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Digital Design | Embrace and Survive

Autodesk Andrew Anagnost

As the technology revolution moves into full swing, Autodesk chief executive Andrew Anagnost warns the industry must ‘digitise or die’.

Machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain and generative design. A few years ago, none of these terms would have meant a great deal to the majority of the engineering community. Reserved for tech firms and gaming companies, few contractors can honestly say they foresaw the full potential of technologies such as virtual reality and artificial intelligence from the get go. However, in November at Autodesk’s AU Vegas event in Las Vegas, peppered between the strobe lights, dance troupes and drum and bass tunes, contractors were fully embracing technology.

Vinci showed off its digital twin for the Paris sewer network, Aecom flaunted its digital designs for the Stonehenge tunnel inside a building information modelling (BIM) cave and Atkins unveiled its prototype “Caterpillar” app, a digital platform which is claimed to actively predict the impacts of infrastructure projects.

The driver is the age-old desire to be more efficient, have less of an environmental impact and to reduce risk, cost overruns and delays. And if Autodesk chief executive Andrew Anagnost’s vision of the future is to be believed, future technologies such as generative design and machine learning will change the landscape of the industry for the better. Anagnost warns that the role of a traditional tier one contractor is coming to an abrupt end, and that companies failing to digitise will be “crushed” by early adopters of future technologies.

“The most digitised contractors are literally going to start crushing the ones who don’t,” Anagnost says, speaking to New Civil Engineer at AU Vegas. “The rise of the digital contractor is not good for those contractors who don’t currently have a digital strategy.”

He adds: “At the moment there is a real fear in the industry as everyone digitises. Architects, contractors and engineers are all starting to want a piece of each other’s markets. But at the same time, they are all worried about the others coming into their sphere. We see it all the time, everyone is looking over their shoulders wondering who is going to be taking their jobs.

“In the future, a tier one contractor will be almost unrecognisable. Instead contractors will transform into providers of services.”

And the digital age will not just affect the role of contractors. Hailing the dawn of the “material revolution”, Anagnost said robotics and 3D printing are going to drive a “change in the way things get built”. On the expo floor at AU Vegas robotic arms in shipping containers capable of drilling, sawing and basic joinery were held up as the future of onsite construction. Likewise off-site, purpose-built robotics factories were heralded as accelerating off-site and modular construction. 

Robot container

Robot container

AU Vegas showcased technologies including robotic arms capable of drilling, sawing and doing joinery

And the point of this technological revolution – be it in design, materials used or construction methods – is ultimately to improve efficiencies and reduce disasters. Anagnost is so confident of technology’s benefits that he claims machine learning would have prevented the Grenfell tower fire. Anagnost said that advances in machine learning coupled with generative design will ensure that everything built in the future will be instantly and actively monitored to ensure increased safety. He said that technology will be able to predict and prevent catastrophes such as the Grenfell fire which killed 72 people in June 2017.

“It’s early on but machine learning will absolutely improve building and fire safety,” Anagnost said. “We can already simulate the impact of natural disasters fairly well on cities. Our biggest problem is not knowing what needs to be built but making sure it does get built the way people think it should be.”

“Most of the problem with unsafe construction isn’t that people didn’t know what needed to be built, it is that on site, the wrong thing got built. Too often the wrong material is used or isn’t built to the exact specification and then you often have buildings not being as safe as people expected.

He added: “Look at the horrible high-rise fire in London that has basically been traced back to the [fact that] materials being used were not the ones that were supposed to be used, and nobody knew. They basically built a big candle which resulted in a horrible fire.

“All of that could be avoided by machine learning algorithms that do automated checks which say material X was installed, material Y was required and then flagging it as an uncertifiable building. But nobody knew, or if they did know it got lost somewhere along the way.

“Machine learning is absolutely going to be able to identify those kinds of problems so that what gets built is actually survivable under the situations that it could come up against.”

And as well as preventing disasters, improving technologies are also designed to keep on top of rising costs. Introducing a cost management platform into Autodesk’s BIM360 programme, Autodesk construction business unit vice president and general manager Jim Lynch said it has the potential to revolutionise the accuracy of project cost evaluations.

“Integrating cost management functionality into BIM 360 has the ability to change the way construction costs are worked out,” Lynch said. “It takes all incremental costs of a project through data sets provided and can spot cost overruns far earlier than we are currently able to.”

“Measuring performance is critical to competitive success in almost anything worth doing, especially business. What gets measured gets done.”

While contractors need to adapt to technological advances to survive, clients have an equally important role in driving the transformation. Anagnost added that for the technology revolution to truly take off within the construction industry, clients would have to rethink their procurement methods.

“[Client understanding of BIM] is somewhat varied,” Anagnost admitted.

“There is some way to go but in my opinion it is not a million miles off. Once everyone gets it, BIM capability has to start becoming part of the procurement process.”

Likewise Autodesk’s infrastructure director Theo Agelopoulos added that procurement models in the UK and abroad must change to account for cost savings accrued from a mature BIM model. He said that at present, procurement models around the world focus too heavily on lowest initial construction costs rather than the whole assets value.

“Around the world, we need to move to a whole life, value-based procurement model,” he said. “Lowest construction cost is no longer good enough.”

He added: “Communities are starting to understand the long-term benefits of building something with lower environmental impacts and greater social impacts. It is all of our responsibilities to tell clients and the public that having a sophisticated digital strategy will benefit everyone in the long run.”

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