The future of AEC: an executive perspective

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Recently, Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, hosted a roundtable discussion with four other technology executives to discuss trends circling around the AEC industry and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic

How is the Covid-19 pandemic forcing the AEC sector? to digitise and modernise faster than it otherwise would. How will the AEC industry change? Which areas will be first to evolve, and which will be resistant to transformation? And ten years from now, which aspects of AEC that we take for granted today will look like something out of the Stone Age?

From left to right: Ron Fritz, CEO of Tech Soft 3D, Anand Mecheri, CEO of Invicara, Clifton Harness, CEO of TestFit, Hilmar Gunnarsson, CEO of Arkio, Richard Humphrey, Bentley Systems

Offering their thoughts on these and other matters are:

Anand Mecheri, CEO of Invicara, a developer of digital twin solutions
Clifton Harness, CEO of TestFit, an automated building configurator
Hilmar Gunnarsson, CEO of Arkio, a provider of collaborative design tools for architecture
Richard Humphrey, Vice President of Product Strategy and Product Management at Bentley Systems, a provider of AEC software

A lightly edited and condensed version of the conversation follows.

Q: What will the medium- and longerterm impact of the pandemic be on construction software companies and the AEC space in general?

Mecheri: We can already see some of the medium-term impact. I was on a call with some clients in Singapore today, and construction there has nearly ground to a halt, simply because there are no construction workers. We see similar impact in India. Also, there’s an overriding concern about demand contraction in the commercial real estate space. Retail, of course, already was contracting, and the pandemic has accentuated it like crazy.

Long term, things will be fine and back to normal – but there will be some lessons learned. I think this pandemic will be a trigger for change. For starters, there’ll be more investments in technology to optimise usage and management of built assets, ensure occupant wellness, and create more efficient buildings overall.


Harness: Operationally, I think companies are learning to do things differently during the pandemic. You’re starting to see various companies in the AEC ecosystem adopting new technologies like Zoom and Slack. But those tools are disrupting email, so we’re still pretty far behind as far as investing in the right things to push everyone into the 21st century. For example, there are only around 500 prefab modular construction projects in the US. I think we’re still really far behind in the means and methods of construction.

Gunnarsson: My company is pretty much a “remote first” company, with employees scattered across four different countries in Europe. We’ve been working this way for a long time. What’s interesting is that if I look at my customers – the architecture firms and engineering firms – they are in the same boat now. They have had to ask themselves: “How do we do business and get work done remotely? How do we collaborate if we’re not in the same place?” Because we develop VR and collaborative design tools, we have an answer to those questions. I’m a big believer that in the long term, the idea of all of us having to physically be present in the same place to do something will start to diminish.

Humphrey: The key to planning and executing construction projects used to be to get as many people on site and to collaborate in a common location where you’re close to the project, because the project is the context by which you can have a discussion and make your plans and execute and make sure the project is in control. When that can’t happen anymore – like during this pandemic – collaboration has to happen digitally.

We’re seeing a lot more virtual design in construction, whether that’s taking task-based workflows and capturing data in the field, or tracking performance metrics via cloud data repositories and analytics. 3D, 4D, or 5D model context provides a way to navigate that data and collaborate with teams that are no longer colocated on the project site, while making sure that the teams that are on the project site are working in the right areas. Covid- 19 has helped drive a lot more interest in those types of applications.

Q: It seems that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced the construction industry to digitise faster than it otherwise would. What areas do you think will gain traction first, and which areas will be slow to change?

Harness: I think this is the time to shine for technologies like VR. I think it helps solve the core problem with the Zoom meeting, which is that we’re all still in a room somewhere. If you can use something like VR to basically hijack the visual system of your brain and transport you somewhere else, that’s very valuable.

To return to remote working, I think that’s only going to continue to gain traction. My father, who is obviously from a different generation than I am, said “Wow! That’s amazing how productive people can be just on their laptop at home.” I think we’re finally starting to see the rigid, old-school mentality of how you manage people and run a business evaporate. That, in my mind, has got to be the biggest win from Covid-19, especially for knowledge workers like those in the software industry.

Humphrey: Although Covid-19 has accelerated some digitisation and the desire to get into virtualisation of work, particularly around model context, the reality is that our industry still doesn’t deliver a model as a contractual document. So, I think you’re going to see the existing task- and form-based workflows accelerate faster than the model-based workflows.

Mecheri: A lot of what my company delivers – a digital twin – focuses on how to operate and optimise the built environment in the operations phase. Doing that requires a convergence of data from all the distinct data silos that sit inside buildings and in the operation space today. You have building management systems, energy management systems, space management systems, maintenance management systems, islands of IoT implementations, and so on. There are a lot of different silos.

The industry is realising that truly converged, data-driven contextual solutions can help them deliver things faster and more efficiently – and as a result, I think there’s going to be a clear acceleration towards convergence.

Gunnarsson: In our case, what my company primarily focuses on is the early stages of the design phase. What I find most interesting is this idea that we can evolve beyond getting together in the same place, into meeting more virtually.

With VR, more and more people are starting to experience going into a space – and it might be a relatively simple space, it doesn’t have to be photorealistic – and feeling present with somebody else during that early design phase. They see that you can use tools like this to truly understand the space before it’s even been built and make better design decisions.

Q: Ten years from now, what aspects of the way things get done in the AEC industry will have people scratching their heads and saying, “Why on earth did we ever do things that way?” in the same way that we look back now on landlines or televisions without remote controls?

Humphrey: We’re already seeing initial momentum around prefab offsite manufacturing. Robotics will take that even further. Even though a lot of robotics is still in its early stages, it will bring in advancements around sensors and real-time data, to the point that a decade from now, many aspects of construction will be automated, and people will say, “I can’t believe you used to manually build a lot of this stuff!”

On a similar note, the industry has been doing machine control automation for earthworks for a long time. There won’t be any people driving that equipment 10 or 15 years from now – it will most likely be fully automated, thanks to real-time feedback from sensors and advances in robotic processes.

Gunnarsson: One of the things that somebody might find strange in 10 years’ time is the idea that we do so much of our work on 2D screens. Not just architectural design, of course – nearly everything. That’s your focus, and that’s the thing that you work on and get information from: this 2D screen on a PC or mobile device.

In the future, people will look at the idea of designing a 3D object on a flat screen as something completely out of the Stone Age. I think that paradigm shift is going to probably happen faster than people think once AR/VR technology is mature enough, and it’s already taking rapid steps in that direction.

Mecheri: People have realised that with a tool like Google Maps, you can go into any city in the world, including ones that you’ve never been to before, and find your way around perfectly fine. Whereas in a building, you still need that one guy who knows the building and knows how to fix things to be around if something goes wrong. That’s one of the biggest changes that we believe will happen coming out of this pandemic. People will realise it’s crazy not to have converged building data that institutionalises knowledge and brings together actionable information.

Harness: I think the AEC industry is going to recognise that it can’t have 15,000 point solutions, most of which don’t talk to each other, solving really small problems. There needs to be an API approach, like in other industries – otherwise, you’re just creating barriers to adoption. So, ten years from now, I think people will look back and say, “What was that all about?”

I’m a millennial, so I’m a digital native. But the generation after me, Gen Z, are internet natives. So, their concept of work is going to be very different than even my concept of what work is. And their ability to wield technology is going to be far beyond anything that we can imagine right now. They’re just going to bring a completely new perspective to the industry, and I’m really excited about it.


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