Autodesk Moves Avatar Visualization Technology to the AEC Industries

Autodesk Meets Avatar Podcast

The world of movie making is really not too distant from the world of building. Chris Ruffo, the senior industry marketing manager for design visualization at Autodesk’s Media and Entertainment Division draws the analogy by saying they are both really about story telling.

You’re telling a story and the people who are able to communicate that story more effectively are the ones who typically win more business and have better relationships with the client, and the public.

Autodesk played a starring role in the recent movie “Avatar” by making it possible for the director, James Cameron, to direct the movie as if it were a live action picture, even though large portions were dependent upon computer generated (CG) content.

He was able to look through the viewfinder of any camera he was using, walk around with it and actually see a low lit proxy of what that final scene was going to look like, with the characters in it and with the CG backgrounds. So he could really make creative decisions on the spot about how he was directing that picture.

Now, the same technologies that Autodesk is bringing to the movies are also crossing the line into its AEC products. Users are now using these tools to create highly realistic visualizations of not only the buildings and infrastructure being built, but also of the human interaction going on within, and around them. The real-time technology that is moving into the design tools of AEC is going to speed up the design process and help designers to more quickly assess the effects of design changes and adjustments.

There is much more in the interview above with Chris Ruffo. You can find more information about Autodesk’s involvement with Avatar here. Plus, if you’d like to check out Autodesk’s many activities in the field of visualization you can find much more about that here.

The Upside to the Construction Depression May Carry Seeds of Creativity

Roger K. Lewis draws some interesting conclusions about the future of architecture (and it’s hard to deny the future of architecture has a direct impact on the future of construction and engineering) in his recent article in the Washington Post.

He contrasts the excesses of the Burj Dubai, and MGM Grand’s City Center in Las Vegas, with the realities of reconciling the built environment’s environmental impact in the years to come. He no doubt peers into what can be described as a prophetically accurate crystal ball that reveals perhaps only a small amount of what the world faces in trying to undue humanity’s burden on the planet. But for wise builders, (those most interested in creative building), his predictions about reclaiming the existing built environment should be music to the ears.

Despite current use and physical condition, an existing building embodies an enormous amount of previously invested energy and economic resources. That energy and those resources went into producing, transporting, finishing and installing the building’s many materials, as well as acquiring and preparing the building site, including off-site infrastructure.

And while he admits that many aging buildings may be beyond saving he sees many of them offering new creative design and construction opportunities for all of those in the AEC industries.

Indeed, transformation of existing buildings probably will account for a growing share of construction in coming years, if not decades. And transforming an existing building frequently can be an opportunity for artful creativity and invention, as aesthetically stimulating as constructing something totally new, grandiose and unconventional.

Perhaps there are the seeds of a new paradigm in building here. After all, wouldn’t it be glorious to build creatively in synch with the natural environment, instead of insanely out-of-synch with it?

Marvin’s John Kirchner Opens a View to the 2010 International Builders’ Show

International Builders Show Podcast

From the 19th and well into Friday, the International Builders’ Show is drawing strong crowds. Billed as the “housing industry’s largest annual trade show and exhibition,” the event is sponsored by the National Association of Homebuilders and is being held in Las Vegas. Last year’s show attracted more than 60,000 people. Of course the product line up is a bit mind boggling. Some of the products being showcased include:

  • Lennox Industries (Booth C3130), a leading provider of customized home heating, cooling and indoor air quality systems will unveil a new, revolutionary heating and cooling system powered by renewable energy. The state-of-the-art system, which will hit the market this summer, will help homeowners significantly reduce their energy consumption.
  • U.S. Timberworks (Booth N1276) releases its new product line of timber-frame architectural components, including decorative brackets, corbels, gable trusses and hearth mantles. These offerings will make it easy and affordable to add the timeless beauty of timber framing and increase perceived value of your next project in today’s competitive and demanding marketplace.
  • Tiger Claw Inc. (Booth N3103) will debut the Tiger Claw Semi-Automatic Hidden Deck Fastener Installation Gun for Trex. It will also showcase the new Tiger Jaw tool designed to eliminate the need for a sledge hammer and muscle power when installing hidden deck fasteners and surface boards.
  • Salient Software Inc. (Booth C949) offers builder intelligence software that comprises state-of-the-art dashboards and scorecards built with IBM Cognos software specifically for home builders for faster, informed, coordinated decisions. This web-based software lets the decision makers receive instant up-to-the-minute information anywhere, anytime in areas like sales, field operations, finance and purchasing.

