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Q&A: Evolution of training and technology

Q&A: Evolution of training and technology

David Butts, BIM specialist with Gannett Fleming, offers his perspective on effective software training, standards, workflows, and trending technologies.

By Bob Drake

With the rapid evolution of design and analysis software for civil and structural engineering, firms can struggle to keep staff trained and productive with the latest tools. Last November during Autodesk University in Las Vegas, David Butts, BIM specialist with Gannett Fleming, took a break from teaching classes to offer his perspective on effective software training, standards, workflows, and trending technologies.

Civil + Structural Engineer (C+S): What’s your background and what’s been your journey in IT and, more specifically, BIM?

David Butts: I got out of college a little early and was doing a little bit of small construction work. My parents were encouraging me to finish my degree. I wasn’t really motivated by what I was learning in college. I went ahead and got an associate degree in architectural technology in 1986. In 1985, I interned with a company called Union Carbide. A little history there: They had an accident in India that was fatal, a bad situation. It was fascinating to me to look back on that and realize how little data they had about what was going on in their plants and how much of what they had was not documented. So, as an intern, I was recreating process and instrumentation diagrams. We were using an early version of AutoCAD and watching an old HP 7475 pin plotter. It was really neat seeing that stuff.

So I got my degree and got out. I was working nights doing CAD plans and working on houses during the day. I couldn’t keep doing both. I started to work for an engineering firm in Raleigh, N.C. Started doing AutoCAD in earnest with release 9 and got involved with some people who were heavily involved in customizing AutoCAD. Got pretty good at it and in 2011 started teaching at Wilson Tech Community College and set up their AutoCAD program for them.

While I was still working for engineering firms in architectural and MEP CAD, an offer came for me to work with a reseller in Cary, N.C. They had about 30 architectural clients and they needed somebody who knew how to do AutoCAD. So I got into the Autodesk community whole heartedly. We became one of the top resellers in the Southeast. By the time I left, we had a little over 300 architectural and engineering firms as customers. We were recognized as the top architectural reseller in the Southeast in 1999. I really got to know a lot more Autodesk people at that point. Our company was purchased in 2007 and that’s where I met my current boss, Norb Howell. In 2010, he left to go to Gannett Fleming. I followed him about four months later and I’ve been here ever since.

To me, it’s been a great journey because I started back when I was in school on a board — I’m an ink and Mylar guy. It’s fascinating to see this evolution of technology. I’ve been doing this for 33 years and you look at how much the technology has evolved just in that span, and even just in the last 20 years. What we do now, and what we have the capability to do now, is just utterly fascinating. To me, it’s just been a privilege to be able to go through all this and to work with the people I’ve worked with and to be involved in the engineering community. I’m not an engineer; I’m a layman, but I can sit back and just watch all this stuff and see it happening and it’s really been fascinating to watch.

C+S: What is Gannett Fleming’s approach toward training to keep staff current with design, analysis, and collaboration technologies?

Butts: We actually changed how the company was approaching things. We have a learning management system in place, but it is basically part of the career development program. We would harvest videos, get handouts, and we would have little vignettes that people would have to train. But software technology is a little bit different, especially when you talk about design tools. I used to do classes on a regular basis. I would go and teach a class and sit down in front of a group of 15 or 20 people and we would go through the features and benefits. That’s how we would train people. This is a tool. Push that button; you get that result. The problem we ran into is that when people walk out of that classroom, if they’re not using the tools immediately, they lose that. They don’t retain what they learned.

David Butts is a BIM specialist with Gannett Fleming and a frequent presenter at Autodesk University.

What we’ve been doing is following up, mentoring. The majority of the training I do is one-on-one. I do a ton of training on individual cases and instances of just a problem that somebody’s having. Using online tools — Skype, Webex, whatever I can to see somebody’s desktop — I walk them through a problem. It’s really interesting that the formal training that we did for years really hasn’t been the most effective thing. Yeah, it’s great for introducing somebody, but it’s not a great tool to really train somebody. It’s throwing somebody to the wolves, getting them in there on the software, standing over their shoulder, helping them, being there to nurture them and support them, and make sure that they can use the tools effectively so that we don’t lose money on jobs.

We hear a lot of things about the different learners, the different skill levels of learners. We have a traditionalist — somebody who’s a bit older than me who’s good training by step-by-step directions. You get a baby boomer like me that likes to talk a lot, tell stories; we relate to third-party stories. You get to Generation X and Generation Y users, they really learn from doing things. They want short directions, short videos, and things like that because they already have the computer skills they need — the stuff we didn’t have growing up, they have that core skill already. As we get into Millennials, there’s an expectation that we’re going to conform to what they know. So it’s fascinating to watch that training evolve and see how things have changed.

