Bass more resembles a carpenter. He's tall -- 6 feet, 4 inches -- and prefers T-shirts and Carhartts to suits. He has a thick New York accent and often belts out a deep laugh. Bass is not your typical CEO, say people who work for him. Yes, he's business-minded, competitive and has strong opinions, but he's also unassuming and on a first-name basis with hundreds of his employees.

Bass, 57, has been a maker since his 20s. Sawing, sanding and soldering seem to be part of his DNA. Before joining Autodesk in 1993 as chief architect for AutoCAD, he built houses on an Indian reservation and constructed boats in Maine. A quick scan of Bass' wood and metal shops shows dozens of objects he's made, like a chair built from one piece of plywood, a 2,000-pound iron table, baseball bats for his two sons and road-ready go-kart.

Autodesk helps to make the maker (pictures)

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"Some people buy yachts, some people buy fast cars. Carl does his workshop," says Amar Hanspal, Autodesk's senior vice president for the Information Modeling and Platform Group. "It's been in his blood. It's not a recent discovery."

Autodesk and the Maker Movement

Set against the wall of Bass' woodworking shop is a 20-foot piece of bubinga, a distinctive type of wood with curly rose-colored grain and dark bark. "That's destined to be a table," Bass says, explaining that it's one of the newer additions to his decades-old collection. For instance, he carved his bed frame out of a piece of maple burl he had for 25 years. "Metal you go to the store and buy. Wood you accumulate over the years," he says.

While Bass has always made things with his hands, he hasn't always seen Autodesk as playing a role in the Maker Movement, which began to gather steam in 2006 with the first Maker Faire in California. Shortly after Bass became Autodesk CEO, Dale Dougherty, founder of Make magazine, sat down with him to explain the movement.

"I have to say, at the time, he wasn't buying it. I think he defined it as localized production," Dougherty recalls. "For many years, the company Autodesk wouldn't have resonated with the Maker movement as the consumer movement, their focus has been on professional design tools."

On TechRepublic: Mickey McManus: Autodesk researcher. Futurist. Technology humanizer

That changed in 2010. While Autodesk always had amateur users, it really began to focus on the consumer market that year. The company has since grown its consumer user base to 227.6 million people worldwide, far outdistancing the 12 million professional users who work with its software.

One reason for that consumer growth is that Autodesk now gives away much of its software for free. Students, teachers and schools pay nothing for the company's professional products, while many small businesses get hefty discounts. Professionals, on the other hand, typically pay thousands for the software.

Carl Bass has amassed a huge collection of wood at his personal woodworking shop in Berkeley, Calif. James Martin/CNET

"Part of what we're seeing with Autodesk is the democratization of that tool set. It's moving from just professionals to amateurs," Dougherty says. "The more they can make this easier for more people, the more powerful it becomes."

Making design software more accessible has been the company's strategy since its start in 1982, when it offered a cheaper and (relatively) easier way to create 2D designs on personal computers versus requiring dedicated and costly workstations. Autodesk also was among the first to realize the benefit -- to itself and to its customers -- of allowing hundreds of other software companies to create products that hook into its programs. This universe of add-on products gave Autodesk an edge over its competitors, like PTC and Dassault.

Now, by giving away free software to schools, Autodesk is creating a new pool of users who may one day buy its software.

"It has a synergy with what we're trying to do," says Crawford Beveridge, who's been a director on Autodesk's board for 21 years. "Some would say a lot of our main focus is on very large customers who design cars or airplanes or buildings. But the Maker movement has a very important role to play in both the democratization issue and the opportunity to go to other businesses."

It's everywhere

By far, the company's biggest markets are construction, architecture and engineering, and its most popular software is AutoCAD, which lets designers and engineers draft 2D and 3D drawings. But Autodesk also extends into other markets and offers software for things like 3D modeling, personal creativity, simulations, photo editing and animation.

"When you step into your car, use some type of other physical product, or walk into the building you might be in now," says Marc Halpern, a research vice president in Gartner's Manufacturing Advisory Services division, "there's a tremendous chance that Autodesk technology played a role in the design or creation of that building or product."

So, for example, the US Navy's first 45,000-ton amphibious assault ship USS America was created with Autodesk's ShipConstructor. Lightning Motorcycles used Autodesk's Dreamcatcher to design the world's fastest electric motorbike, which can reach speeds of up to 218 miles per hour. And Autodesk's 123D Catch software was used to help figure out how to clip 25,000 LED lights on the San Francisco Bay Bridge for the world's largest light sculpture called The Bay Lights.

Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron relied on Autodesk's MotionBuilder and Maya 3D animation software for his 2013 Oscar-winning film "Gravity." Warner Bros. Pictures

"Their software is the equivalent of a Ferrari," says Leo Villareal, The Bay Lights artist, who also used his own software for the installation.

Autodesk's animation, editing, motion capture and 3D rendering software has also been used in dozens of Academy Award-winning movies, including "Interstellar," "Avatar" and "Frozen." Filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron relied on Autodesk's MotionBuilder and Maya 3D animation software for his 2013 Oscar-winning film "Gravity."

When Cuaron first set out to film "Gravity," he couldn't figure out how to realistically show actors Sandra Bullock and George Clooney floating in space. The movie's production team solved the problem by using Autodesk software to pre-visualize and animate the entire film before shooting.

"If you take the shot where they're repairing the shuttle and the shuttle gets hit by the debris, everything there -- the shuttle, the debris, everything -- is created on the computer using our software and then is animated," says Maurice Patel, Autodesk's entertainment industry manager. "The main point about the movie and the use of technology is this trend we're seeing in the industry, which we call the blurring between the digital and real world."

While Autodesk has been helping film companies stay on top of digital trends, it's also been working to keep current with the trends reshaping its own technology industry. One of the most transformative is cloud computing, where people can share applications, documents and data over the Internet. While cloud-based apps have touted their collaboration and teamwork benefits since the late 1990s, cloud services didn't become mainstream until 2009, when Google first publicly offered Google Apps.

Yet Bass has hammered on bringing software to the cloud since becoming CEO. He believes the future involves bringing 3D modeling and design to the cloud in the same way that Google Docs now hosts documents in the cloud.

"One thing that Autodesk has been able to do and why it stayed in its leadership position is it can touch the technology trends," says Carol Bartz, who was the Autodesk's CEO from 1992 to 2006. "We had to pull the company into the Internet. Carl is pulling the company into cloud services."

Helping makers make

Bass is also pulling Autodesk into the Maker Movement. This move can be traced back to 2009 when the company released its first mobile app SketchBook Mobile for iOS. The app garnered more than 1 million downloads in the first 50 days. That level of success prompted Autodesk to roll out more apps for students, professionals and, yes, makers. The company now offers 17 programs under its Personal Creativity category. That category's tagline reads, in part, "Reshape your world. Make a difference. Create something."

A little over a year ago, Autodesk opened a 27,000-square-foot workshop on San Francisco's Pier 9. It juts off the dock of the city's Embarcadero into the waters of the clay-blue bay. From the outside, Pier 9 looks like most of its neighboring whitewashed piers. Inside, it's a hotbed of makers.

The two-story workshop is divided into several rooms holding state-of-the-art machines and tools. Here, Autodesk hosts its artist-in-residence program that lets people play with its water jet cutter, CNC router (a computer-controlled cutting machine) and industrial sewing machines. Hanging from the wall is a giant set of electronic googly eyes that look at you wherever you move, a fire-breathing machine and a conference table that swings. One room holds Autodesk's first foray into hardware -- its desktop 3D printer called Ember.

Pier 9 is also home to Autodesk's how-to website, Instructables, which it acquired in 2011. Geared toward helping makers create, the site offers a range of lessons from "how to make a solar robot" to "how to kiss." Bass himself has even authored a few Instructables, including "Turning a baseball bat" and, fittingly, "Sharpening a chisel."

As Bass strolls from room to room in Pier 9, he waves hello and stops to chat with the local makers and ask them about their projects. One man is working on a small part for a lunar lander, another is 3D-printing tiny metal pieces of jewelry that look like delicate swaths of lace.

In a sense, Pier 9 is a highfalutin version of Bass' Berkeley workshops. Every year Bass spends extra time in these shops fashioning holiday presents for Autodesk's directors. He's made small sets of audio speakers, 3D-printed metal baskets and other various creations. One of the reasons he does this is to work with and test Autodesk's software.

"Carl's always been interested in building things even before the Maker Movement was called the Maker Movement," Autodesk board member Beveridge says. "His own interest in making things has allowed him to bring back into the company information about how we can help other people who make things, make them better."