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The Three Big Questions raised by Digital Construction Week

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Virtual reality backpacks, voice-activated fully automated design and too many acronyms to even start to mention, Digital Construction Week at London’s Excel was filled with a breath-taking world of possibilities.

But the changes we are witnessing are also daunting. We can’t stay where we are, but we don’t quite know the destination, and there’s certainly no tried and tested journey planner. Every route is potentially full of road blocks, dead ends or breakdowns.

For construction professionals and employers navigating this landscape, the nature of the beast means there’s a mindboggling amount to think about.

Here’s three of the big questions the show and conference raised for me. Just don’t expect hard and fast answers – just yet.

1. Can we kiss goodbye to 2D?

There was no shortage of demonstrations or discussions about virtual technology and new product launches, but just how far and how fast can we expect the industry to go in moving from 2D drawings to walking around a virtual office, from the handiness of your own smartphone?

The uptake of immersive technologies, including augmented reality and virtual reality, was definitely a case of when, not maybe. Though scepticism remains that at the moment it’s more of a gimmick than a serious work tool, the benefits immersive technologies brought to visualisation were being extolled all over the place.

As Mark Bew, PCSG chair and head of the BIM Task Group, said: “Clients don’t understand 2D drawings but immersive technology can help them understand the design process and therefore help make it more productive.” Indeed, as Riddhi Parakh, an associate at Gensler, speaking on an Umbra-led discussion panel on the role of VR said, some clients are now demanding it. 

Chris Thorn, principal technology & process consultant at Aecom, thought that augmented reality would prove far more useful on projects initially, whilst Umbra’s chief executive Otso Mäkinen said that devices would soon be available where users would be able to flit between the two.

There were associated costs and skills barriers to take up – but the technology was coming down in price all the time. Umbra launched new software to bring VR and AR into greater use in architecture and construction – which allows 3D models to be viewed in all their complexity on a smartphone.

Elsewhere, IT giant HP launched a virtual reality backpack that could be used by the construction industry to explore virtual buildings.

The Z VR Backpack is wearable as a workstation and connects easily to VR goggles. It will enable construction workers to wander through buildings on a virtual walk-through, simulating any stage of the build process.

It has been developed from an original model designed for gamers after HP realised the potential for business users. At DCW it was certainly a main attraction.

The elephant in the room, however, is whether 3D and immersive technology will make the ultimate leap into mainstream – and rather than have to issue drawings for clients to sign off, whether they’ll start giving the go ahead from a virtual walk through.

2. Going digital: are we getting there?

Undoubtedly one of the biggest issues the show threw a spotlight on was the digitisation of construction and the implementation of BIM. Government mandated the use of Level 2 Building Information Modelling on public projects in April 2016.

Within a decade, leaders heading up the Digital Built Britain strategy suggest that over the next decade we’ll be totally connected. BIM will combine with the Internet of Things, advanced data analytics and the digital economy, allowing us to plan more effectively, build at a lower cost and operate more efficiently.

Many standards need to be put in place to realise the massive scale of this ambition, processes developed, coupled with a huge cultural change to make this possible – but as we were told at the show BIM Level 2 is the foundation to it all.

Mark Bew said that we’re not as far down the road as we’d like to be, but crucially we’d made the first step. He said that many countries around the world are now copying the UK blueprint. “We are working with other nations around the world to see how we can put digital exports in place and setting up an EU task group,” he said.

His colleague in the BIM Task Group, Terry Stocks, who is driving BIM take up in the public sector, came with good news. There are grumblings in the industry that government clients haven’t been as attentive to mandating BIM as they ought to have been.

Stocks assured the audience that government spending departments support the Level 2 mandate, that a public sector BIM client group was growing and that there were a number of flagship schemes coming down the line – not least the prison service opting for Design for Manufacture and Assembly in its forthcoming prison rebuild programme.

The BIM Task Group will also be testing how successful BIM has been using a model devised by PWC, he said.

So far so good. But to put into perspective how far there still is to go, John Eynon, representing the BIM Alliance, said: “Don’t be distracted by Level 3. We have to have lived in Level 1 and Level 2 first. But we have to share and collaborate properly. We can barely operate a common data environment or name a file properly. We have to work with the whole supply chain and it’s about time everyone started pulling their weight.

“We encompass 2 to 3 million people in construction. Less than 25% of the industry is at Level 2. That means we’ve influenced about 200,000 in six years. By 2020 we have to have influenced 10 times that number.” Or, in other words, we’re still in first or possibly second gear.

3. Will robots take the place of architects and engineers?

Expect this question to crop up time and time again – in construction as elsewhere. It’s the new conundrum for the professional classes and no one has any ideas of the ultimate impact. That’s not so surprising when Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg have very different visions for the future themselves.

For sheer razzamatazz and a glimpse of the possibilities the demonstration from Autodesk of the future of design was an eye opener. Mike Haley, head of machine intelligence group at Autodesk Research, said the future held prospects of a voice-activated machine that managed to optimise design for a building in the blink of an eye – giving the client dozens of layouts to choose from into the bargain.

Reassuringly, Giulio Antonutto, associate director, Arup, said humans would always have a creative role to play. “A lot of information can be automated, but the human element still has to be there. Machines don’t feel pain, machines are always right, they don’t question their outcomes.

“Humans still have to be creative to have the ideas in the first place – machines don’t do that. Designers need to be vigilant – if we stop thinking because the machine does it for us, there is no point in living.” You can’t argue with that.

Humans still have to be creative to have the ideas in the first place – machines don’t do that. Designers need to be vigilant – if we stop thinking because the machine does it for us, there is no point in living.– Giulio Antonutto, Arup