CDM Smith CIO on how tech can transform construction

The CIO of construction company CDM Smith says his industry badly needs a transformation, and he believes technology will play a key role. Here's how.

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Dave Neitz, CIO of $1.3 billion construction and engineering firm CDM Smith, thinks the time has come for his industry, traditionally a late adopter of technology, to transform itself through digital tech. In a recent interview with executive recruiter and blogger Martha Heller, Neitz explained how digital transformation can help solve the United States' trillion dollar infrastructure problem, and protect its cities from cyberattacks. 

Heller: What major challenge is architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) facing today?

Neitz: As an industry, we have not applied new technologies or process improvements to the way we design, construct and build roads, bridges, water treatment plants and other critical assets. Our roads are in disrepair, our bridges are aging, and we are losing treated water because of leakage. This country does not have the money or the space to replace our infrastructure. We cannot add more lanes to an interstate or come up with the capital to build a new bridge. This is a trillion dollar problem.

How can technology help the AEC industry overcome this challenge?

By using digital technologies, we can transform our entire industry. Here are a few examples.

1. Augmented, mixed and virtual reality. AEC teams are so large and extend across so many disciplines and locations that miscommunication can create the potential for errors, omissions and change orders. The AEC industry should make use of new collaboration tools, including augmented, mixed, and virtual reality. These technologies, driven by popular gaming engines, can drive efficiency and precision into the design, construction and operation of assets.

One example of mixed reality is Microsoft's HoloLens holographic computer. This technology allows us to view holographic images at scale, as though we are physically in the space, so that we can experience the design in a new, more authentic way. Designers, construction professionals, and operators can walk through a virtual version of a project and give feedback before any ground is broken. The whole team could notice, for example, how the windows cast light in the room or that a door should be positioned differently. It is hard to pick up texture and space on a screen. Augmented, mixed and virtual reality technologies will allow us to drive efficiency and precision in our design and construction process.

2. Cybersecurity: One of our greatest national threats is cyberwarfare. How do you shut down a city? By turning off the power and the water. But with new technologies, we have the potential to change the way we design to avoid these issues. By using embedded sensors and independent fog computing, designers can incorporate autonomous sensors into their designs and bake resiliency into infrastructure, like water treatment systems. The key to protecting against a cyberattack is to have systems that can detect the attack and be resilient. Sensors and fog computing would allow us to do both without adding cost, but only if we collaborate with all parties during all phases of a project.

3. Big data: The third area involves big data and predictive analytics. In a traditional model, the designer hands off a design to a builder who makes modifications to the design based on what is viable given materials, cost, and other world factors. Let's say that 70 percent of the design worked really well in construction and operation but 30 percent required too much power and too many chemicals to be efficient. Rather than give that critical feedback to the designer, the builder just modifies the design and labels it "as built." The feedback never makes it back to the designer, so the cycle just continues. The information flow is one way.  

By using big data and digital models, the operator, designer, and construction team can do some "optioneering." The team can try out various options and iterate, "When we try it this way, how much does it cost? Let's try it another way. Now, how much does it cost?" This all takes a great deal of computing power because these models and designs are getting bigger and more complex every day. But the final product is powerful, because it includes the input of the entire team and has been tested against various options and proven to be the best outcome.

How do AEC companies need to change to make use of these technologies?

Historically, the AEC industry has been slow to adopt change. But we are entering a new phase where firms and owners are realizing and embracing the power of new technologies.

First, we need professional engineers to embrace a new approach to design that includes optioneering. Most of our designs require that we have an independent professional engineer sign off on them. If we are going to do real optioneering, we need to help these engineers get confident that the computer is coming up with the right design. Doing optioneering that relies on artificial intelligence and predictive analysis is new. The independent professional engineer needs to learn to trust this new process for design.

We also have to create a culture in our own organizations where people are comfortable with "smart failure." As AEC professionals, we have grown up building bridges and critical infrastructure where failure is not an option. The bridge cannot collapse. The pipes cannot fail. But with digital technologies, some failure actually advances the process and confirms the right selection. We need to introduce the concept of failing forward to our executives and their teams.

Finally, and probably most significantly, we need to get our clients comfortable with procuring outcomes, rather than construction projects. Our clients do not care how we build a water treatment plant. They want to achieve water quality targets at the most efficient cost possible. They want the outcome, not the project. But selling outcomes rather than projects requires a great deal of change in how we sell our services and in how our clients procure them. This is where the real transformation in our industry will happen.

About Dave Neitz

Neitz joined CDM Smith in February 2014 as global CIO. He previously held the CIO and global vice president of technology solutions roles with MWH. Neitz held senior technology leadership positions for Lincoln Trust and Fiserv. He received BS and MIS degrees from the University of Phoenix, and an MBA in international business from the University of Colorado.

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