Welcome to the Golden Age of collaboration

Welcome to the Golden Age of collaboration


This article appears in the December 1, 2014 issue of Engineering News-Record.

Design and construction professionals are seeing a rapid expansion in the hardware, software and services available for collecting and sharing information with distributed teams. The market has exploded with a wide range of effective tools and systems for gathering digital data, exchanging files, synchronizing changes in master project databases and collaborating virtually in real time—but not everyone is buying in.

Some firms are jumping at opportunities to invent new work practices built around collaboration technology, but others are still hanging back, citing business pressures that crush their appetite for change.

"The firms we work with—and some are very progressive and tech-friendly construction firms—are struggling through things as basic as generational shifts and retirements sucking out their experience, internal communication issues and a volatile business climate," says Josh Carney, president of Carney Engineering Group, York, Pa. No matter how promising the technology, he thinks adoption will be slow in most companies because they cannot afford to disrupt existing practices, although new firms that don't have legacy baggage have a better chance of succeeding. "We're all pushing hard, but I've become very realistic about the pace at which I push [innovations] through." He says the rapid advances in collaboration technology are "good news for visionary firms, but I really think it will take a seismic shift in the industry to go beyond that."

Nevertheless, some visionaries are strongly engaging with new tools for collaboration. "Advancements in hardware and software today make collaboration possible, in terms of people and process," says Rosana Wong, executive director of Yau Lee Holdings Ltd., Hong Kong. Her vertically integrated construction firm has 23,000 housing units under construction in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Malaysia. It is deploying mobile human-resources apps, laser scanners and drones and is coordinating building information data using Trimble products, including a 5D scheduling-and-estimating tool, Vico, to create a virtual project world before, during and after construction.

"Virtualization and utilization of technologies throughout the entire process is the way forward to a lean, sustainable future," says Wong. "It will ultimately enhance our ecosystem as a whole."

Martin Fischer, director of Stanford University's Center for Integrated Facility Engineering, says he is impressed by how quickly mobile applications, including drones, laser scanning and mobile technologies, have proliferated across many types of projects and companies. "I'm amazed, for example, by how many companies are experimenting with augmented reality—a technology that many thought of as science fiction just a year or two ago," Fischer says.

Dan Kieny, chief information officer at Black & Veatch, Overland Park, Kan., says the combination of tools that are "collaborative in nature"—including model creation and analysis tools, mobile devices, smartphones and tablets—"allows for constant connectivity and creates a dynamic that enables teams to drive toward better solutions, faster." Additionally, many of those tools are adding useful features, such as versioning control, and streamlining previous antiquated processes of document revision, he says.

At one end of the collaboration technology spectrum is a proliferation of dedicated collaboration rooms for use in making decisions based on virtual project data. One vendor, RIB Software AG, Stuttgart, Germany, is expanding its 5D iTWO software—an integration of 3D BIM, quantity takeoff and estimating tools—with an offer of access to a high-tech, fully supported collaboration laboratory in Guangzhou, China. The collaboration lab has been purpose-built to help project teams achieve highly refined virtual designs before tendering and executing projects. The lab idea has caught the fancy of at least 10 RIB customer firms, including Kimly Construction, Singapore; Beijing Jianyi Investment and Construction Group; MT Højgaard; the University of Hong Kong and Georgia Tech University—all of which are planning or building collaboration labs of their own with RIB's technology and expertise.

RIB is building collaboration labs like this one for an iTWO 5D software team in Guangzhou, China. (Photo: RSTA)

RIB is building collaboration labs like this one for an iTWO 5D software team in Guangzhou, China. (Photo: RSTA)

Niels Wingesø Falk, vice president of processes at construction and civil engineering firm MT Højgaard, Copenhagen, says intense competition in the European market has led his firm to look for project partners and seek efficiencies by achieving a high level of virtual design development before tendering and by building its own collaboration lab. "[A lab] is a place that is safe for collaboration, where the process is built into the room with the tools, systems, facilitators and experts," he says. "Conference rooms are for arguing. Collaboration rooms are for agreeing on decisions."

One mind-blowing addition to the collaboration toolbox is a screen-sharing tool from Bluescape, a joint venture of Haworth, a furniture company, and Obscura Digital, a developer of large-screen interactive displays. The system offers a subscription to a persistent—that is, always synchronized—cloud-based platform for real-time collaboration to create, interact with and share content on iPads and laptops or, at the high end, on proprietary, 84-in., multi-touch screens with dedicated controllers and infinite desktop space. As many as 20 can be joined into an interactive wall.

