The BuiltWorlds team ventured to Las Vegas before Thanksgiving to attend Autodesk University 2017. This is part 2 of a 4-part series.
“Instead of worrying about automation taking our jobs, let’s start having a conversation about where automation can take us.” — Andrew Anagnost, CEO, Autodesk
By nature, new technology is disruptive, which is likely why automation and robotics was a big topic of conversation over the three days. Anagnost brought it up in his keynote, citing the convergence of the AEC and manufacturing industries as a reason for an increased focus on automation for jobsite applications.
Take robotic arms, for example. They have been prevalent in the auto manufacturing industry for decades due to their ability to create and recreate products with precision and efficiency. But they have been less popular in the built industry, until recent trends in prefab and modular design in the built environment, an idea that was reiterated by Johannes Braumann of the Association for Robots in Architecture, during his Wednesday AU presentation.
One of the many class options at AU, Talking with Robots about Architecture, also dove into the benefits of automation and presented a new way to vet the introduction or application of automation at any AEC company, using a four-type filter.
Type 1: Automation is cheaper than hiring a resource
Perhaps the most disarming, this type suggests a pure one-to-one economic resource swap, ideal for companies with small hiring capabilities or a need to automate simple, repetitive tasks.
Type 2: Automation does it better
In this type, robots can do a better job than humans at creating the outcomes. Take, for example, BIM to fabrication, where a machine can more quickly and precisely process data from a BIM model than a human to produce building components for modular design.
Type 3: Automation makes it easy
In addition to improving products, automation can make a job much simpler and easier to complete. Generative design, which creates hundreds or thousands of versions/samples to identify a best possible solution, is a great example of this. Although a human could find many permutations of a solution over a length of time, they might not find all and automation clearly makes a tedious task much easier.
Type 4: Automation makes it possible
Automation can change business models — or even create ones that weren’t before in existence. ConXtech, a steel framing system, was highlighted as an example, because their unique framing technology was only made possible using robotics and automation. The company had to create their own plug-ins to existing 3D, MCAD, and BIM platforms to be viable.
Aside from theoretical and real-world examples of the benefits (and detriments) to automation, we also were encouraged to consider others.
Addressing our labor shortage, for example. It’s no secret that lack of skilled labor and disinterest from the next generation workforce is one of the industry’s biggest challenges. But, according to Michael Cook, Director of Transformation at Kier Utilities, automation could be a perhaps less thought-of but equally important benefit to the AEC. Beyond automating positions in need of talent, the “cool factor” and excitement built around robotics and related STEM fields, Cook posited, can help increase student interest in the AEC.
If we had to identify one big takeaway from the many conversations about robotics and automation, it was likely this one that assuaged many fears: You can’t stop disruptive technology, but you can start thinking about it as an additive partner and tool, not a replacement.
This was part 2 of a 4-part series on the 3 big topics we’re still thinking about from AU 2017.