Marc Durand, Atkins’ new director of digital disruption for the Middle East and Africa, on efforts to get clients on board with innovation and why a virtual reality model is worth a thousand drawings.
Why is disruption important for architecture, engineering and construction?
The industry has always been slow to react to new ways of working, but with buildings becoming increasingly intelligent and complex traditional approaches are no longer appropriate. Radical new innovations are required and Atkins wants to be at the forefront.
What do you hope to achieve in your new role?
To accelerate the pace at which Atkins leads the digital revolution within the industry. My role is to streamline internal project delivery to make it more agile to respond to global economic changes, and the unfortunate reality of clients wanting more for less money.
Another goal is to transform the dynamics of client-facing engagement, where before this involved asking the client what they required for a project and providing a solution, now it should be more about explaining what digital technology is available and coming soon and trying to educate and advise them.
What are the most disruptive digital technologies around today?
We are seeing a massive shift into virtual and augmented reality, which offers the possibility to bring pretty much anyone from anywhere into a project eco-system.
Immersive environments help demystify the understanding of data. Not everyone can do coding or manage databases, but everyone can quickly learn to navigate a virtual model and access data through it. People say a picture is worth a thousand words, well a good VR model is worth a thousand drawings.
We are currently using VR to engage stakeholders in the design for an extension to the Dubai Metro (pictured).
The technology helps ensure a clear and comprehensive approach between the client, the design intent and contractor input. In the past, projects in the Middle East have required numerous design changes as a result of problems understanding 2D drawings.
How important will 3D printing be to the future of the industry?
It will be crucial, the Dubai government has clearly stated that it wants 25 to 30% of all future projects to be 3D printed, which is a very ambitious target. I don’t have a crystal ball to forecast what that will mean exactly, but it’s pretty exciting because it will force people to be more creative.
Atkins is working to understand how 3D printing can enhance designs, for example embedding systems such as MEP ducting or pipes within 3D printed walls, which would have been impossible a couple of years ago.
There is a general move away from iconic and unique building types to buildings that are more durable with better energy performance. 3D printing could make it simpler to produce more generic layouts that can be recycled and rearranged for different purposes.
Dubai mandated the use of BIM in 2013. How has implementation progressed since then?
Almost every building with public access, such as a shopping mall, a hospital or a hotel, must be delivered using BIM under mandate and pretty much every tier one or tier two company now delivers in BIM software.
That said, the “level” supply chains need to achieve has not been clearly defined and the government doesn’t have the facility to review and audit BIM projects. Major contractors have reacted surprisingly positively to BIM adoption and it has reached the point where many choose to implement it even when they are not required to by the client.
BIM is business as usual at Atkins, it is a better way to deliver and we are removing the CAD layer which is largely redundant.
What impact can disruptive digital technologies have on health and safety?
Atkins is starting to look at how VR can be used to help workers rehearse difficult on site assemblies or other procedures. Training virtually helps optimise the process because you can create H&S simulations specific to a project and people can train remotely without having to go onto a dangerous job site.
Many large-scale projects in the Middle East involve large machines and objects and accidents have occurred due to vehicle collisions, so VR could make a big difference.
Are you doing any pioneering work with drones?
Yes, our R&D team is looking at how to map drone surveys against BIM models to check as-built data against what was designed.
How far will digital technology have taken us in 10 years?
There will be a massive acknowledgement and adoption of “intelligent mobility”, everyone will have their own “virtual DNA” in the form of a digital footprint, focused on the smartphone, which will enable anyone to know who you are, where you are and what you liked in an instant.
Data will really surround us and every device will be able to speak to each other.
I would like to believe that all projects will be paperless and BIM will have evolved to the point where we virtually construct and approve all buildings before they go to site, then have machines build them for us.
That said, there are many challenges, the biggest being resistance from older employees used to drawing with their hands – my dad is an architect who still uses a pencil and ruler and when I speak to him it’s a bit like we are talking a different language.
The more digital technologies we have on site, the more we will need a new generation of youngster to drive it.