Sometimes, it’s good to go to the source of news to get the real scoop. As the Director of Content Development for the online magazine BuiltWorlds, Rob McManamy leads the news and analysis for the construction industry. His experience includes more than 30 years as a reporter, editor, and manager, including jobs with ENR magazine, Design-Build, Building Design + Construction, and other publications. He started at ENR in 1987 but has been a journalist since high school. Rob has covered the Great Chicago Flood, the Mississippi River’s ‘Flood of the Century’, the Los Angeles Earthquake, the post-9/11 rebuilding of the Pentagon, and many other events and topics. ARC Document Solutions recently chatted with Rob about technology in architecture, engineering, and construction and about how innovation is driving change.
What are some of the most compelling things happening in AEC these days?
Rob McManamy: Nothing is more compelling than the global race to rebuild, improve, and expand urban infrastructure everywhere, ahead of the population tsunami projected to overwhelm the world’s cities in the next 20–30 years. Our ongoing SmartWorlds initiative at BuiltWorlds is about embracing the technologies, the problem-solving creativity, the public-private collaboration, and the “urgent optimism” that will be needed to meet these mammoth and unprecedented demands.
What technologies might soon be impacting or being used by our readers in AEC?
RM: Folks are talking about 2016 as the year of the drone and the year of the wearables. Whether it’s UAVs, Smart Helmets, or mobile apps, what we are really talking about is having important, accurate, and actionable information at our fingertips in real-time. That will save money and lives. Everyone should care about safety, of course, but 10 years ago, I worked at the Construction Safety Council. And 12 years before that, I was actually onsite as an ENR reporter in Chicago when a steel collapse happened, and seven ironworkers were badly injured, two fatally. So, I am particularly moved by safety issues, and I find the promise of today’s mobile safety apps very encouraging.
Drones, wearables, robotics, driverless vehicles, 3D printing, and modular construction are all here, but nobody really knows how drastically they will change our industry. Each innovation on its own has the potential to spur big change that could be both good and bad. Among other benefits, drones offer site surveillance and aerial progress photography, but they may also help with health and safety issues like performing remote inspections on inaccessible infrastructure. 3D printed materials and modular assembly schemes combined with robotics and driverless delivery may one day eliminate many of the most repetitive tasks in our industry.
Of course, any laborsaving inventions naturally worry union and nonunion labor. But I do not think the future should be feared by anyone. There will be plenty of work for everyone—I am sure of that. Fear just keeps us from getting to that work as soon as we need to, which we’re already behind on. So, again, our core mission at BuiltWorlds really revolves around that term “urgent optimism.” We know our vast, creative, and resilient industry is up to all of the great challenges that now face us—be they environmental or even fiscal. We just need to stop putting things off.
Do you think BIM use will continue to grow in popularity, but that it will be a skill outsourced to other companies by smaller firms who can’t afford (or don’t need) a BIM staffer?
RM: BIM use will continue to grow, driven by the growing number of more sophisticated owners like hospitals and universities, which demand BIM. I think out-sourcing BIM will increase because most architects, subs, GCs, and owners are still unsure of how to do it right. And that goes not just for small firms but also for mid-size ones. Firms are driven to keep up with their competitors, but they don’t feel they have time for the learning curve. So, they are happy to pay up-front for outsourced BIM experts who know what they are doing. That is the business premise of AEC Hackathon founder Paul Doherty’s new Chicago-based company, TheBIMco, and I think it makes a lot of sense. A BuiltWorlds advisor, Doherty has told us he started the firm because he was tired of waiting for all the disciplines in our industry to catch up with each other and to use BIM in the way it was originally intended—not just to help design buildings but to monitor and improve building performance as well. It is a tool that can really help the built environment. But to date, only a fraction of its capabilities have been used.
Are BIM and many of the other technologies spreading in construction making the industry leaner and stronger?
RM: RFID tagging and just-in-time delivery and equipment rentals are helping firms use and deploy materials and equipment more efficiently. In addition to improving safety, new field reporting apps are also helping to reduce rework and delays and improving profitability.
In your opinion, what sorts of technological needs are not being met in AEC? Or what sorts of needs must be met faster or more efficiently?
RM: Really, I think the technology is there. Frankly, it is the implementation and the will that are lagging. But once that picks up, it will drive even more innovation. For instance, these AEC Hackathons that have been going on around the US for the last two years—and in London last fall—are really great exercises for the broader industry, from the early adopters to those who are scrambling to catch up. Architects, contractors, and hackers all come together for a weekend, share what interoperability problems they have been experiencing with technology, and then break up into teams to develop solutions. Several apps have already been developed in these mini-boot camps that later benefited the entire industry. In fact, BuiltWorlds hosted Chicago’s first-ever AEC Hackathon last March, and we will do it again in May. These events foster collaboration among competitors and help push our entire industry forward.
Can you name some of the tech tools in AEC that you believe are working particularly well?
RM: In the interest of full disclosure, Procore, Newforma, Autodesk, PlanGrid, and FieldLens among others all advertise with us, so I don’t want to single out any one tool. We chronicle what’s working and what’s not. Often, we have thought leaders from these companies talk about industry-wide problems and how they can be solved collaboratively.
It seems every day there’s a new project management tool or task management app that comes to market in the US construction industry. Do you think this sort of gold rush to innovation, so to speak, will continue for years ahead?
RM: Project management tools are really just a fraction of the global gold rush that has been going on for years. Last summer, I know James Benham at JB Knowledge said that he believes a shakeout is coming at some point, and I agree. It has to. There are just too many apps out there and too many do variations of the same thing. So, from the customer side, there is a glut out there now that keeps the costs of adoption and implementation low. On the down side, some firms that have attracted significant venture capital may not be around in a year or so. That will have a chilling effect on new startups, but to be honest, that may not be a bad thing in the short term. We need a breather to allow the marketplace to sort through what is out there, to let individual customers discover what works best for them.
What one change in perspective in AEC makes you most hopeful about the future success of the industry?
RM: Collaboration. Tech platforms are forcing parties to collaborate, parties who, in the past, may have only seen each other in court after a project went south. Now, that’s an exaggeration, but there is some degree of truth to it. Years ago, the joke used to be that the three stages of any large project was “design, construction, litigation.” Indeed, our industry has long been notorious for being one of the most litigious and least productive. Technology offers the tools to help turn all of that around. But the old mindsets have to change, too. Frankly, we already see hints of that. The generation that has grown up with technology is now entering the workforce. Soon, they will be occupying the C-suites; they will be among the owners, the contractors, the architects, and the subs. It may be slow and sometimes subtle, but that change is already happening.
Interviewer Jonathan Barnes is an ARC Document Solutions freelance writer and a contributor to BuiltWorlds and other publications.