Q&A with Rick Rundell: Technology, the Contractor, and the Future17 Jan, 2013 By: Nancy Spurling Johnson
Autodesk director says construction will become a more precise, more efficient endeavor based on "digital reality" rather than abstract geometry.
At Autodesk University 2012, held in Las Vegas in late November, I spoke one-on-one with Rick Rundell, senior director of project delivery and collaboration at Autodesk. Rundell oversees product and business development for desktop and cloud applications for the construction market, but his background includes 12 years as a practicing architect — he has a master's degree in architecture from Harvard University — and two years as the director of product marketing at Revit Technology Corporation. Rundell moved to Autodesk in 2002 when it acquired Revit.
Rundell shared his perspective on all manner of topics, including building information modeling (BIM), cloud-based technologies, mobile computing, and construction — and even offered a glimpse into where we might be with this technology ten years from now. Read on for his take on things.
Cadalyst: I hear a lot about how, in AEC today, it's the general contractors who are really pushing to adopt BIM, and less so the architects. Is that what you see?
Rick Rundell: I think it is pretty well understood what the opportunity is there for architects to benefit from BIM, and they're gradually embracing that at whatever pace. I think the trajectory for the design part of the project is pretty well understood. We are still just scratching the surface on the construction side. … A tipping point of BIM is just beyond design — in construction and operation. Just in the last couple of years, we're seeing so much awareness and interest and encouragement from the owner part of the industry and the people who commission buildings. [Beyond the U.S. General Services Administration, which now mandates BIM standards for its building projects], we've seen BIM standards being adopted in the U.K., we're seeing the Chinese government working within the standard by 2014, and we are seeing mandates in France. And I'm probably missing a few others.
Beyond the mandates, are you seeing private owners pushing for BIM too?
Yes. … It's not an avalanche, but it is there and it's starting with owners who are very dependent on their built assets — hospitals, colleges and universities, people whose physical plant is essential to delivery of the mission. … Often their method of doing this is to engage a construction advisor or construction manager early in the process, so that it helps shape the use of technology on the project in a way.
How do this technology transition, and the cloud and mobile technologies that come with it, play out for the contractor?
The fundamental idea that you can be out on a site and have a whole set of drawings and the model, and all the information on the project in your hand for reference as you're standing there, instead of making notes on a notepad about it — "I thought there were supposed to be three diffusers in here but I only see two" — or relying on somebody's memory or saying, "Gee, was that base supposed to be chestnut brown or was it gray? Was there supposed to be base in here? Am I waiting for carpet?" All that stuff that people wouldn't have access to, they now can stand right there and they can look, and here is all the stuff that is supposed to be in this room and here yes, look. If it's not? Check the box, and then a message goes out to whoever is responsible for that thing. [Contractors] don't have to type up their notes and enter data [on the computer back at the worksite trailer]. The process — in this case, what the contractors would call quality control — is far easier. That is one example where we've been able to access data and then act on that data in the field. It is a huge benefit to the construction industry.
I think sometimes people think, "Well, that's a benefit for the contractor, but what about the architect and owner?" The architect benefits from building it the way it was designed, and that's what he wants. The owners are getting the building that they thought they were going to get and that they are paying for.
One advantage to having information more accessible and available for the purposes of planning in preconstruction and on-site construction is that less of the construction dollar goes into stuff that doesn't show up in the building. It is not wasted in terms of inefficiency. There is not as much contingency for it. "Okay, well we're going to have to cut a big hole in that beam and weld some plates on it because now we've got to put something through there." Nobody wanted that to happen and it doesn't improve anything for anybody. It is not value that is utilized in the building just because it wasn't worth it to somebody, and somebody didn't have the tools to figure out how not to have that happen. Or if it had to happen, they could have done it in the shop for a tenth of the cost instead of getting a guy out there.
Can you talk about what's out ahead — what you are seeing five or ten years in the future and how all this is going to flesh out?
