Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Working Prototypes in AEC

I recently attended the SmartGeometry conference in Barcelona. For those unfamiliar with the SmartGeometry Group, it is a partnership between practice, research and academia formed in 2001, including leading industry firms [Foster+Partners, PLP Architecture, Arup, Buro Happold] and educational institutions [Architectural Association, MIT, Delft Technical University, University of Bath]. The activities of the SmartGeometry Group promote the emergence of a new generation of digital designers and craftsmen, who are able to exploit the combination of digital and physical media. The group’s interests range from parametric design and scripting to digital manufacturing. The SmartGeometry Group is dedicated to educating building professionals in the application of advanced 3D design tools and computational design.

Here is their description of this year’s conference (

“An Exceptional Event Focusing on Innovative Architectural and Engineering Design … Hosted by the SmartGeometry Group this event focuses on innovative design tools, technologies, and methodologies that allow and encourage new forms of architectural and structural expression – forms that are radically changing the built environment.

The SmartGeometry 2010 theme “Working Prototypes” focused on functioning prototypes developed to prove and test concept and design. The Conference itself was preceded by a 4-day Workshop where participants (selected from the best and brightest professionals and students) were organized around 10 “Clusters” which were hubs of expertise. For example, one cluster was entitled “Nonlinear Systems Biology and Design.” Check out this description … “This workshop situates itself at the nexus between architecture and systems biology to gain insight into dynamic living systems for the development of novel computational design tools and material systems that are at once natural and artificial. Generative design techniques emerge with references to natural systems, not as mimicry but as trans-disciplinary translation of flexibility, adaptation and complexity into realms of architectural manifestation.” You can see this ‘manifestation’ in progress in the photos in the following link:

Definitely not your father’s architecture class!

Again, in the words of SmartGeometry, “working prototypes are functioning prototypes developed for the purpose of proving and testing a concept and design. This puts fabrication and the physical at center stage in challenging participants to design, assemble and test working prototypes.”

In an industry where most of the marketing messages are centered on virtual modeling, simulation, and BIM, it was refreshing to see this group put such a strong emphasis on fabrication and working prototype models. These cluster groups worked into the wee hours of the morning to complete their challenges (some things never change), and everybody seemed energized and pleased with the final results.

Of course, a visit to Barcelona would not be complete without a tour of the Sagrada Familia temple (the ultimate ‘working prototype’ building project). Count me among the fortunate to get an inside tour, complete with hard hat, from the project team working to complete a critical phase of this 130 year old construction project. We took the construction elevator to the top of the dome to snap these photos:

A complete story and video about Antoni Gaudi and La Sagrada Familia are available here -

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Does 3DP accelerate IPD?

CAD, CAM, CAE, BIM, AEC, GIS, IPD, 3DP … we live in a three-letter acronym soup world. Once we sort out the clever acronyms and dig down to the features and benefits, we ask ourselves, “How does this technology/process help me or my company?” For those of you not familiar with 3DP and IPD, I will address those terms later in the blog. But first, a little bit of background info …

It took about a decade for the manufacturing industry to understand the clear benefits of 3D design vs. 2D drawings. This transformation largely took place during the 1990s while a few early adopters understood the advantages in the 1980s (even if the 3D software and hardware technologies were not quite there yet). Now, 10 years later, the manufacturing industry thought and practice leaders have incorporated simulation into their 3D design process to better predict product performance early on, reduce prototyping costs, and reduce change costs later on. The marketers call this ‘digital prototyping’ or ‘virtual prototyping’ -- where’s the three-letter acronym?! As designs become more ergonomic, visualization becomes more important. While 3D renderings and animations are impressive, leading firms have adopted 3D printing in their design process because there is simply no substitute for physical prototypes. In fact, a 2008 Aberdeen Group market research study commissioned by Autodesk and PTC resulted in the following conclusion: Best in Class are twice as likely as laggard organizations to take advantage of 3D printing and rapid prototyping to create representative parts and products quickly, in addition to using CAD and CAE tools to assess a product virtually. Moreover, the study went on to say that these Best in Class firms got to market sooner which translates to higher profit margins.

So, what does this all mean for the AEC industry [that’s Architecture, Engineering and Construction, but you already knew that]? For one thing, AEC folks tend to adopt technology at a slower pace than the MFG (short for manufacturing) folks. It’s not that architects and civil/structural/MEP systems engineers are not as smart as their mechanical design/engineering colleagues; it’s just that the AEC industry is not as well suited for 3D technology adoption. Why? Because of the adversarial and litigious structure of the building industry. On one side you have the architectural/engineering team. On the other side, you have the construction team. The owner/developer usually hires each team separately [the lead architect typically hires the design and engineering support teams]. Once the design team delivers Construction Documents (CDs) to the contractor, let the battle begin. With traditional 2D drawings showing plan views, elevation views, and some detail views, there is often ambiguity about design intent. This results in the ubiquitous RFI (Request for Information – similar to the ECR or ECO from manufacturing). An RFI wastes time and costs money, usually taken from the pockets of the design team. But, ultimately the owner/developer suffers with a late, over-budget project. Sometimes, the RFI process gets ugly and lawyers get involved. When this happens, the only people who make a lot of money are the lawyers!

About five years ago, Building Information Modeling (BIM) came on the scene in the AEC world. BIM was certainly a step in the right direction for 3D design (feature-based, parametrically driven, intelligent data base instead of a series of unintelligent lines, arcs and circles), but BIM itself cannot solve the fundamental process problem described above. BIM can certainly serve as the underlying technology to facilitate a better way to do business.

Enter IPD – Integrated Project Delivery. Many of you know what IPD is all about and perhaps are even practicing this approach with new projects. For those who have never heard of IPD, here is one AIA chapter definition for reference:

Integrated Project Delivery (IPD) is a project delivery approach that integrates people, systems, business structures and practices into a process that collaboratively harnesses the talents and insights of all participants to optimize project results, increase value to the owner, reduce waste, and maximize efficiency through all phases of design, fabrication, and construction.

IPD principles can be applied to a variety of contractual arrangements and IPD teams can include members well beyond the basic triad of owner, architect, and contractor. In all cases, integrated projects are uniquely distinguished by highly effective collaboration among the owner, the prime designer, and the prime constructor, commencing at early design and continuing through to project handover.

The key component of IPD, in my opinion, is the project team collaborating in an integrated environment. With IPD, the owner/developer (i.e. the client), the architect, the engineers, and the construction team all work together [often in the same room] for a common goal – get the project completed on time and under budget! If the goal is not achieved, nobody makes any money. Notice the absence of lawyers in the room. This makes sense, right?

So, let’s answer the original topic question of my blog – Does 3DP [3D Printing] accelerate IPD? If you think about collaboration and effective decision making, what better tool than a physical model? Leading AEC firms have already figured this out and incorporate multiple 3D prints into their conceptual design process and downstream design development. These firms bring several models to design competitions, and they effectively use models to communicate with their clients and regulatory boards. In fact, all stakeholders prefer to look at 3D models to give them a sense of scale and fit, as well as a better understanding of design details. Model making is not new to the AEC world, but low-cost, fast turnaround 3D prints are relatively new. The smart AEC firms are following the lead of the best-in-class manufacturing firms, albeit 10 years later – better late than never. Will IPD adoption be accelerated with 3DP? Let me know what you think!