What we do now is look at all the characteristics of a person – including learning style. What is this person good at? What are their skills? We test them when they come on board to really figure out what they know. It’s not a test to determine whether or not we’re going to hire them. The test is to understand whether or not we can train this person. Where is their skillset and do they have the capability to retain what we’re teaching them? We’ve starting doing a lot more front-end testing and evaluation of the user’s skills.

Now what we’re doing is trying to build a track for them, saying, “You need to focus on this task. You need to get really good at this one thing.” We try not to give them too much because if you tell somebody, “I want you to make a Revit family from start to finish,” and we just hand it off to them, it can take them six months to figure that out. If I’m trying to put “containers” together for the training, I want to make sure that those containers are measurable, and we can see somebody having success with the tools.

Training as we’ve done it for years has really evolved. We’ve also gotten away from book-type training. Most of what we do is based on training videos — real short segments. We also do a lot of training by discussion and by group. Another thing we’re working on is that within our communities, we’re trying to get coworkers to do training — a peer-pressure-type training. They can go back to that person and say, “I did it this way. Let me show you how I did it.” That’s actually having a big impact.

That’s the big thing that we do for training right now: We look at the person as an asset, how do we improve the asset, and how do we make them successful.

C+S: Do you as a company have standards and workflows relative to BIM to adhere to?

Butts: We do have standards and we do have workflows. Because we have a lot of offices, the problem is sometimes those offices become silos and they develop their own workflows and standards. We’ve been working really hard to wipe that away. It’s not that we don’t want people doing work that’s specific to their region or specific to their local needs, but we have to have a core underneath of standards that is the baseline that is the Gannett Fleming standard. We have to maintain that quality and make sure people recognize our documents regardless of what software it is. We should be able to put out a product that they can’t tell what we used to develop it.

Over the last year and a half, we have spent a good chunk of time just going through things like standard symbol content. What’s a receptacle supposed to look like? What does a door look like? Do we have that part that’s available for everybody to use so if I come from Los Angeles or New York or Woodbury or Marlton or Camp Hill and go to any of other those offices, I can’t tell where it came from.

Now we have that core standard in place. We’re looking above that standard. What is it we need to do when we start dealing with specific industries like water, wastewater, and transit? What are the requirements for those types of projects that we need to have content that’s specific for them? To that end, we’re developing our BIM specialists program within the company where we’re elevating people that have shown exceptional talent. They understand what a good set of construction documents and a good construction deliverable is. They’ve been helping us put these things together and make sure that what we have is a good quality output. It’s something that represents the part accurately in the field.

A great example is in the water and wastewater industry. We have a water-specific BIM specialist and a wastewater-specific BIM specialist, but those two guys collaborate. We’re trying to get it so that in the standard, a pump is a pump is a pump regardless of the industry, but there are going to be variations. Do we have an example for that person to get started from that represents that industry standard?

It’s actually one of the hardest tasks that we’ve had to go through because you’re trying to get all these silos to agree on a common standard, and that’s hard. And when you get into platforms like Forge, talking about breaking down silos and having people work on a common platform, that’s just a tool I look at and say, “This could really help us out with standards. It could really help us be more efficient.” There are just so many good reasons for having standards. So much better to have them there than not have them.

C+S: In your work with Gannett Fleming and at Autodesk University and other training events, what do you see as the greatest training needs within the AEC industry?

Butts: My personal experience was, when I was in a four-year college, I was taking a lot of classes that really didn’t relate to the practical application of what I wanted to do. There was too much spread out and too much elective-type training that really wasn’t focused on what I needed to really understand about my job. As we look at how people get trained and how we improve that, the first thing we have to do is go back to the college level and work with the colleges. If I have somebody who’s learning mechanical engineering, it’s not necessarily that they don’t need to learn Inventor or Solid Works or whatever program they’re using, but we need them to learn programs like Revit. How do I do HVAC design? How do I do piping design? We need to be able to identify the track that engineer is taking and make sure we’re teaching them on the latest tools possible.

Now, some colleges have gotten really good about this. When we get an intern from Penn State, they have Revit training. And there are several other colleges in Pennsylvania that do this. There’s not as many in the Southeast as I would like to see. I would really like to see that curriculum change from being AutoCAD and AutoCAD Architecture to Revit, to Inventor. There’s really not a reason for the colleges not to do this other than the instructor because the software tools are free. They can get them for free, so there’s not a cost involved there. It’s making sure that the curriculum that gets put together meets the accreditation needs that the university needs to maintain.

