Digital Transformation: How Technology Is Changing the Industry
In the fast-paced world of construction technology, staying ahead of the curve is the only way to stay in the game. Structure Tone’s vice president of information technology, Terry Robbins, gathered four of the sharpest minds in construction tech to share their insights at Structure Tone’s annual board retreat: Zach Aarons, cofounder and partner at MetaProp, Allen Emerick, digital advisor and architect at Microsoft, Joseph Joseph, head of the design technology studio at Gensler and Robert Otani, chief technology officer at Thornton Tomasetti Inc. The discussion centered on the digitization of the AEC industry and how technology is reframing the way the industry serves its clients. Here are some highlights.
Robbins: How have you seen digital transformation improve efficiencies in industries outside of AEC?
Emerick: Digital transformation is, first and foremost, about business transformation. It’s not just about the technology, it’s about how companies implement the technology to change the way they do business, deliver a service and provide unique value to their customers and marketplace. Those companies who are innovative with their use of technology are driving profitability much more effectively than their competition. Again, it’s not about implementing technology for technology’s sake. It’s about leveraging technology to provide a competitive advantage and many industries are doing that very successfully.
Robbins: How do you see digital transformation impacting the AEC industry specifically in the next few years?
Aarons: With digital transformation comes cut-throat competition, including from nontraditional players who were not really competing in this space before. On the startup side, we’re seeing startups being built by smart technologists in combination with construction professionals. They build tools developed by construction people for construction people. On the other hand, there are companies entering the construction technology space who are deliberately not hiring any construction people. They want people who think totally differently. That means firms in the AEC space may want to go outside of their usual path, possibly investing in startups, partnering with large and small tech companies and embracing a culturally lean methodology to how you approach certain problems.
Joseph: The challenge to implementing transformative technology in our field is the means, methods and mindset in the field have not changed as quickly as in other industries. We may have access to collaborative computing, virtual computing, artificial intelligence—you name it. But we might be limited by contractual methodologies and traditional approaches to project execution.
Robbins: How is your organization using technology to transform your business?
Otani: First, we’re leveraging the power of data, which includes data collection and knowledge capture. How do we harness the knowledge of our 2,000 employees so that a person sitting in China can have an answer from the smartest person in the company? Furthermore, how do we capture our seasoned employees’ experience before they retire? We’re also focusing on training. It only took 25 structural drawings to build the 100-story John Hancock building in Chicago. If we were to do the same set of drawings today, that number would be over 150 because of the process we have all become accustomed to. This is a human issue, which is why training is going to be a huge factor in the future of our industry.
Aarons: Part of the problem is the current way we collaborate requires multiple drafts. Once everybody starts collaborating in a rich 3D environment, you’ll only have one set of drawings. This is already happening on the basic interiors level. There are tools where people collaborate in real time, and the budget changes as you change fixtures. There are similar concepts coming down the road that will be applied on a larger scale. For example, if we had to change a building from concrete to steel, the technology would automatically pull in the most up-to-date bids of steel in that particular area. This information would then flow directly into your cost assessment. This collaborative, interactive BIM environment would essentially eliminate the need for multiple drafts.
Robbins: What are some transformative technologies you think will shape the future of the AEC industry?
Emerick: We see this concept of digitally connected buildings, connected spaces and connected cities as the direction of the future. It’s not just about delivering a physical building. It’s the combination of physical and digital elements, which together create a new type of asset. This means utilizing data to be smarter about the energy consumption usage and the end user’s experience.
Aarons: We’re excited about the possibility of 3D printed, fire-rated sheetrock. I’ve also seen robotic drywall laying, so maybe one day you’ll just have one person overseeing the robots that are creating interior walls. It breaks the whole assembly down to a science.
Otani: This would also alleviate some of the pressure the entire industry is feeling with the labor shortage.
Robbins: Many clients are going through their own digital transformations. What kind of digital experience should they expect from their partners?
Joseph: It’s easy to forget that the most important part of implementing all this revolutionary technology isn’t to streamline our own internal processes, but to improve the client’s experience. Today, our clients want to engage in a flexible, predictable and confident design and delivery process. They don’t want to hear that the schedule is too tight. They don’t want to hear that it’s going to cost 15 cents per square foot instead of 12. They want to know that we have the sophistication, the agility and the mindset to limit their risk downstream. They want to be sure we’re giving them the best bang for their buck, based on experiential and engaging technology. Helping our clients solve real problems and make better decisions is what the AEC’s digital transformation is truly about.