John Kirchner, public relations manager for Marvin Windows and Doors spoke with me on the phone from the show floor and confirmed that even though economic times are still challenging there is a lot of positive energy around homebuilding and the products being shown. He also mentioned his picks for a couple of the coolest products he’s seen, and then told me about one huge sliding glass door that Marvin is exhibiting on the floor. Listen in to the podcast above.

Brave New World of Equipment Management Opens on Two Fronts

Construction Informer Podcast with Brad Mathews of Dexter Chaney

There are companies that are not in the business of equipment manufacturing and sales that sell products focused on increasing the productivity and profitability of the equipment. Using these products it’s now possible to know not only where a machine is at all times, but to also know in real time its fuel use, most recent maintenance service, and a wealth of other vital statistics. This information is increasingly valuable because it is fed into an enterprise accounting system as it is gathered.

Equipment Telematics

An effort that has been underway by equipment manufacturers for several years, called telematics, is another form of data aggregation that is more specifically designed for the information needs of the manufacturers and dealers. There are similarities in the kinds of data being gathered using telematics, and that being gathered by third parties. I explore some of the differences between the two in this podcast with Brad Mathews, vice president of marketing for Dexter + Chaney, developers of the Spectrum Equipment Service System. Listen in above.

Equipment Managers Lead Effort to Free Machine Telematics

Many construction companies that rely on fleets of equipment are encouraged by the promises of telematics.

Now being built into a high percentage of construction equipment, telematics takes the output from equipment monitoring systems, combines it with the GPS information that gives the location of the equipment, and sends the information wirelessly to a Web site where it can be accessed by the equipment manufacturer, its dealers, and equipment owners.

Beyond that manufacturer-centric vision, telematics also offers the potential for a fleet manager to have real-time data that includes the machine’s location, its fuel consumption, its hour meter reading, idle time, and preventive maintenance compliance statistics. But as you might suspect there are a few complications.

Each manufacturer makes the information for their brand of equipment only available on their Web sites, so the fleet manager has to get the information there. That means the data isn’t integrated into the end-user’s enterprise software system. The other problem is that equipment manufacturers package the data in their own proprietary formats. A construction company that has equipment from different manufacturers is stuck accessing the telematics data from several Web sites.

“Currently, for an asset manager to track his mixed fleet for even general information requires a review of multiple web sites, something that is tremendously inefficient,” said Dick Brannigan, CEM, President of Association of Equipment Management Professionals (AEMP) and equipment operations manager for John R. Jurgensen Co. “Further, it is difficult to integrate the data into enterprise software solutions. The willingness of these manufacturers to partner with end users to address this issue will turn the tremendous promise of telematics information into a reality for today’s fleet manager.”

But that may be changing as the AEMP has received commitments from Caterpillar, John Deere, Komatsu, Manitowac, Qualcomm and Volvo to provide non-proprietary telematics information directly to end users in a standardized file format. The data under consideration includes machine location, machine identification, time stamp, date stamp, fuel use, hours and run/idle time. AEMP will be working to include other data, and in the coming months will be trying to bring more manufacturers on board with the initiative.

Telematics however, at least at that technology’s current state of the art, may not necessarily meet the needs of many construction businesses simply because it is designed more for the needs of manufacturers and equipment dealers. For more on that, listen in to my podcast with Brad Mathews, vice president of marketing for Dexter + Chaney this Friday, 1/15.

Leaders and Managers Sort Out Their Differences Somewhere Between the Head and the Heart

One thing’s for sure, there is no shortage of opinions on how to manage and lead a construction business. Opinions are most often born from experience so when we opine we are in effect speaking from the perspectives of our own experiences. If I’ve had good luck managing through fear, then I’m no doubt twice as likely to advocate fear-based management. If I’ve had good luck leading by example then I’m going to advocate example-based leadership.

