Technology has forever changed the way projects are designed and built. Plumbing and mechanical engineers can now have much more detailed and collaborative designs in less time by using MEP design software. And while these type of technologies were already on the rise in the construction industry the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has expedited the number of firms adopting and implementing software technologies.
According to a 2020 survey from AGC and Autodesk, nearly 40% of responding contractors adopted new hardware or software in the wake of the pandemic, notes Austin Ehlert, technical solutions executive at Autodesk.
“Teams are working in new ways, and working with each other in new ways, which is where adopting new technology can really help drive progress, productivity and efficiency forward,” he says. “Teams moving to a remote work setting have definitely influenced co-authoring and cloud based requirements — and this trend will only continue as we see a larger shift across our industry to a more remote, hybrid-type work setting.”
Ron King, global estimating manager for Trimble MEP, notes there was an immediate panic for companies to get their software solutions in the cloud during the beginning stages of COVID-19.
“In the early stages, as employees were instructed to work from home, cloud-based solutions were the only way to bring some normalcy back into the workflow to be productive,” he says. “Our world was rapidly changing as the outlook to return to the office was slipping away in a very fluid environment. Therefore, getting their software services running in the cloud became top priority. The software industry, for the most part, had been shifting over the past few years to cloud-based solutions, which coincidentally enabled contractors and engineers the opportunity to switch when the demand to work remotely from home became paramount.”
Travis Voss, leader of innovative technology at Helm Mechanical, says the pandemic pushed forward his company’s collaboration via could platforms pretty dramatically, and he doesn’t see it going back.
“We leverage design software to create real, highly accurate models that we can push to our tooling and machining in our shops so we can drive industrialized construction workflows,” Voss says. “This also allows us to give our field teams the most up-to-date information, in real-time, about what they’re going to be building and installing.
“The cloud lets us work with anyone, from anywhere,” he adds. “The software market should be prepared to have its products cloud-integrated and interoperable — as well as being able to leverage the latest in processors and internet speeds.”
Continuous collaboration is key
According to Voss, there are two competing trends he has noticed lately: Interconnectivity and automation.
“With the right technology, teams have become much more interconnected, and can share and work on designs with multiple people at once through a common data environment — something we utilize BIM 360 and Autodesk Construction Cloud for,” he says. “Additionally, automation is really pushing our industry forward from a performance and efficiency standpoint. Technology is allowing us to automate repetitive tasks and produce a large amount of design options in a very short time period. Through automation, AI and machine learning, design tasks that historically took days are now being completed in a matter of minutes.”
Voss notes the complexity and speed of construction projects — coupled with the shrinking labor force — has driven the need for users to work seamlessly together on designs and utilize tools that reduce repetitive tasks.
“These go hand in hand — interconnectivity allows us to collaborate effectively in real-time, and automation allows us to speed up more manual tasks, increase our efficiency in those tasks and free up time to focus the bigger value add tasks,” he explains.
Over the past few years, Autodesk has seen a massive shift to cloud collaboration in the plumbing and mechanical design and engineering space — and there are no signs of this trend slowing anytime soon, Ehlert notes.
Ehlert also points to clash automation as another large trend in the software market.
“Within the model coordination process, automatic clash detection helps to reduce manual processes associated with classic clash detection,” he adds. “Pair that with design collaboration and simplified web applications, and this automation empowers entire project teams to self-check their work as they go — speeding up the coordination time and focusing weekly coordination meetings on larger issues.”
While there is no doubt the pandemic has sped up the digitalization of the industry, Ehlert also notes projects becoming more complex — especially in terms of owner requirements.
“There’s been a shift to a design-build mentality, where teams are working with a lot of multidisciplinary stakeholders at the same time,” he says. “This type of integrated project delivery is really a lean methodology — where teams are banking on the ability to quickly iterate, be more responsive, have faster turnarounds — all of which require enhanced collaboration and, equally as important, an up-to-date, single source of truth for documents, plans and the like. The industry is moving from a more formal communication method to something a bit more fluid — where different teams are now able to collaborate on the fly, in real-time, to get their models adjusted. This is something that can only be accomplished through the right technology and the right implementation across teams.”
King agrees that one of the major market trends is collaboration and data sharing that can be used across the entire construction workflow, from design to estimating to prefabrication to installation.
