I wanted to get back quickly with a mini-review of Fusion 360 since there is this special offer that will expire sometime soon.  I took advantage of the offer, and I was happy to see it clarified that the offer of subscription to the low-end version for $300 a year will get you their “Ultimate” version (normally $1200 a year) for as long as you pay the $300 a year subscription.  That’s a substantial discount for what on paper looks like a very promising CADCAM package.

Promising Power

Fusion 360 bundles CAD and CAM together into a single package.  What attracted me to it was the promise of getting HSMWorks CAM in the full 3D version for $300 a year.  If you’ve never tried HSMWorks, it’s a very neat package that I really like using.  The original HSMWorks is still available, and is intended to be integrated with a CAD package.  As it originally shipped, they integrated with SolidWorks, and this is the version I am most familiar with.  It’s a slick clean sheet of paper approach that really cleans up the UI experience and that feels like a fresh and powerful approach to CAM.  The product was doing nicely and garnering a growing following until about 2 years ago when the user base got the shocking news that Autodesk had acquired HSMWorks in its entirety.  This prompted a lot of speculation about how well Autodesk would treat customers of rival CAD product Solidworks.

Fast forward to today and HSMWorks is still available for Solidworks, there is a version for users of Autodesk’s Inventor called “Inventor HSM”, and we get essential parts of HSMWorks built into Fusion 360 as well.  HSMWorks is an excellent CAM package, but the Premium version is $9995 and the Professional version is $7500.  That’s competitive with the professional CAM market, but pretty pricey for anyone that won’t be using it daily to make their living.  Suffice it to say that the potential ability to have access to HSM Works Professional level CAM for $300 a year seemed like a compelling offer and led me to jump on this Fusion 360 deal.

But HSMWorks and great CAM was not all the Fusion 360 promised.  The CAM package has all the right stuff on paper too:

–  It offers both Direct Modelling and Parametric Modelling.  I love Rhino3D for it’s quick and easy Direct Modelling approach and many have come to argue that it’s a much more productive CAD paradigm versus Parametric.  But there are those times when the Parametric approach championed by Solidworks is more productive than Direct Modelling.  The smart money has been on CAD that combines both approaches.

–  Cloud Computing is another megatrend that’s coming up fast on the road ahead, and Fusion 360 offers a bevy of Cloud Collaboration features.  You can access your files from any machine because they’re in the Cloud and you have the ability to collaborate on those files with others on your team.

–  Sculpting With T-Splines.  I was visiting a fellow Rhino3D user not that long ago to hear about his carbon fiber fighter plane wing tip project.  It proved to be a wonderful visit from which I learned a lot about working with carbon fiber.  But I also learned a bit about an addin for Rhino3D called T-Splines that my friend was wildly enthusiastic about.  Rhino has a reputation for being the best tool to use when you need to design things with smooth flowing organic curves.  I’ve tried it in that capacity to do a design for a custom rifle stock, for example.  T-Splines take all that and put it on steroids.  Just as Solidworks users of HSMWorks were nervous to see Autodesk acquire the company, users of T-Splines where nervous when Autodesk bought that company.  While it looks like you can order T-Splines for Rhino from Autodesk, the T-Splines web site looks pretty dead.  It’s not clear to me what that means for Rhino users going forward.  In any event, the “Sculpt” facility in Fusion 360 uses the T-Splines technology.

– 3D Printing and Mesh Data.  Speaking of megatrends, Fusion 360 covers the 3D Printing base admirably.  They have a wealth of tools for dealing with OBJ and STL meshes.  You can wrap or match a t-spline to the mesh data, which gives you super-powerful design tools for editing meshes.  There is mesh preview and integration with the other Autodesk 3D printing and mesh tools.

–  Drawing capabilities.  One of the things a serious CNC CAD user wants is drawing capabilities.  It’s not enough to have a solid model, you want annotated drawings with dimensions and other information added.  This is an area where Rhino3D is cumbersome, for example.  I don’t sweat it because for my purposes the solid model is fine.  But if you’re trying to send information to a remote group to be used to manufacture a part, the mechanical drawing capabilities are essential.

