Advances in technology will lift many of the constraints currently faced by contractors and it will pay to keep up to speed with the changes

Dominic Thasarathar

Technology is poised to fundamentally rewrite how we undertake design and the implications for contractors will be significant. Today, the way we design is an exercise in compromise. Constrained by a finite number of resources - be that time, money, computing power, information, or expertise - project teams are restricted in the number of options that they can explore before committing to move forwards. Tomorrow, a combination of six technology trends could side-step those constraints, and transform design into a ‘best possible’ process:

1. Infinite computing in the cloud
Cloud computing will give project teams the ability to access on-demand vast amounts of processing power (a capability referred to as “Infinite Computing”). With such power, the number of design permutations that might be explored in a given time-frame is vastly increased. Imagine for instance, the impact that this might have at the front end of commercial real-estate projects, enabling teams to explore the vast number of permutations of factors: number of buildings, number of floors, size of floor-plates, energy performance, embedded carbon, programming options, and so on, to land on the lowest lifecycle cost.

Technology is changing design, not just incrementally, but fundamentally. Spending a little time to understand the implications is likely to be a prudent investment

2. Generative design
Generative design is the use of smart algorithms that mimic nature’s approach to design. Starting with the end outcome, such tools help designers to explore generations of solutions in line with how they would like to optimise (such as lowest cost, size and weight). The unbiased nature of generative design may help us identify more appropriate asset solutions for our growing cities. And this needn’t stop at physical assets, in the future, such algorithms could be used to solve estimating challenges. The implications for the cost and efficacy of bidding could be game-changing.

3. Big data and predictive analytics
Following other industries, construction is starting to use big data more extensively, particularly through the BIM process. That’s opening the door to a new discipline - Construction Intelligence - the ability to predict the future by mining on such data. Searching for patterns across a portfolio of projects, together with other data sources, might help a contractor identify everything from early signs of stress in a supply-chain, to the best way to optimise cash-flow, to the root-cause for over-estimation in bids.

4. Cloud-based collaborative working
‘Problems with collaboration’ is frequently cited as a root-cause for poor productivity and missed targets in construction. But the emergence of cloud-based, real-time collaboration environments will effectively put all project participants, varied by location and practice, in one ‘virtual’ office. This is something that global construction firm, Skanska, has embraced, using the cloud to actively collaborate with its clients and design partners to solve problems virtually before they happen in the field.

5. Social and mobile computing
No amount of computing power will negate the need for human input in the design process. But contractors have historically faced a dilemma. Expertise costs, and when those costs aren’t borne by chargeable work, they’re eating into corporate overhead. But, as digital technology continues to shorten the physical distance between us all, it’s creating opportunities to side-step this issue. Crowd-sourcing and work-exchange hubs could enable contractors to access a far broader and deeper pool of expertise on-demand, at a very granular level.

6. Collision of the digital and physical worlds
All designs must ultimately translate into real world results. But by bringing the physical world into a silicon environment via reality capture technology, project teams are provided with the ultimate canvas against which to design buildings and infrastructure. Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR) are pushing those designs back out to the real-world for evaluation ‘in context’ prior to committing.

Technology is changing design, not just incrementally, but fundamentally. Spending a little time to understand the implications of this approaching new era, and identifying pragmatic ways to harness these technology trends commercially, is likely to be a prudent investment. Why? Because in addition to the potential prizes of better built asset outcomes and better business performance, we’re likely to see an accompanying disruption to the competitive landscape - and history has shown via other industries just how quickly and game-changing the impact of disruptive technology can be…

Dominic Thasarathar, industry thought leader: construction, energy, natural resources, Autodesk