From a general perspective, managing a construction business is not really that different from any other business. Sure it has it’s unique aspects but, management is management, right? You’re controlling materials and labor to achieve dominance over time, space and money. But leadership is a different animal entirely.

It’s popular in our culture to want to say that great leaders are great managers. We regularly heap both titles on everyone who does a great job at leading, or managing. The fact is though, most great managers are not leaders, and most great leaders are not managers.

But Duane, you blaspheme!

Not really. I suspect the abilities are not only opposed, but that they are diametrically opposed, and so is the place from where they arise within a person.

Leaders operate from their hearts while managers operate from their heads. So unless a lot of people recently got enlightened to the point where their inner purpose is aligned with their outer purpose, there are not many that would be able to be both managers and leaders at the same time. Some people who think about and write about these things choose words that tip us off to the differences between leadership and management. One example is Wally Bock’s Three Star Leadership Blog where he explores the finer points of that topic and in one post explains what being a boss is all about:

You’ve got two jobs. You must accomplish the mission through the team. And you must care for the people who make up your team.

Caring for the people sounds distinctly ‘heart-related.” It seems to me he also recognizes the inherent coldness in managed systems when he recognizes the lack of help that may exist within them, and extolls leaders to take care of their own development. Meanwhile, Gordon M. Bethune, former CEO of Continental Airlines goes one step farther by connecting the mission’s success with the leader’s success.

Here’s my theory: Let’s say we’re all midlevel managers, and one V.P. slot is going to open up. I’ve got 10 guys working for me, and for the last five years, every time I got any recognition, I said, “Bring them on the stage with me.” Who do you think is going to get the job? I’m going to get the job.

Coming from the other side of the desk, as the one doing the hiring, Bethune implies the decision is more from the gut, than from the mind.

You know it when you see it. And so you’ve got to click. Somebody who knows what they’re doing, who has a good track record, they come across as very articulate, bright and looking for a challenge — that’s absolutely my kind of hire.

But what about the need to innovate? Isn’t that a key requisite for leaders today, given the pace of change? According to researchers Hal Gregersen, Jeffrey Dyer and Clayton Christensen, there are five key ‘discovery’ skills that have to be developed by creative entrepreneurs, and Gregersen claims you don’t need to be tops in all of them. The article points out that:

Some well-known business leaders such as Apple’s Steve Jobs and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos rely on their own particular strengths since innovative entrepreneurs rarely excel at all five discovery skills. For example, Scott Cook of Intuit is strong in observational skills. Marc Benioff, founder of Salesforce.com, does a lot of networking, he says. As for Bezos, “experimentation was his forte,” while Jobs is “incredibly strong at associating.”

You can read about the five discovery skills at the link above and you will no doubt be surprised at how much they hinge upon relationships. The person that is open to experiencing the world is more open to relationships, and relationships foster innovation. Relationships may also be the key component good leaders focus on, and that seems to suggest leadership springs more from the heart than the head.

Views on BIM and its Evolution Highlight Benefits and Challenges to Come

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(Picture by © Franckito | Dreamstime.com)
The future of Building Information Modeling (BIM) is arriving everyday but there are those close to the process that are looking well beyond next year.

When I spoke with Jonathan Widney, president of Solibri, LLC back in June while I was doing an article for Construction Software Review, he told me he thought BIM tools will continue to evolve toward logic.

“So if you want your building to be LEED certified the BIM tools you use will filter the object library so that if you put something into the model that doesn’t fit within the specified parameters you will be alerted. I think that is a whole new generation of tools that is yet to come.”

Widney also sees the information beyond geometry as the gold mine. Currently there are geometry-based models and building data models. Software companies that have traditionally specialized in CAD have overlaid building data models on their geometry-based models in order to achieve a significant increase in information quantity and quality. These data models that hold the information about each particular part of the building are time consuming, and challenging to create, but are worth the effort. For example, one article at Reed Construction that covers the arduous task of creating a SmartBim Object also listed the kinds of advantages that can be seen when objects carry a high level of detail.