I think one thing that is beginning to emerge technologically is the ability to connect the physical and the digital world. You hear about some of this from technologies that Autodesk has, like 123D Catch, which uses photogrammetry to create a 3D model of an object, and then you can print that out on a 3D printer. Imagine those kinds of things scaled up to the construction site, and I don't mean 3D printing of the buildings. Imagine that you can digitize information at a level of detail about the building beyond the simple geometrical model used for design, so you can [collect data by scanning] and "photogram" it, and you get point clouds associated with information about the color and texture of the materials that the camera is seeing.
The processing power of the cloud and the ability to manage large volumes of data on the cloud is going to allow us to leverage that kind of data more effectively in the whole project. I think that it will mature over time. But the mobile and cloud revolution seems to be surprisingly connected to the physical world. I don't think that it was really expected. Part of it is the ability for us to store information about the physical world in high resolution — data about the physical world — and part of it is because we were able to locate devices in space.
There still needs to be a lot of work done to a fine enough level of detail within a building project so that everybody can realize the vision: "I know what room I'm in, I know what I should be looking at here" and things like that. When we figure out how to do that effectively, you will see a lot of use of that kind of data. That's my future.
Right, so continuing to capitalize on the ability to connect information to location and ...
... and incorporate, scan, each reality or kind of data into the product. You're going to see some incredible stuff coming out in this regard very soon.
You saw some great stuff last year at AU, technology that took point clouds and meshed those into something that conventional modeling tools could actually manipulate, as opposed to digital dust, which is kind of what a point cloud ends up being.
You have mentioned the term "digital reality." What do you mean by that exactly?
I don't have a good term for it really, but what I'm trying to capture is the idea that you have a world of software that is not based on the abstraction of geometry modeling. So if I wanted to describe this building I could hire somebody to build a Revit model of this building and this room, and it would make certain assumptions about this, right? … When you construct a building and you pour the slab, a model of that slab is going to be dead flat. It is just how these models are put together. In fact that slab varies in height by several inches. That might affect the stud length for the partition that I'm putting in place. I go in, and now because the slab is uneven, I have to slice half an inch or three-quarters of an inch off my studs, and I have to use a head track that allows for that variation in the slab. I have to accommodate that in some way; that's a cost. If I [capture the digital reality of the slab] in advance, I might actually be able to prepare all the studs that I need at exactly the right length and pop them in and be done. Certainly if I'm getting to the point where I'm prefabricating components of buildings, we need that kind of information.
So, [digital reality] is the ability to actually have the equivalent of something that is more like a photograph of reality as opposed to a vector graphic. You can go in and actually draw conclusions from that high-resolution, effectively bitmapped type of information. You could never capture it in a more abstract geometry.
When you have the opportunity to advise architects and contractors about whether to adopt cloud-based technologies and workflows, what do you tell them?
I say go big and don't worry. The winners are going to be the people who don't create artificial barriers to their own success. Give all of your guys mobile tablets, put all of your stuff in the cloud. Use a reputable cloud provider like Autodesk and don't look for reasons not to do things. Look for the edge. If everybody else is worried about something, that's probably a good sign. That would be a huge competitive advantage for you to just embrace it and then to go for it.
And you say that not just because you're in that business and that's your livelihood? What are the practical reasons? Competitive advantage — and what else?
I think it's all about competitive advantage. Back when we introduced Revit, it was the first Autodesk University, when Revit was on the main stage. An architect from a small Midwest firm had seen Revit and had thrown out all of his other CAD tools and insisted that all of his guys use it. This was very early, it was a big risk for him. Anybody who didn't want to use Revit, he let go and he just hired people who would. He trained them. He got his whole firm focused on Revit and within a year this 20-person architecture firm was taking work away from [a national firm] because they could present their ideas so much more effectively and could get the work done. This was very high-end interior stuff. And so [this other firm] comes and knocks on our door and says, "Well, you know, I guess this is real." And meanwhile he opened up a second office. He couldn't do that today because everybody has gotten that idea. You have to have a certain boldness to recognize a trend and embrace it.