FutureTech Conference Recap

The Beck Group’s Executive Chairman and Managing Director Peter Beck participated in last week’s ENR FutureTech Conference in San Francisco. Peter was part of the computational design panel and shared his vision with the audience of what technology can do, and is doing, for the built environment.

Paul Doherty, President and CEO of The Digit Group, wrote a recap of the conference for the Construction Executive eNewsletter. Below is his summary of the 2013 FutureTech Conference.

ENR’s FutureTech Conference, held March 14 at the Hyatt Regency in San Francisco, hosted more than 300 AEC/FM professionals for a 10-hour conference on the future of the construction industry and the tools and trends affecting this change.To get right to the seminal moment of the entire conference, Gordon Feller of Cisco said, “Every other major industry in the world has had their traditional processes and methods fundamentally changed by information technology, except the built environment. Banking, pharmaceuticals, sports, transportation, government … Now it is the time for the AEC market to undergo these changes. You have not asked for this change, but it is now upon you. It is your task to accept this challenge or be buried by it.”

The conference kicked off with a keynote by David Bartlett, vice president of IBM Smarter Building. He presented IBM’s Smarter Building/Smarter City/Smarter Planet program and discussed how IBM is implementing it in places like Los Angeles and Boston by integrating building automation data with real world problems. The leveraging of sensors creates the environment for “real time” information, which Bartlett explained is the opportunity to provide Real Time Occupant Aware Buildings in Los Angeles by allowing individuals to use their smart phones to submit a facility issue in the Los Angeles school district. The sensors also provide Real Time Ecosystem Aware Buildings in Boston that give automobile drivers the locations of open street parking spots. Because one-third of all cars are continuously roaming the streets looking for an open space, this saves drivers energy and time.

The first panel discussion was about implementing technology into the physical world with a focus on 3-D printing. This fascinating session highlighted work being performed by Turner Construction with James Barrett’s Quick Response (QR) tags. Before each room is “finished,” a LIDAR scan is performed to create 3-D representation of work in place. This information is hosted inside a BIM model, which then is coordinated with a QR tag and deployed into the field. After the room is finished and the studs and equipment are enclosed, a user may want to what is inside the walls. By using the QR tag to locate the user, similar to checking into Foursquare.com or Facebook Check In, they can then see the physical location of everything behind the wall by pointing their tablet at it. This augmented reality gives an end user, such as a facility manager, a living as-built document that is accurate and useful.

Dan Casale of DPR Construction showed a fascinating demonstration of robotics that “print” the stud wall locations on the floor slabs using of a Sharpie pen and/or ink jet printer. Using off-the-shelf products like Roomba and software from Trimble, Casale said DPR gets strong results for little cash outlay.

Behrokh Koshnevis, from the University of Southern California, demonstrated an eye-opening presentation of his research and ability to “Print a Building” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=QxqROe8tevo#) Using robotics and modified processes of construction, Koshnevis estimates his lab work by automating the building process on parts of buildings, which takes 20 hours to “print” a complete home. His work is being enhanced on a project with NASA and NIST where they are developing a robot and robotic process to print dwellings on Mars.

The next panel members were “Super Subs,” who take on added responsibility to get their job done by using BIM to streamline processes and sometimes by passing traditional communication protocols. There was a consistent message by each of the panelists on BIM usage in reality, not software manufacturer hype or “BIM-wash.” Jim Bratton, engineering manager of virtual design and construction (VDC) at Dynalectric, voiced the sentiments of many people, saying, “As an industry, we have made changes like BIM, but have not made the paradigm shift.”

The third panel was hosted John Roach, executive director of technology services for the Foundation for California Community Colleges. His owner’s perspective gave attendees a rare insight into the expectations that are created when the AEC industry begins to use technology as a strategic tool. “BIM is not a luxury, but a necessity,” declared Roach. His identification of silos of data and breaking them down one process at a time was a wonderful strategic process enabled by impressive solutions from Kimon Onuma, who also announced the collaboration with NASA with regard to habitats on Mars using Onuma’s BIMStorm.

FutureTech’s fourth session was on computational design. This session highlighted efforts at the Beck Group, where Forest Flager and Peter Beck explained the knowledge gathered in pattern data to create more time for design. Using captured scenarios, Flager and Beck have created measures that support the notion of using computational design to increase the amount of design choices while lowering the amount of time to conduct design alternatives. It is a fascinating use of technology in the AEC/FM space.

A short video on how ideas are born, shaped, and implemented captivated the audience and became a hot topic for the rest of the conference. View the “Where Good Ideas Come From” by visiting www.youtube.com/watch?v=NugRZGDbPFU.

Digital Cities: BIM on an Urban Scale was the fifth session at FutureTech. The panelists provided a rich array of the Smart City movement and how AEC and FM professionals can provide value and realize new revenue streams. I provided an overview of Smart Cities with real life examples from around the world; Chuck Hixon from Bergmann Associates provided a demo of tools used to create a multi-BIM environment with GIS technologies; Barry Hooper of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment talked about how the city is creating to provide a better built environment, with a focus on energy usage measured on an urban scale.

The rest of the conference had mini-showcases of apps and solutions that exposed attendees to some hits and misses in the market today. When asked what I thought of FutureTech, I provided two thoughts. First, the tone and tempo of FutureTech reminds me of the Bloomberg TV show Bloomberg West: Upbeat in its news and progressive in its look toward the future. Second, the great thing about it compared to anything we read about or see on television is that instead of passive viewing or reading about the future, FutureTech allows you to reach out and touch it.