“The collaboration of the data enables different personas to access the right data at the right time,” he says. “Trimble Connect is a collaboration platform that allows the different personas to share data and models in the cloud. Model-based estimating is just one example of utilizing the data from the design phase to create the bill of material used in estimating to obtain the material costs and labor hours required for the project without the need to perform a separate material take-off, resulting in many hours of labor savings. Construction analytics is another trend in the industry enabling the user to track project status from estimating through procurement and every step in between.
“Previously, many software solutions operated within their own silos resulting in duplication of data, which required mappings or links to be established between data sets,” King continues. “Eliminating data duplication was one objective, but having the ability for the same item to be used between software applications eliminated the need for creating and maintaining mappings between the data sets as well as other attributes. Model-based estimating is a great example of data from the design phase being utilized in the estimating phase because the item used by both software solutions originates from the single source of truth.”
Implementation of new technology
Ehlert notes that the automated nature of clash detection is really driving the above trends forward.
“More so than that, cloud-based tools are really helping to democratize a team’s ability to coordinate models and make design changes — whereas before, you needed a true specialist to be able to run your detailed tests and reports. There’s this big idea of ‘enhanced access’ for your team — access to collaboration and coordination tools that are so easy to use, everyone on your team can take part in it. But web access and ease-of-use are only useful if your data is accessible across tools, construction phases and teams in a common data environment.”
According to King, emerging technologies coupled with data rich content allow engineers and designers to model with much higher level of detail (LOD) or fidelity with the ability to prefabricate directly from the model.
“Data rich content is just one example to increase the LOD of a model, changing generic objects which are not fabricatable to manufacture specific objects that are not only fabricatable, but enhance the information in the model for facility management downstream,” he says.
Additionally, emerging Artificial Intelligence (AI)-powered design tools are allowing engineers to help meet client efficiency goals.
“I think it’s safe to say there isn’t an area of construction that won’t benefit from AI and machine learning in some form or another,” Ehlert notes. “Though they’re not at our door quite yet — AI and ML trends in model coordination are coming. In the not-so-distant future, machine learning will theoretically be able to learn what teams deem as a ‘clash’ or not — learning what constitutes as a clash based on individual preferences, building types or even regions.
“Another trend we see playing a bit part in MEP detailing is generative design, meaning you’ll be able to enter specific parameters, such as ‘we want to use this certain type of piping with this certain type of connector in this room,’ and then generative design tools will produce hundreds or thousands of different options based on those parameters,” he adds. “This will be particularly valuable when it comes to those more complex problems, of which we’re seeing more and more of.”
AI and machine learning have a very important role in the engineering and design software arena to automate routines or problem solving, which will allow the designer to be more productive, King explains.
“Designers working with AI tools will be able to create designs faster and less costly due to the increased speed and efficiency,” he says. “Machine learning is a technique for teaching machines to learn as data patterns are recognized. Within AI, machine learning includes algorithms that are developed so a computer can recognize how to respond in certain conditions.”
According to Voss, the availability of cloud collaboration, relatively easy-to-use platforms and reusable content have begun to allow users to make headway into the compressed design timeline.
“This technology is enabling teams to both speed up manual design processes and make them more efficient at the same time — saving time, money and ultimately rework when the job gets to the site,” he notes. “AI has the potential to reduce these repetitive tasks even further. If we can feed a set of past projects in with rules around design constraints and code, we can ultimately stop ‘reinventing the wheel’ on each project. Buildings are unique, but there is tremendous opportunity among the different systems that make up a building to find efficiencies from replicating. Utilizing AI will allow teams to put their historical project data to work and provide tried and trusted solutions — all while saving massive amounts of time through automation.”
Full steam ahead
So what do all these advancements in technology mean for the future of the software market? Voss says he sees a doubling down of collaboration, interoperability and automation, all made possible thanks to the cloud.
“We’re going to see more tools to automate, share, integrate and imbed more information into designs — and less flattening of that information via paper and PDFs. There’s a major technology shift happening in our industry right now, and it’s only going to continue moving up and to the right.”
King notes we can expect a deeper collaboration between software solutions to eliminate duplication, with an emphasis on AI and machine learning. “Keep your eye on construction analytics, as well collecting statistical data along the entire project lifecycle.”
“I think we’re going to see more progress on the AI and machine learning front,” Ehlert explains. “At some point in the not-so-distant future, programs will be able to scan, learn and then predict our preferences and automate them to solve complicated design problems with generative design. These machine learning and generative design tools will act alongside designers and engineers to give them even more tools to assist in choosing the best solutions and paths forward. But honestly, looking back even five or 10 years, it’s safe to say that the industry has already come a very long way in terms of design software.”
Photos courtesy of Autodesk and Trimble.