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A Blueprint for Unleashing AEC Innovation

By Ron Fritz • 
August 30th, 2023

There’s a saying in technological circles that people greatly overestimate what can be accomplished in a year, but they greatly underestimate what can be accomplished over the course of a decade.

It’s worth applying this lens to the AEC (architecture, engineering, and construction) space, which has historically been one of the slower industries to embrace change.

If we hopped in the wayback machine to 2013, where would we be pleasantly surprised to see signs of transformation and progress in 2023 – and where would we be positively baffled at issues that still haven’t been resolved yet? Moreover, how do we think things might evolve over the next ten years – and what will it take to fully unleash AEC innovation that will propel the industry forward?

Still struggling with creating connection

It’s no secret that construction projects are massively complex and require collaboration on a grand scale amongst multiple stakeholders. Just as it has in decades past, the industry is still struggling to make this elegantly happen in 2023. What should be a seamless, connected process is instead completely disconnected and marked by manual processes, rework, and duplication of effort.

If you look at the manufacturing space, they’ve largely been able to wring inefficiencies out of their processes through lean manufacturing initiatives and frameworks like Six Sigma that are designed to produce things in the most efficient way possible while ensuring a high-quality output.

Cut to the construction space, where it’s not uncommon for the conceptual design of a structure to be created in one application, then manually recreated in a separate BIM (building information modeling) application, then manually printed out and shared with other stakeholders in the form of paper. Not exactly a paragon of efficiency.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however. While we might have hoped to be further along on the efficiency front by 2023, that just means there’s a significant opportunity here for vendors to create a more seamless, connected workflow – one that allows data to be shared and repurposed at multiple points in the building lifecycle, from initial design, through construction, and into ongoing operation, once the handover has occurred.

To get there, though, technological limitations are not the only hurdle that needs to be cleared. In fact, many vendors are already producing innovative solutions that tackle these challenges – but in order for their innovation to fully take root and flourish, the business model of construction needs some tweaking.

Owners can be a catalyst for change

Right now, there is very little incentive for collaboration among the different parties involved in a construction project, from the architects and engineers, to the contractors and sub-contractors. Each party knows how to do their slice of the project, and – this being a risk-averse industry – they’re happy to stick with what they know has worked in the past, even if there are more efficient tools available that could create a more connected process.

There’s hope on this front too, though. One of the reasons why the construction industry has managed to resist embracing new tools and technologies is because they’ve been allowed to. The people hiring them to build something have requested that they use the latest technologies, but they haven’t required it.

That’s starting to change. In the past, it was mainly just owners of massive properties –casino companies, for example – that cared about having visibility into a project throughout the entire project lifecycle. Now, there are companies like the megacap tech titans who also care very much about having visibility into the new datacenter or corporate campus that someone is constructing for them.

The more of these types of enlightened owners there are, the better – because they are the ones who fully see the value of a connected process and push the use of sophisticated collaboration tools to the fullest extent. It’s exactly this sort of pressure that will help pull the construction industry into the 21st century.

Room for new innovations

While this push from owners will be essential to shifting the industry's mindset and creating a sense of urgency for adopting new technologies, it will also provide fertile ground for new innovations to gain a foothold and shape what the industry will look like ten years from now.

AI, for instance, is already starting to showcase its potential and could head in many different directions. Initially, it’s not hard to see AI being put to use to solve practical everyday problems, like automating the conversion of different file formats and then extracting specific pieces of information from the files in an automated and intelligent fashion.

During construction, robotic automation and data capture will be able to fully keep tabs on the progress of the project – and layering AI on top of that data will help analyze and identify where any bottlenecks are occurring and what can be done to optimize the work in progress.

Eventually, we’re likely to see AI-powered construction solutions developed on a platform where customers simply define their requirements or the task they’re trying to accomplish, and the platform will automatically create an application to solve their problem. This potential ubiquity is something to be applauded; after all, if you could reduce the amount of time required to accomplish certain workflows – all while increasing quality and reducing project risk – why wouldn’t you?

Hold on to your hard hats, folks

In many ways, the construction industry has – in its own slow and steady way – evolved over the years, but it still has plenty of room for growth and improvement. To unleash its full potential for innovation, stakeholders must collectively shift their mindset and recognize the value of connected processes and efficient workflows.

When the AEC industry finally embraces this much-needed transformation, it’ll be paving the way for new innovations that incorporate automation and AI. As a result, ten years from now, we might check back in on the state of the AEC landscape and find it hard to believe just how much the industry has evolved over the course of a decade.

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