Building in the Cloud(s)

Thomas & Hutton leveraged cloud technology to create a technology-forward 3D video depicting a flythrough of a rendered rail site and manufacturing center, developed collaboratively by engineers working in six offices.
Image: Thomas & Hutton

It’s no surprise that buildings are being built quicker than ever, putting AEC firms under constant pressure to design projects in record time. In fact, by 2016, the U.S. construction industry is projected to grow to $1.07 trillion in new construction efforts. With such an incredibly lucrative market opportunity, it’s important that architectural and engineering firms are able to capitalize upon the demand. But to do this, they need to be able to hire the best individuals for the job, provide the necessary resources to collaborate quickly, and meet client’s deadlines.

In the past, teams working on CAD files and BIM models had to sit in the same office because CAD file open and BIM sync delays made it nearly impossible to work simultaneously on the same projects across multiple locations. However, increasingly distributed project teams and much faster project cycles have rendered this dated approach unsustainable and ineffective.

Assembling the perfect project team with all the right skills in a single office is unrealistic, leading to companies often flying employees in from other locations to work on key projects. This only increases the time it takes to complete projects. Company managers realized they needed to hire and allow employees to work across disparate locations, but that created a new set of issues. It’s also challenging to expand into new geographies or acquire other firms with complementary expertise and on-board them quickly.

Sharing large project files in software such as Autodesk Revit, AutoCAD, and SolidWorks across offices is slow, unreliable, and creates version control issues. Centralizing data in one office makes access from distributed sites extremely slow. For example, C&S Companies in Syracuse, N.Y., said it was taking 20 to 30 minutes for engineers in its San Diego office to open project files, even though they had invested in robust networking infrastructure and optimization devices.

By leveraging expertise from distributed locations, OHM Advisors successfully updated Newark, Ohio’s aging infrastructure and helped reimagine the look and function of the downtown area to drive economic development.
Image: OHM Advisors

Engineers often try to email files or make local copies to get around these problems, but that slows down work and increases the risk of project errors since teams have to merge changes from multiple copies of the files. Unfortunately, these productivity roadblocks are often accepted as a cost of doing business.

AEC firms are now modernizing their IT systems, turning to new technologies in the hopes they can break down the silos between offices and get the right person on the right project, regardless of location. The cloud holds significant promise, and many AEC thought leaders have turned to cloud solutions in various forms to solve these problems and accelerate innovation.

Cloud technology is not without its challenges. File versioning and data integrity can still be an issue, and file transfer and sync can still take a long time. Cloud solutions normally lack the ability to lock files that are in use or let users across multiple offices collaborate in the same project file in real-time.

Entuitive’s geographically dispersed teams were able to collaborate through the cloud to achieve a finalized blueprint quickly for a new landmark civic building that incorporates signature design and was constructed over one of Calgary’s busiest light rail lines.
Image: Entuitive

We talked to four companies leading the charge and developing innovative projects by leveraging the cloud. Thomas & Hutton, Entuitive, NELSON, and OHM are each using cloud technology to create remarkable structures in record time. In each case, the companies used a combination of cloud storage, such as Amazon Web Services, and a local controller device in each office that gave users collaborative access to files.

Thomas & Hutton: Seneca rail site

Thomas & Hutton is a privately held, professional services company providing engineering, surveying, planning, GIS, and consulting services to public and private clients. The company leveraged cloud technology to create a technology-forward 3D video depicting a flythrough of a rendered site, developed collaboratively by engineers working in six offices. They showed the video to their prospects so they could envision how their plant — a rail site and manufacturing center — would look on the site. It was part of a joint effort with Oconee County and the South Carolina Department of Commerce to help bring high-quality manufacturing jobs and investment to the area. This video helped Thomas & Hutton land the business. By using applications from Autodesk Civil 3D, Adobe Creative Suite, and Sketchup, they were able to draw up plans and share their large files instantaneously.

Entuitive: Calgary central library

Entuitive is a consulting engineering practice with a vision “to design advanced structures and systems that support a sustainable future.” The firm was called in to help redesign one of Calgary’s most important and distinctive cultural institutions. A significant amount of engineering innovation is behind the plan and construction of the new landmark civic building that incorporates striking signature design and was constructed over one of Calgary’s busiest light rail train lines. This project required a specialized effort to ensure that there were no disruptions to existing service of the line. The cloud was the single most important technology enabling Entuitive’s “One Company” philosophy that allowed them to iterate quickly on the project. Geographically dispersed teams were able to collaborate through the cloud to achieve a finalized blueprint quickly.

NELSON used cloud technology to collaborate across four locations — New York City, Harrisburg/Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles — in applications including Revit, AutoCAD, Sketchup, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop, to design GAF’s new corporate campus.
Image: NELSON
NELSON: GAF corporate campus

GAF, North America’s largest roofing manufacturer, turned to NELSON, a global architecture, design, engineering, and consulting services firm, to design its new 377,000-square-foot corporate campus in Parsippany, N.J. The goals of the project were to create a new innovative, scalable workspace and to help the company redefine its identity. NELSON used cloud technology to collaborate across four locations in New York City, Harrisburg/Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles in applications, including Revit, AutoCAD, Sketchup, Adobe Illustrator, and Adobe Photoshop. The design project was successfully completed in less than six months.

OHM Advisors: Newark streetscape and transportation plan

OHM Advisors is an architecture, engineering, and planning firm that was responsible for the planning and design of an innovative and unique streetscape and transportation improvement project in historic downtown Newark, Ohio. The project included a complete roadway reconfiguration requiring the OHM team to involve engineers from three offices who had the expertise needed to seamlessly deliver a successful project. This was the first project OHM ran through a new cloud infrastructure solution that let them collaborate across offices. By leveraging expertise from distributed locations, the project successfully updated Newark’s aging infrastructure and helped reimagine the look and function of the downtown area to drive economic development.

Coming together in the cloud

The examples of these forward-thinking companies and the projects they accomplished clearly demonstrate a growing demand for innovation and speed in the AEC industry. It’s more important than ever that architects and engineers are able to work together across distributed locations. The pace of work isn’t slowing down; civil and structural engineers are expected to churn out new designs quickly, leveraging the best team members, no matter where they’re based. A strategy based on cloud computing shows this is certainly achievable: Project members can span the entire globe but feel that they work in a single location.

Each of the four firms was a recipient of Panzura’s Customer Innovation Awards, selected from more than 50 entries for their unique use of cloud technology to drive innovative projects.

Randy Chou is CEO and co-founder of Panzura (panzura.com).

Posted in UAV + Surveying | November 29th, 2015 by