  • Detailed product and model properties
  • Realistic views of the item in plans and elevations
  • Correctly rendered objects in views and animations

The data available from an object can include all kinds of real-world specifics about the object. Ultimately, as a user hovers a mouse over a model on the plan it will willingly offer up the answers to questions such as:

  • Who is the manufacturer of the tub that sits in that corner?
  • What is the model number?
  • What are the rough-in dimensions?
  • What faucets are specified?

There are many who think the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) should be the dominant file format for BIM objects since it is an open standard that still manages to receive information from disparate commercial, geometry-based software applications.

By some accounts IFC has a ways to go before it reaches the point of translating information rather than just exchanging information. When I spoke with Michael Smith earlier last year, a BIM/Revit and MEP consultant at BIMWORKSINC in Lakewood, WA, and a member of the buildingSmart Alliance, he simplified the discussion this way:

IFC is like a neutral or intermediary interpretation of the BIM content. It allows us to look at it, and the BIM products can export and import IFC. However it is still in development and at this point you don’t achieve translation capabilities, you just achieve exchange capabilities.

To a degree the results of the recent AECOO-1 Testbed (Architecture, Engineering, Construction, Owner and Operator industry) bore that out when it found that:

… areas of the IFC model are not amenable for interoperability as commonly defined and practiced by industrial communities that require collaboration and rely on network processing, cloud computing, and distributed data repositories to achieve better results faster. The IFC structure, first developed in the 1970′s, can be modernized by the community so that a more complete suite of benefits from interoperability reaches critical mass and adoption in the market. With IFC modernization, a far more open, comprehensive and intelligent life-cycle data model of buildings can be achieved. IFC modernization working in parallel with highly efficient network-based communication, process management, decision-support and performance simulation of design alternatives is the sweet spot for achieving benefit in real industry projects. IFC modernization will also tend to reduce the costs and inefficiencies that now result when builders attempt to maintain consistent and unambiguous use of original project information by all project participants and stakeholders.

Because this is open source software it is constantly evolving toward what everyone hopes is its best iteration at any given time, with the understanding that it will never be finished.

Another tricky BIM challenge, according to some, is bringing the promises of BIM to the complete range of processes associated with building a building.

“One of the tricky areas now is to migrate the information downstream to 4D (Planning), and 5D (Estimating) to ’6D’ (scheduling, project controls, earned value – Technical BIM/Project Controls),” wrote Philip Larson, CCE CEP CPE PMP PSP FRICS and CEO/President at Project & Cost Control, in a recent post in the BIM Experts Group at LinkedIn.” Tricky, because the tool sets quickly diverge, and suffer from lack of standardization or consistency as many use spreadsheets for most aspects of Technical BIM. And politically, since although Primavera is now part of Oracle… Collaboration and/or consolidation of AutoDesk (AutoCad, Revit, etc), Microsoft (Windows OS, MS Project, MS Office), Oracle (Databases, Accounting, Primavera), to name a few of the largest, would certainly seem distant at best.”

Of course there is resistance to BIM by some groups in the AEC sector because of perceived liability and ownership issues. There are also those who don’t perceive there is a very high ROI to purchasing the tools that make BIM possible. In the McGraw Hill Construction SmartMarket Report entitled, “The Business Value of BIM,” 19 percent of architects and 32 percent of engineers believed ROI on BIM investments was negative. While 27 percent of contractors and 34 percent owners perceived there was a BIM investment ROI of between 10 and 25 percent, only 19 percent of architects and 11 percent of engineers believed that level of ROI to be possible. Some also question whether or not people resist BIM because of the transparency it brings to the building process. Jay Zallan, regional virtual design & construction manager and architectural designer at Gensler wondered in a recent comment at the BIM Experts Group just how much BIM might point out people’s deficiencies.

…it’s better than any previous system or process for creating coordinated AEC projects when done right… When done wrong BIM can lead us to finding out who (and I will try to be kind here) the “less than mindful” Designers, Architects and Engineers, etc. are… BIM processes can highlight one’s expertise or lack thereof.

Still, even as the road to BIM adoption winds through its inevitable curves, and ups and downs, it is difficult to argue with the promises it holds for the entire AEC sector.

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