Thursday, June 18, 2020

Will Robots Take Over the Building Design Industry?

The world is changing right before our eyes, in ways we often can't see. We're all aware of what is happening in the news, for better of worse. The hidden changes are like whales beneath the surface which only emerge now and then in sometimes spectacular ways.

The Internet backbone existed long before the World Wide Web and browsers made it accessible to all. So, too, have robotics and intelligent machines been with us for a very long time. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, published in 1952, was a dystopian take on automation and what would later be called Artificial Intelligence.

While social observers argue about the pros and cons of technology, the world has been increasingly reliant on what machines can do. There is much happening of which we are unaware, like that whale beneath the surface or the Internet.

So it is that I met a young entrepreneur, Sam Marttinen, who founded a business that utilizes the latest technology to produce architectural designs, 3D modeling and systems with names I still haven't fully grasped. We met through Toastmasters Club 1523 here in Duluth. In a recent conversation I asked about the role of AI and robotics in the building design industry. "Will robots and AI replace humans?" I asked.

"Partially, yes," he said.

In a follow up discussion I learned a lot about how far things have progressed and where they are headed.

Generative Design Example. (Click to enlarge)
Not only do machines (computers) create designs, robots do portions of the construction as well, "because the future of building in general is increasingly modular construction," Marttinen explained. "With modular construction certain processes are being completely automated. Because of this trend it is creating new parameters to design around from an architectural standpoint."

Marttinen went on to share more specifics about what is happening in this realm.

"By using AI, design firms can now optimize spaces on a construction site to maximize certain parameters that are deemed priorities. For example, there's a hospital that an architectural and engineering firm HoK out of Chicago recently designed using this technology to maximize every allowable cubic foot of space on the site.” In this case the computer program optimizes the basic structure for the maximum number of surgery suites, because such suites produce the most revenue per square foot. HoK developed the software to do this and is one of the ENR Top 40 architectural firms in the U.S.

"In HVAC engineering and plumbing, AI is already providing automated solutions for distribution systems by automatically providing design options and placing 3D elements in the model. One example is Surfboard for electrical engineers, by Kowabunga Studios."

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Generative Design courtesy AEC Design Center.
Two driving factors in all this change are (1) AI on the design side and (2) robots on the construction side. I was familiar with the words "modular homes," but the extent to which this has been happening surprised me, even though I'd spent more than two decades in the auto industry where sensors, brain boxes and nanotechnology have become essential features of modern engine design.

Instead of carpenters doing on-site production, homes and buildings are being produced in climate-controlled factories where they make modules that assemble together like Legos. Everything is complete... windows, doors, lighting, plumbing. They can now build a 30 to 40 story building this way, a recent example that is notable were two 40 story modular apartment buildings in Singapore which were erected. A design software company called Autodesk is on the leading edge of this modular design, fabrication, and construction sequencing trend.

For me there are a number of takeaways. One has to do with education. A couple weeks ago I learned that as many as 65% of all jobs in the future do not even yet exist today. What this means is that workers must continually strive to stay current, or if possible, ahead of the curve as we move into the future. (Anticipating the Internet, I took a class at UMD on this new technology in 1994 and taught myself HTML in 1995.)

What this also means is that schools must focus on teaching young people how to think.Those who learn to enjoy learning will have an advantage in the world of tomorrow.

Related Links
AEC Design Center
Tech Tuesday: The Future of Jobs
10 new housing projects coming to Duluth as part of city's free land program
Player Piano, Singularity and the Future of Humanity 

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