Optimism fuels FutureTech, collaborative momentum grows

Optimism fuels FutureTech, collaborative momentum grows

by ROB McMANAMY in Atlanta

Despite uncertainty surrounding the host's new ownership, legal concerns over liability in the age of multi-platform collaboration, and doubts about the sustainability of yet another sports construction boom, feelings of genuine excitement and overall optimism were still more than enough to overwhelm the ENR FutureTech conference at Georgia Tech University earlier this month. 

  Gilbane's Klawans.

  Gilbane's Klawans.

"Our industry is in the midst of creative disruption right now, and the pace of change, itself, is accelerating," said speaker Sue Klawans, VP and director of operational excellence for Gilbane Building Co., the family-owned, Providence RI-based general contractor started in 1873. Thanks to the tech revolution, "we're a 140-year-old startup," she added. "We're all startups now. And the real change that companies like us have to commit to is as much cultural as anything else." 

And more and more, that cultural imperative is forcing older management at many companies to resist the instinct to exert more control over younger, often more creative employees.

"One CIO at (a large contractor) told me that when he joined them 18 months ago, he was originally asked to rein in all the 'shadow tech' that was going on in different parts of the company," recalled Stephen Jones, conference chair and senior director of Dodge Data & Analytics, NYC. "The more this fellow looked into the supposed problem, though, the more he realized this was not a bad thing. So, he went back to management and said 'No, I am not going to stop these people. What they are doing is some of the most creative problem-solving we've got going on anywhere here.'" 

              Dodge's Steve Jones details the upward and outward trends in BIM use. (Photo by Pointivo)

              Dodge's Steve Jones details the upward and outward trends in BIM use. (Photo by Pointivo)

[Of note, the conference was host ENR's first FutureTech event since being sold in November by McGraw-Hill Financial to Symphony Technology Group, a strategic private equity firm based in Palo Alto CA. (Read our previous story on that transaction here.) The new entity, of which is ENR is a part, is Dodge Data & Analytics. No employees on hand would comment for the record about the new owners, but one did say that gauging Symphony's intentions for its new magazine properties was "like trying to read tea leaves."] 

To that point about letting the more creative employees act on their creativity, Klawans offered her own example. "We would not be using Oculus Rift right now if our own (VDC engineer) John Myers had not taken it upon himself to go to the store, buy one, bring it back to the office and start using it," she said, as Myers sat smiling nearby.

Generational peer pressure also may be intruding, but not necessarily from the direction you might imagine. "When the 'grey hairs' on our job sites are using smart tablets, the young kids we hire see that and think, well, guess I'd better start using it, too," said Mark Bryant, chief information officer at Denver-based PCL Construction.

"For the first time really, our industry now has four generations working under the same roof," observed Paul Doherty, president & CEO of the digit group. "All of them can learn from each other."

Indeed, regardless of their age, employees and colleagues at different companies are gaining tech skills at an unprecedented rate. "Tech is moving faster today than it ever has," added Bryant. "In October 2013, we surveyed our employees and found that under 100 were using mobility devices in the field. This fall, we just asked them that same question again and found that over 800 were!"

Collaboration climbs as its cost falls

With demand growing from all corners of the industry, some larger players are not content to wait for tech developers to meet their particular need. PCL, for instance, said that early next year, it plans to release another updated version of its own collaborative app for subcontractor bidding.

"This is just a wonderful time for enabling access and collaboration," said Matt Harris, senior vice president of strategy at Viewpoint Construction Software, Portland, OR. "The costs for these apps are just dropping like a rock now."

"There's never been a better time to try things," added Ricardo Khan, director of virtual construction for M.A. Mortenson, Minneapolis. "The nice thing now is that all of these things that we're talking about are cheaper now than they have ever been."

Even so, that is not slowing their development at all. "In eight months, we will be releasing our first incubated, in-house mobility app," announced Viewpoint's Harris.

(Speaking of apps, Atlanta's own Rob McKinney, aka the Construction AppGuru, also presented at the conference. Here's his own take on the FutureTech highlights.)

One presentation that caught McKinney's eye was by Matt Naugle, integration applications engineer at Thornton Tomasetti's CORE Studio. He talked about the Grasshopper and 3D Platypus platforms for live BIM coordination among designers. It allows all users to make changes in real time during the design meeting, and those changes are then incorporated into the model. The goal?

"We are trying to get more integration and collaboration into the construction process sooner," explained Naugle. "The plug-in lets all disciplines work together, remotely and simultaneously."

BIGGER DATA = BIGGER responsibility

In addition to greatly enhancing collaboration, technology also has resulted in an explosion of critical information, both on the job site and off. Some now worry about how all parties can keep up  and remain on the same page, lest they open themselves up to greater legal liability.

"All of us on projects now are responsible for uploading what we know, at the time that we know it," said presenter Ju Lee Kang, development technologies partner at MVE + Partners, Irvine CA. "We are all now stewards of information, and designers are really the authors of the first draft. The problem today is that everyone is still designing in their own silos."

The technology is coming, though, that will all but eliminate those silos, or at least build so many bridges connecting them that the barriers will effectively disappear. In some situations, in fact, that technology is already here. In others, it still needs further development.

"Our industry has to invest in technology," said Doherty, adding "we are actually behind the fishing industry in tech investment!"

Of course, as costs come down, even hurdles to increased investment will fall. So, it would seem likely that the built environment is poised for an even broader technology explosion. 'It is an exciting time," said Mortenson's Khan. "And we are looking at tech innovation now not just for a competitive edge, but also as a way to drive the industry forward, on a macro level."

For more coverage and quotes from FutureTech (Dec. 11-12), visit BW's Twitter feed


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