Integrated and efficient: using today's AEC software to make our jobs easier

Designing buildings. Estimating costs. Tracking time. Managing projects. Billing for time and materials. Reporting RFls. These, along with dozens of other types of paperwork, have long been crucial in the businesses of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC). That all this work once ran on paper alone seems inconceivable given the ever-burgeoning use of digital tools throughout the industry.

To understand the current stage in the evolution of software built for AEC, it helps to grasp several modern trends permeating information technology today: mobile computing, cloud computing and collaboration.

Mobility

“In the past, projects of a certain size had a computer on site, connected to a wireless network,” says Patrick Baker, president of Constructive Solutions for Business Inc. “Workers would go to that computer to access information. Now project coordinators, managers and superintendents are bringing tablets into the field.”

“People expect to capture information in the field and bring it back to the office, like time and daily field reports,” Baker continues. “They also expect to do checklists, quality assurance tasks and punch lists using a tablet.”

The spread of tablets in AEC underscores the demise of computing’s one-size-fits-all doctrine. Desktop applications still rule in-house, but their limitations elsewhere can be deal-breakers. Web applications are easier to deploy outside a firm’s firewalls since they involve no software installs or Terminal Services-type setups.

But in the field, applications now need to fit on quick-starting, camera-equipped, easy-to-use tablets. After all, tech-savvy AEC pros already download the tools they want from mobile app stores to piece together their own solutions.

“Traditionally, you would capture defects using MS Word,” says Lance Tressler, product manager for Meridian Systems. “Today, we can take videos or pictures of defects and annotate them to point out defects and what needs to be corrected.”

Enthusiasm for tablets doesn’t translate as readily to smartphones, since they don’t deliver the same user experience. While certain tasks, like punch lists, can work well on limited phone screens, “to ask superintendents to fill out daily reports on a smartphone would be horrible,” notes Tressler.

Mobile apps are designed for what Shafat Qazi calls ‘low friction.’ “The app must be really fast, or you won’t use it,” he says.

Qazi, CEO and founder of BQE Software, notes the example of recording taxi cab fare as an expense before reaching the check-in desk at a hotel.”I open the application, take a picture of my cab receipt, add in the expense, and I’m done by the time I get in line at the registration counter,” he claims.

“Many desktop applications overdo it,” Qazi continues. “People don’t need 500 things on their screen. They just need a timesheet in which to enter their hours. My system should know what projects I’m working on, what tasks are assigned to me, and when I submit my timesheet it should know who my timesheet should go to.”

The Cloud

Data synchronization points to another trend in modern computing – an increasing reliance on the cloud, or software as a service (SaaS).

Cloud systems fall into several ‘location-based’ categories. Companies can buy systems and host them, buy systems and have the vendor host them, or just rent the software as a service.

“People are more willing to use SaaS,” Baker opines. “They can scale as they get more projects and more people. There’s no additional hardware investment required.”

Hewlett-Packard printers make use of the cloud. HP’s Designjet T2300 eMFP connects to the Internet to enable what HP calls ‘ePrint and Share,’ a set of features meant to save time when sharing and printing documents.

For instance, once marked-up blueprints are scanned, they can be sent to HP’s online file centre for sharing with project members in other physical locations. Hand-drawn updates can be converted into vectors and introduced back into the original blueprint.

“You can bring marked-up drawings into AutoCAD, or convert it to a drawing exchange file (DXF) so that you can take it into other applications which support the DXF format,” says Allen Rothwell, large-format print specialist and channel manager at HP.

In a nod to user experience, a smartphone-like touchscreen provides access to these features. The ePrint and Share software can poll the network it’s running on to see what HP Designjet printers are available.

For its part, Autodesk adopted a strategy common to other software developers when it launched Autodesk 360 last fall. Autodesk’s subscription customers can store project documents in the cloud, and take advantage of other collaboration services.

Autodesk also offers cloud-based processing power. Customers can delegate tasks like building performance analysis and visualization of Revit-based models to servers in the cloud, keeping their own computers unburdened as they continue working. “After the analysis is completed in the cloud, the user gets a detailed report comparing different designs side by side in terms of energy consumption and costs,” explains Joy Stark, industry marketing manager for Autodesk.