"Bluescape offers tremendous potential to enhance productivity during meetings, making them rich and contextual," said Russ Drinker, managing principal at HOK in comments quoted by the vendor. He anticipates significant efficiency gains in preparing for and capitalizing on meetings, which can be "archived" as piles of marked-up, version-tracked documents that can be reached simply by sweeping the display back in time with the wave of a hand. "Also, the cloud-based aspect of Bluescape allows us to make updates and revisions on the fly from any device, anywhere, anytime," Drinker added.

Bluescape's cloud-based interactive walls offer huge multi-touch screens for continuous collaboration. (Photo: Haworth)

Bluescape's cloud-based interactive walls offer huge multi-touch screens for continuous collaboration. (Photo: Haworth)

Matthew Dierolf, network systems manager at New York City-based EA firm STV, says coordinating across locations and servers to make sure everyone has the latest version of a design is slow and arduous, with lots of room for confusion. To address this, STV turned to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology, which simultaneously delivers data visualization from a central server to multiple user screens, eliminating synchronization issues. "Our teams are often spread out across various project sites, which proves incredibly challenging for collaboration," says Dierolf. But first efforts were not successful, he says, because it was difficult for remote users with tablets and laptops to work with big 3D models in the field. Models had to be simplified to keep them manageable.

Dierolf says STV recently beat that problem by upgrading to a next-generation VDI that adds powerful graphical processing units (GPUs) made by NVIDIA to the servers. They now deliver rich graphics to remote users in the field. "What really made VDI 2.0 successful was the implementation of new hardware in the data center," he says.

Latency, or sluggish data exchange, is a challenge the server-based GPUs do not address. However, STV is countering latency by upgrading its wide-area network (WAN) to a much higher bandwidth, as well as by implementing SilverPeak WAN optimization devices.

Eric Quinn, IT manager at C&S Cos., an AEC firm based in Syracuse, N.Y., says effective collaboration requires swift communications and instant access to both general information and project data. Communications are much improved, but latency still drags down remote project data access, he says. To address latency, Quinn and others have turned to managed data storage services in the cloud, while keeping applications local. Two strong storage service competitors for the AEC market are Nasuni and Panzura, which rely on locally installed hardware in every office to mirror and synchronize local data in the background with centralized data in the cloud. The systems give users the illusion of working on an in-house model.

"Until recently, we were limited by the technology in bringing the design team together in any really efficient manner," says Quinn. Now, across eight offices, everyone is connected to each other and to all the project data in real time, giving every member of the team every needed resource. "That is the speed of collaboration today," says Quinn.

Adds Andy Knauf, vice president for information technologies at Middleton, Wis.-based AEP firm Mead & Hunt, "This is the sexy solution—to drop a controller in the office and not have to worry about it. It doesn't take a lot to get it to work, either."

Jason McFadden, a project manager in the Southfield, Mich., office of Barton Malow Co., says, "We have absolutely ramped up our use of a combination of mobile devices, cloud computing, cloud storage, file transfer and data syncing services." He adds, "The tipping point is a direct result of the realization that one tool or software system will not drive project-team efficiency—there is no one-size-fits-all software solution. But when you deploy software tools for a specific value and focus on the integration of all the tools, you will achieve unimaginable results."

Yet McFadden—and most of those offering insight for this article—notes that, even though advances in technology enable better collaboration, all the collaboration in the world will barely move the needle on productivity unless designers supply bidders with fully coordinated, accurate, high-level-of-development building information models ready for quantity takeoff and tender.

"What's holding the industry back today is the notion that architects and engineers can persist in producing design-concept drawings and that can be compensated for by contractors doing construction models," says structural engineer Gregory Luth, president of Gregory P. Luth & Associates Inc. For a few marquee projects, his firm has refined proof-of-concept,"high definition" constructible building information models that reduce contractor risk and the need to build in contingencies. "Right now, there is a vanishingly small pool of structural engineers who have the inclination or capability of doing what we do," he admits. "That pool will not increase unless owners and contractors start insisting that architects produce a constructible model."

When they do, he predicts, the construction industry's big, long-sought productivity rocket finally will take off.

The author is senior technology editor for ENR, a part of Dodge Data & Analytics, which is now owned by Symphony Technology Group. His e-mail is tom.sawyer@construction.com


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