1.6 Trillion Reasons Why Autodesk Is Re-focusing on the Construction Industry
John Hayes posted on November 30, 2017 |

Users of Autodesk’s construction solutions, such as AutoCAD and BIM 360, could be forgiven for feeling a little neglected of late. After all, the splashiest announcements in recent years have been for Autodesk’s manufacturing customers. 

This year, that has all changed.

The big news now is about construction technology. Autodesk is betting that bringing manufacturing processes to the construction industry, what they call “industrializing construction,” will reduce waste, speed-up building timelines and improve quality, all while reducing cost. 

Digitalizing the construction industry could lead to a $1.6 Trillion of economic value.  (Information courtesy of McKinsey & Company.)
Digitalizing the construction industry could lead to a $1.6 Trillion of economic value. (Information courtesy of McKinsey & Company.)
Autodesk’s new CEO, Andrew Anagnost, lamented the state of the construction industry.

“We all know (the construction industry) wastes about 30 percent of its resources on every single project. It’s also responsible for about 40 percent of what we see inside landfills,” he said.

But Anagnost also enthused about the opportunity. The construction industry is huge.

Consulting firm Mckinsey estimates that 7 percent of the global workforce is employed in construction, and that it generates $10 trillion in annual revenue. Historically,construction companies have had a relatively low investment in technology. Brian Roepke, Autodesk senior director, estimated it at around 1 percent of revenue. However, he went on to state that now, “up to 80 percent of construction companies have outfitted their teams in the field with remote computing capabilities. This leads to an enormous opportunity.”

According to McKinsey, the construction industry lags the global economy in terms of the value added per hour of labor. Their calculation suggests that digitalization of construction processes could save the industry $1.6 trillion. That’s a lot of reasons for Autodesk to focus its development efforts on construction.

Digitalizing the Construction Industry

The primary near-term opportunities for digitalization are in:

  • Capturing as-built, greenfield or brownfield environments through laser scanners or photogrammetry (processed imagery, often captured from drones).
  • Creating full-scale 3D models that ensure the appropriate level of fidelity for any level of interrogation.
  • Allowing easier access to real-time data to automate the countless design and construction processes in the office and in the field.
  • Enabling easier and earlier exposure to simulated designed environments through augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR).
  • Consulting giant AECOM recently hired Peter Brickell for the new role of director of digital transformation.

“At this year’s Autodesk University there were hundreds of examples of new software, virtual reality and augmented reality in use. This rapid increase is seeing the construction industry catch up digitally with the manufacturing industry,” Brickell said. “Whether it is generative design processes enabling greater testing of options for clients, to fabrication and modular-ready design information cutting construction times and waste, I believe we are only really at the start of our digital journey.”

Skanska, a construction company, was an early adopter of one such digital technology. It recently began to leverage virtual reality to win new contracts. According to Skanska’s Kelsey Stein, 6.3 million virtual reality headsets were sold last year.

“Our local pre-construction team bought just one of those headsets,” she said. “We ended up using it to win five of the next six projects we pursued for a total of $700 million dollars.”

This video shows how Skanska was able to use Virtual Reality to explore design options, material options and costs with its clients.

Stein added that, “VR is a great tool for construction. The simplicity of the workflow that went from Revit to Live to Max Interactive allowed us to bypass traditional rendering software.”

“VR is a great tool for construction. The simplicity of the workflow…. allowed us to bypass traditional rendering software.” – Kelsey Stein, Skanska

Another company benefitting from digitalization is Van Wijnen, a construction firm with headquarters in the Netherlands. According to Hibrand Katsma, chief operating officer, Van Wijnen decided it needed to “future proof” business by embracing digitalization. He pointed out that the construction industry traditionally treats every building as a one-off project with unique designs, different supply chains and their own unique project schedules.

The company saw an opportunity to emulate manufacturing companies by standardizing many of these elements for residential business. By doing so, the company hoped to reduce costs by 15 percent and cut construction time in half.

To be future proof, we decided we needed to reduce costs by 15 percent, and for certain projects we have to build 50 percent faster.” – Hilbrand Katsma, Van Wijnen COO

Part of its approach to standardization was to design components that could be reused. This can help shorten the time to build to as little as three days while still allowing clients to personalize their homes. As Katsma pointed out, this is much more like manufacturing a product than a traditional construction project. 

“We designed hundreds of smart modular components that can be used in many different configurations,” said Hilbrand Katsma, COO.
“We designed hundreds of smart modular components that can be used in many different configurations,” said Hilbrand Katsma, COO.
The company pursued digitalization as a path to achieve these goals, shifting from 2D drawings to 3D building information models.

“We trained the construction team to use tablets, easing communication with the design team in the office, reducing clashes and sequencing changes on the job site, all while moving to paperless,” Katsma said.