AutoCAD WS, a free CAD editor, works within a web browser or as a mobile app to facilitate design changes on the fly. “In the field, at a construction site, you can pull up design files and look at where issues might stem from, make changes to the file, and upload changes back to the cloud,” Stark says.

Other Autodesk mobile apps include Design Review, which reduces the cost of sharing CAD documents in much the same way Adobe gives away Reader software to help people share PDFs, and Sketchbook, which “lets architects capture those ‘back-of-the-napkin’ sketches,” says Stark. “You can then develop your ideas in other design apps when you’re ready to take them further.”

Collaboration

Mobile apps and the cloud are but two technological elements that bolster people’s ability to collaborate on projects. Application programming interfaces (APIs) help as well. Sophisticated systems often ship with APIs, which enable developers to ‘connect’ other applications to said systems.

BIM data supports energy analysis and structural analysis in different systems, and APis can serve as the bridge for that data. Downstream, the model also supports maintenance and operations of commercial buildings, so savvy project owners (including some governments) mandate BIM usage, driving the development of APis in the process.

Clients use BIM data to support project management processes, “like helping with an RFI or developing a scope of work or putting together a bid package,” says Tressler.

“Architects get the full value of the BIM process when the people they collaborate with also use BIM,” Stark notes. “It’s about project teams coming together and having more insight into the design data to support decisions, not just the architectural model but how it aligns with engineering models and the as-built models that contractors often create.”

Perhaps the most surprising potential collaborators are the non-human ones – individual systems used in projects. Take project management, a complex affair involving multiple phases, various consultants, different billing methods and other layers of detail. Qazi doesn’t think this should be a problem.

“You should not have to rely on managers to know where the project is,” he says, noting that push technology can be used to notify managers when certain measures meet preset criteria, like late confirmations for delivery of materials or overdue invoices.  “The system can take over tasks that are repetitive and mundane, things that the system can do to ‘watch’ a project on behalf of managers.”

Qazi also champions the notion of ‘zero-entry’ software – tools that can take care of all data entry needed for specific tasks. He offers time capture as an example. “The iPhone has a GPS,” he explains. “If an employee leaves the office and goes to a job site and comes back, not only should we be able to figure out how long it took him to travel to the job site and return, but we should be able to figure out how many hours he stayed at the job site.”

“We can get the GPS location, we can figure out the address, we can match it with our database of project addresses, we can know exactly what job site you are at. All you have to do is review and approve the timesheet.”

Managers won’t rely entirely on preset alerts or zero-entry software. Dashboards can provide key information managers can use to foresee risks and better determine the next steps they need to take.

Dashboards can also become sources of business intelligence. “Businesses want to know which employees are high performers, when employees finish tasks within allocated budgets, and which clients pay on time,” Qazi offers as examples.

The technology mentioned to this point is both available and widely used. But Richard Kula looks forward to the day when everything clients need gets integrated into one tool, eliminating, or at least reducing, the need to move information between different programs and the attendant time delays.

“A design architect could keep a running energy consumption total, showing right away how specific changes increase or decrease energy totals,” says Kula, principal of Diagram Building Certification Consultants Inc., by way of example. “That doesn’t exist yet.”

Kula’s clients want to cost-effectively build sustainably. “There’s an underlying business case for building green – everything from reduced energy consumption to employee productivity,” he says.

Kula believes that a clearer definition of the data and analysis required by each discipline at each stage of the design and construction phase of the project could lead to more comprehensive software. “The objective for architects is to increase the amount of detail as the design evolves,” Kula continues. “From the green building perspective, we’re trying to incorporate the appropriate amount of detail. We’re not bouncing light rays off coat hooks. That takes computing time.”

“The software developers are doing a great job. It’s just that there are so many jobs to do that it’s hard to be all things to all people.”

 This article originally published in Award Magazine. For a PDF of this article, see below [gview file=”http://luigibenetton.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/AEC_software.pdf”].

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