Derya Thompson, Vice President, Southern California Area Manager, Gannett Fleming
Like all other sectors, AEC industry is also impacted by the 4th Industrial Revolution and the resulting progress in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) processes. But the big change for us has already started with the incorporation of global positioning system (GPS) and building information modelling (BIM) tools into the design and construction in the late 90s, and the employment of drones, virtual and augmented realities (VR/AR) after 2010.
Although the digital technologies listed above have been steadily reforming our industry, I believe the following new technologies will set the trend in Infrastructure for the next decade:
• Digital Twin, secured by Blockchain technology for major projects, • Cloud Collaboration Solutions for the Big Data collection and harvesting, • Internet of Things, empowering Smart Cities, • Mixed Reality (MR) from planning to construction, • AI/ML, implanted in Design and Construction, • Wearable Technology to keep us Safe and Smart, especially in construction. • BIM Level 2, for Building Information Management of major assets.
AEC State of Play
Infrastructure’s high capital costs, technical complexity and government ownership require tight regulation, economic support and political appeal to succeed. Furthermore, our sector requires skilled and credentialed professionals to drive creativity, intuition, and judgment. Considering these factors, I believe that overall our industry will not witness an Airbnb or Uber-type immediate disruption. Digital technology will serve more as an enabler and a positive disruptor to Infrastructure programs. It will enable us to adapt new business models to innovate cooperation and competition practices.
Digitalized workflows and the interaction between digital models, people, social networks, and big data analytics will provide new insights to improve project predictability, long-term lifecycle understanding, quality, safety, and costs. These will redefine traditional workflows, bring more transparency and introduce accountability, creating massive opportunities and new efficiencies, both in the development and the operation of capital programs and assets.
Digitalized workflows and the interaction between digital models, people, social networks, and big data analytics will provide new insights to improve project predictability, long-term lifecycle understanding, quality, safety, and costs
However, there is also great uncertainty as most infrastructure systems remain among the least digitally transformed in the entire global economy. I can understand why the governments do not want to experiment with these economically and politically important infrastructure assets, but instead support the private sector to take the lead in planning and managing the digital transformation of their capital programs, projects and assets.
Pace of Change
Our industry is already changing by embracing technology. Apart from the on-going corporate concerns for how to address risk and increase profits, we read how many leading AEC firms are going through the digital transformation, at a different pace, and adopting different business models, all by embracing the new technologies. While some focus on the big data and cyber security, others still favor the provision of products and services in the delivery of green and resilient programs and projects.
It is also amazing how many contractors already use Drones and VR/AR/MR, supported by 3D survey, as well as wearable technology. Small businesses are also adopting, with some creating new materials, products and processes for digitalized infrastructure. We all know Hyperloop, but there are many other initiatives and startups offering new technologies and business models for improved processes and products. AEC firms are becoming the drivers of change.
In the last years I noticed a growing focus on technological solutions that incorporate artificial intelligence (AI)-powered algorithms. They focus on helping the AEC Industry overcome challenges, such as cost and schedule overruns and safety concerns. The gathering of the Big Data by AEC, based on the firm’s qualifications, its employees’ skills and past project experience, collected through GPS, GIS, BIM, etc., is also getting incorporated into decision making in the planning and design of projects as well as their financial and performance controls.
AI Bringing Value To Customers
This emerging technology will allow all the stakeholders in our industry to re-evaluate past transactions and project delivery processes and hopefully mitigate risk instead of passing it on.
This shift can only happen if agencies and companies look past the single project payback and align with long-term returns. Stakeholders across the project lifecycle—including contractors, operators, owners, and service providers—will all have to collaborate in this transformation process too. In the long-term, AI and analytics have unlimited use cases for the AEC industry.
ML Potential Digital Partners
Machine Learning is also moving fast with its possible application to the entire project life cycle, from conception through Operation & Maintenance and by capturing asset’s performance and comparing the field conditions with the model. ML will be vital in creating and maintaining Digital Twin for the management of assets, processes, systems, and other Infrastructure entities.
Digital Entrants Board on Current Competitive Value Train
As of today, only a few leading companies seem to have the processes, resources, and existing data strategies in place to implement Machine Learning technology. The benefits of Digital Twinning of capital projects and urban systems are so important that our industry, especially the owners and agencies, cannot afford to delay its implementation. A few start-ups and venture capitalists are already testing it in smaller projects.
New Business Model: Coopetition
Future infrastructure systems will be designed to adapt and respond to continuously evolving conditions, including performance in natural disasters and climate change. AEC collaborators will also have to adjust infrastructure design approaches to suit these new conditions and deliver programs that meet resiliency, financial performance, and equity requirements. The top AEC firms will therefore have to embrace coopetition and become the incubators of the new technology, the investing partners of innovators/disruptors in digital consultancy:
• Apart from setting aside the R&D funds and releasing the talents from daily billable jobs, the main challenge for the AEC industry lies in efficiently applying new technology in current projects and developing skills for doing it quickly.
• All AEC incumbents must be prepared to process and use BigData. When it comes to the AI and ML for turning their existing data into an asset, they should hire the required skills rather than retraining current staff.
• Finally, the digital transformation cannot be limited to one team. As any strategic change it must be integral to the whole business at every stage and owned by those in leadership positions. Ensuring that the digital strategy is adopted throughout the staff will be the key to ensuring a lasting and well-organized transition.