Van Wijnen now invites clients into this process using virtual reality. Much like Skanska, VR at Van Wijnen allows clients to visualize material choices and see the financial impact of decisions. Once those steps are complete, Katsma said they can automatically generate the documents for the building permits and all of the order lists for the supply chain with one touch.

These are just a few examples of companies in the construction industry that are achieving significant competitive advantage by embracing digitalization. Autodesk sees early wins like these as indications of the scale of the opportunity for its customers through digitalization. To fully realize this opportunity, however, requires more software solutions than Autodesk alone can develop.

Forge - a New Platform for Third-Party Developers

“It would be virtually impossible for any one vendor to develop all of the solutions that any design team would need in any circumstance, so opening the platform up to third-party development makes a lot of sense,” said Steven Hooper, Autodesk senior director business strategy and marketing.

In this case, Hooper was referring to Forge, a development platform that Autodesk is making open to third-party developers. According to Jim Quanci, senior director of software partner development, Forge is the plumbing that makes applications work.

“Forge is a platform for developing third-party products, but also for Autodesk to develop our products,” he said. “Forge is made to allow software developers to access meta-data and certain other elements of Autodesk files to display in their own applications in a way that is very fast and easy to develop.”

Autodesk’s Jim Quanci “Forge is a platform for developing 3rd party products, but also for Autodesk to develop our products.”

Autodesk’s Jim Quanci “Forge is a platform for developing 3rd party products, but also for Autodesk to develop our products.”

That means Forge is not for end-users. It’s intended to be used by third-party developers similar to the way that Apple and Google allow app development on their smartphone platforms. 

Forge also can be used by certain end-user companies that have enough resources to build their own applications. 

“People with Web development skills can build Web pages that combine data from CAD applications with other solutions like ERP, IoT platforms or maintenance programs and display it in new ways to gather unique insights,” Quanci said. 

This is all possible because Forge is built using standard Web languages and connections allowing the data to flow across multiple domains without having to write and maintain individual APIs.

“In the past, software developers predominantly used application-specific APIs to connect to other programs. Now, applications often sit on top of platforms like Forge that hold data and provide more open and often application-independent interfaces,” said Allan Behrens of analyst firm Taxal. “Applications that run on platforms such as Forge may provide individual interface and function. They provide differing views of data (and functions) that’ll be useful to different types of users. For example, a third-party application could take advantage of native workflows within a platform and other interconnected apps that run on the platform in combination with their own unique data sets.”

Quanci explained that, “developers can use Forge to reach into any CAD file from virtually any system, including NX or Creo, and display the geometry, the BOM, the assembly structure, etc.” However, developers can not use Forge to access all of the lower level data within a file. This means, for example, that developers using Forge can’t yet eliminate the need to maintain multiple versions of models.

“This is an understood problem,” Quanci acknowledged. “Making lower level data accessible is on our longer- term road map.”

The Forge platform is powerful in that it offers developers powerful applications, such as reality capture that can digitize photographs. Autodesk also is making micro-services available on Forge. These micro-services can be thought of as pieces of the overall Forge platform that is split into components and repackaged into individual services. These in turn can be repackaged by third-party developers.


Doubling Down on Construction Technology with the Forge Fund

Autodesk’s $100 million Forge Fund was launched to invest in small companies that can benefit from using the Forge platform. In the past five months, the fund has invested in four technology companies in the construction industry, demonstrating just a few of the ways that digitalization will impact construction:

Assemble Systems has developed a SaaS platform for models, drawings and point clouds. This 3D data supports processes such as bid management, project management, estimating, scanning and schedule management.

San Francisco-based Project Frog creates software and prefabricated building platforms. The company leverages cloud software and growing a network of distributed manufacturing networks to deliver customized building kits to customers.

Smartvid.io uses machine learning to process imagery from job sites to alert project owners to potential issues, such as workers failing to wear safety equipment. Smartvid.io’s platform can recognize things within images, so a particular stakeholder can identify and act on pictures that relate to their responsibilities, such as all video clips that show ductwork.

Boston-based ManufactOn helps construction firms plan, track and manage both prefabrication and regular material handling through their SaaS platform. With more contractors making use of mobile technology, ManufactOn intends to keep contractors in the loop by making information visible to all users who need to see it.


The Future Is Coming to the Construction Industry

The opportunity for digitalization is being embraced by start-ups and large construction and engineering companies alike. However, the road is likely to be a long one.

According to AECOM’s Brickell, “The resistances to this change in our industry are evident in how long it has already taken us to embrace the technology we already have. For this digital transformation to occur we are going to need to see fundamental changes in how we programme, procure and build our projects. This is one of the biggest changes the industry faces when balancing risks and PI responsibility against the best and most innovative ways of designing and building.”

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