As a tech journalist, most of the stories I write these days deal in algorithms, cloud computing, and other digital tools. When given the opportunity, it’s fun to explore new technologies and products you can actually see and touch.
I recently escaped my desk to tour Autodesk’s offices in Boston’s Seaport neighborhood and check out some of the physical products being hatched in its Building, Innovation, Learning, and Design (BUILD) Space, a 34,000-square-foot industrial workshop and tech incubator. (See photos above, including products from Hand Made Prosthetics, Lumii, and New American Public Art.)
San Rafael, CA-based Autodesk (NASDAQ: ADSK) develops 3D design and engineering software, and the BUILD workshop is one of four tech incubators it operates around the world, each focused on different technologies and sectors. The Boston shared workspace is currently home to 31 teams working on various products related to architecture, engineering, and construction, a mix of startups, academic researchers, Autodesk partners and customers, and in-house research and development teams, Autodesk says.
BUILD tenants have free access to desk space and more than 60 pieces of equipment, including 3D printers, laser cutters, and industrial robots. They also get to tap into the expertise of Autodesk software developers and executives. For Autodesk, it’s a chance to glimpse the future of industries it serves and form new partnerships. Of course, the company’s leaders also hope the BUILD tenants will use its software to design the products they’re developing on site.
The number of shared workspaces and tech incubators in Boston and other large cities has exploded in recent years, but few of them offer the equipment and space needed to develop hardware products. Other local examples include Greentown Labs, the cleantech incubator in Somerville, MA; Bolt, the hardware startup investor that operates a co-working office and prototyping lab for its portfolio companies in downtown Boston; and MassRobotics, the robotics industry group that operates a shared workspace a couple blocks away from Autodesk in the Seaport. I visited Autodesk’s workshop to try and get a sense of the impact it’s having on the local innovation community.
Since Autodesk opened BUILD in the fall of 2016, 75 companies and around 500 people have worked in the space, says Jim Lynch, vice president of Autodesk’s construction products group. More than 200 Autodesk employees also work in its Seaport offices, which span a total of 89,000 square feet, the company says.
Autodesk is part of a migration of large companies from the suburbs to big cities to attract younger talent and be closer to emerging clusters of innovation. Autodesk’s Seaport operations were located in the Boston suburb of Waltham, MA, an office it gained through the acquisition of Revit in 2002, Lynch says.
In Waltham, “it was harder to hire talent, especially kids coming out of school who don’t have cars,” Lynch says.
Autodesk had a small tech incubator in the Waltham office, and the company wanted to grow that program, he says. The company saw an “innovation ecosystem” forming in downtown Boston and the Seaport neighborhood, and “we just felt like we wanted to be a part of it,” Lynch says. Autodesk’s neighbors include startup accelerator MassChallenge, synthetic biology company Ginkgo Bioworks, and shoemaker Reebok.
During our conversation, Lynch shared several technology trends impacting his field of construction, including automation. There’s a lot of discussion about the growing deployment of robotics and automation technologies in factories and warehouses, but I haven’t heard as much talk about it in construction. It’s coming, Lynch says, thanks to companies like Construction Robotics, which is developing a brick-laying robot and a device to assist with lifting and placing heavy materials; and Built Robotics, which is developing autonomous construction equipment.
“I think you’ll see robots supplement the workforce and reduce some of the safety issues on the job site,” Lynch says.