–  Assemblies.  Assemblies are yet another area where Rhino3D is limited.  When you’re designing a mechanism that has a couple of hundred parts, many of which may be identical parts, Assemblies are a critical productivity enhancement.  They’re also essential for divide and conquer work where a team needs to be parcelled out components that will be put together to create an Assembly in a final design.  Fusion 360 has a nice Assembly feature.

–  Mac Support.  Native Mac support is hard to come by in the CNC world, so it’s great to see Autodesk embracing the Mac.

As you can see, all of this goes together to suggest a CAD package with considerable power and promise.


Uneven Usability

Well, there’s no such thing as a free lunch they say, and it didn’t take me long to get mired in a raft of usability problems with Fusion 360.

Let’s take the very first thing I tried to do, which was to start up the program.  Some folks had commented in my first write up on Fusion 360 that they hadn’t been able to get it to run.  I got it installed and running, but right at startup was greeted with the following message:


There’s nothing very exotic about my Radeon graphics card.  It’s about a year old, and I run lots of different graphical programs, but Fusion 360 is the first one to have balked.  I haven’t been able to work with Fusion 360 enough yet to decide whether the performance is crippling, but I sure hope not.

The next thing I tried was also a disappointment.  I wanted to import one of my existing CAD files so I could play with it in Fusion 360.  There’s what looks like a file menu, it’s a little document icon at the top, and it has File menu-like options such as “Save”, but there’s no “Open” or “Import” there.

To look at a file, you must first upload it to the Fusion 360 Cloud.  You click the icon left of the File menu and it gives you a view of what documents are available in the Cloud.  There’s a little up arrow icon that is used to import a file from your local disk:


Your Cloud documents in Fusion 360…

To figure this out, I went and ran the Tutorial.  It wasn’t the first Tutorial, it was the last, but it was there.  There were usability problems in the Tutorial as well because if you try to follow along the tutorial gets stuck under popup dialog boxes and you can’t access it to figure out what the next thing to put into the dialog box should be.  That’s a bit awkward, but can be worked through.  Eventually I had the secret to loading a file.  Phew!

While I was a bit perplexed at having to work so hard, I was still game and proceeded to try to upload.  The process was seriously painful.  It took a minute and half to upload a small 115KB Rhino3D model of a carb spacer.  I thought maybe it was due to my Internet connection, which isn’t the best, so I clocked how long it took for me to upload the same file to the CNCCookbook web site.  It was 7 seconds.  Had it taken 7 seconds to upload a file to Fusion 360’s Cloud, I would’ve been happy.  Unfortunately, what I was seeing very early was a major fly in the ointment of my most likely intended use for the product.  I didn’t really want to convert to a new CAD package–I use Rhino3D and Solidworks and I’m very happy with them.  It was the HSMWorks CAM kernel I was excited about.  Many CAM packages have some sort of integrated CAD that most won’t use to design parts, and that’s fine, you need some way to graphically display and manipulate your part while running the CAM software.  I thought I could treat Fusion 360’s CAM in the same way, at least until I had time to learn the CAD.  But if files were going to take so long to load into Fusion 360, that workflow of designing in a separate CAD package was not likely to be a happy one.

Let me just say to Autodesk that I think this is a real design flaw for Fusion 360.  Big Companies like to think it’s a clever idea to put obstacles in the way of customers using the products other than as Big Co intends.  Most of the time it’s a really bad idea and is the source of much consternation with outfits like Microsoft.  Not only should there be the ability to load a file locall without needing the Cloud, but any upload to the Cloud has got to be a whole lot faster.  In fact, there should be a model that seamlessly deals with files that are both Local and in the Cloud.  GrabCAD does this very well.

The next area of trouble was that while Fusion 360 has a lot of file formats, I had a series of problems with the Carb Spacer import.  I uploaded the Rhino3D model first, which seemed to be a supported format, and something came in without a complaint.  The problem is, I could see nothing displayed for the model.  I decided to try another file format, so I loaded an STL file of the same carb spacer that I had exported from Rhino for a recent CAM software video story.  Same really slow loading time, but I wound up with something I could see this time around:


Fusion 360 renders the Carb Spacer STL file…

What bothers me about that rendering is that it makes it look like there’s all sorts of curves on the object that just aren’t there.  As we’ll see in a minute, it’s very much a sharp-edged 2 1/2D model.  That’s not good if we want to use this thing with STL files for 3D printing.  Hopefully this is a function of whatever it dislikes about my graphics card, but I worry there is some deeper problem with rendering or how it views the geometry of the part.

Not liking the look of this, I went back to trying to figure out how to get the Rhino file in.  This is when I discovered that I had saved that particular file with only one of the layers visible, and that layer was a 3D outline.  I switched on the layer containing the 3D model, did the minute and a half upload, and finally was greeted with a properly rendered part in Fusion 360:

This is what we want to see!

That’s what I wanted to see, and my problem was it was just a whole lot harder and took a lot longer than it should have.  I still have no idea why it didn’t show me the Outline in the original version of the Rhino file I loaded.  It did occur to me that maybe I didn’t have the right layers visible, and I looked in vain for some menu in Fusion360 that would indicate it had captured those layers.  I would expect it to live under the BROWSER, which is their Project Tree view, but no such animal could be found there.   I suspect that the version of Fusion 360 I have does not support layers, and I found no evidence of layers Googling for it or searching the Fusion 360 Help System (also awesomely slow as it goes to the Autodesk Cloud).

Having gotten the model loaded, it was time to try the screen manipulation and navigation controls.  I was a bit annoyed with the default settings that use metric and Y axis “up” with XZ being the flat plane.  I’m much more used to thinking in inches and with the Z axis being “up.”  There’s a Preferences menu that lets you change these things.  It’s stuck under the “Bob Warfield” menu, which I guess is reasonable, but most programs would’ve put it under a “Tool” menu or a gear icon.  That’s the thing about Fusion 360–it reinvents a lot of wheels.  Not clear all of them needed reinventing.  Having changed the settings under Preferences, I was disappointed that they had no impact on the display.  It’s necessary to reload the file for them to take effect.

And speaking of settings and screen manipulation, I so much prefer Rhino’s ability to split screen and show 4 views:


Just double clicking the tab on one of the views zooms that view to full screen.  Double click again and it goes back to the split view.  Each one is live and can be manipulated individually. Fusion 360 follows the practice of using a manipulator gizmo to see different views:


The Cube selects the view…

It’s okay, but people with large high resolution monitors will want better.

Fusion 360 is a Work in Progress and is Priced Accordingly

I could go on with these usability nits for quite a while.  I haven’t even started down the path of creating a model from scratch yet.  I did manage to generate some g-code for my carb spacer, but I can report that while the HSM Works UI was sort of snipped out and grafted into Fusion 360, it has a fair number of quirks and bugs here that are not there in pure HSMWorks. This part is pretty new though.

Taken in total, what I concluded is that Fusion 360 is still very much a work in progress.  If Autodesk can fix these problems, and none of them are that hard to fix, they’ll have an amazing next generation integrated CADCAM product with Cloud capabilities at a very reasonable price.  That’s the sort of thing that can really rock industries and markets.  The real question is whether they can pull off the necessary UI improvements.

One thing that I see often as a usability expert (hah, bet you didn’t know, but I hold the patent on, among other things, the Notebook tabs you see in Excel), is that many designers are way too focused on making it pretty and they ignore the workflow.  It’s easy to be swayed by a pretty face, and Fusion 360 looks great for the most part.  Unfortunately, the workflow has a much greater impact on usability than the pretty pixels.  The open question is whether the pretty pixel crowd runs UI design at Autodesk or whether the workflow experts can get a word in edgewise.

For those of you interested in this Autodesk product and deal, it’s a bet on the future.  I would not want to be a CADCAM beginner trying to figure out this beast.  It could be done, but there are easier ways.  An intermediate user that fancies getting access to HSMWorks level CAM at a bargain price and who is prepared to deal with the foibles, might be well served.  At this point, I am still happy to have spent $300 for a year’s subscription.  If you plan to earn your living with this CADCAM package, wait.  It’s not ready for prime time.  There are much better options available that will be easier and more productive, and yes, probably more expensive.  But you need great Digital Tooling to succeed in CNC as a business.

I’ll be watching closely to see if the Usability problems can be curbed and to see what else develops.  A year is a long time in the software industry and I am hopeful that a lot will happen for Fusion 360.  There’s way more than enough features there and Autodesk would be well advised to start fixing the usability problems.


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