We started working on this with the ATC (Autodesk Authorized Training Center) program at Autodesk. I was on the advisory board from 2010 to 2011. Our goal there was to set up what we needed to do to make sure that the courses people got on Autodesk training matched IACET standards. That’s something that’s been in the works for eight or nine years. We’re much closer to that now. Even as a provider for training, we want to make sure that what we’re doing meets that same standard. So that’s the biggest thing we need to change to make sure we have more practical application of the software and the tools and how they relate to the industry that that person is in. They really need to make sure that they match all of that stuff up.

C+S: For any given project, how is the decision made regarding the level of 3D modeling or BIM development? And how much input does the design team have in the decision, how much is driven by the owner or contractor, and do you see that changing in any way?

Butts: We’re training our project managers because initially, out of the box, we were all driven by client demand. If you go to a lot of our clients, what are they going to tell you? “I need AutoCAD.” We actually have some clients that come and tell us, “I need AutoCAD 2007.” That’s an 11-year-old software package. Why in the world would I want to write to something that old or be forced to go back to use something that old? Autodesk gives us some tools to be able to export back, but that’s not the problem. The problem is educating our clients — this is what the tool is; this is what we have available. What’s the benefit; what’s the ROI for the client?

So we have a go/no go decision process. It’s the same thing as deciding whether or not we have the staff that’s qualified to engineer a project. Do we have the staff and tools needed to actually develop the project? If they’re not requiring us to do 3D, what’s the benefit of using 3D on this project? There’s very few times where not being in 3D is a driver — very rare.

If I’m swapping a pump out with a piece of new equipment, I understand working in 2D, but nearly everything else can be done better if you model it. There’s no gray area about it. When you start to get into tools like Revit, and you look at how they work, the fact that I can take this object, this model, and I can see it in a plan view and a section and generate those images in a matter or seconds, as opposed to the traditional board-drafting technique of drawing this piece and then drawing this piece and drawing this piece and having that disconnect between all those sections. You cannot develop a design in 2D as fast as you can in 3D.

From the standard standpoint, the software now already has all this stuff built into it. It has those tools to generate those views for us. There’s no reason to go backwards. So we look at the project. Our decision isn’t so much about whether it’s 3D, it’s whether we’re going to give that 3D model to the client or to the contractor.

As the company has evolved, it’s fascinating because we have some areas of our company — like every company does — where they’re slower to adopt technology. But then I’ll have another group over here that is driven. They’ll say, “I’m going to go ahead and Revit right over the top of that whether you give me an architectural background or not. I’ll model the building for you.” They’re that motivated because they know the tool brings that much value.

So the engineers and their leads and their teams will make that decision to say, “Even if the other team isn’t here, we’re going to go ahead and go forward.” Now is that an ideal situation? Absolutely not. It gets back to my team and to us as an organization to go back to those groups that are still in AutoCAD and say, “We’ve got to move you up. What is it going to take to get you up to the speed? Do we need to hire new people? Do we need to give you training?” Those are hard decisions to make.

We try to make the decision as early as possible with the preference now from our practice leadership and our Water Business Line and our facilities team. They are the ones driving us now to say, “3D is where we need to be. Using BIM, the workflows, and the software — that’s where we need to be.”

There’s another thing I need to clarify about this too. A lot of people get confused when we talk about using BIM on a project. They think that’s 3D modeling. That’s not it at all. BIM is not a noun; it’s a verb, it’s an action — building information modeling. People get confused with the word “building” because they think that’s the structure, like this building we’re sitting in. That’s nothing to do with it. It’s the act of building something, creating something, modeling something. Defining that object that’s going to be somebody’s house, somebody’s business. It’s a road, a bridge, some means of moving people. These are things that we are creating and are building. So we have to get away from this notion that BIM is a tool strictly for buildings.

This is why I love working at Gannett Fleming. We have used Revit to design water treatment plants, we’ve used it to do dams, we’ve used it to do natural gas compressor stations. I have a modeler in Camp Hill that designed a water tower with Revit. That’s not at all what it’s designed for.

I had a great conversation with one of the original developers from the Revit Technology Corporation at a conference a few years ago, and I showed him this treatment plant that we were doing. He looked at it and said, “We had no idea that people were going to do this. We thought we just going to be doing floor plans.”

So we took that idea of BIM being a noun and flipped it to the verb, and that becomes the workflow. We’re not changing 3D modeling as much — that’s still just an option — what we’re changing is how we design. It requires us to get better buy-in from the clients. We have to explain to them and get them to understand why it changes their decision-making process. We can’t wait to the last minute to make some decisions that we do now. We have to make sure that we understand how we can build this building efficiently. How can we create it so that it has a minimal impact on the environment? How can we expand the lifespan of it? How can we reduce and eliminate waste and things that screw up a project and drive our project costs crazy? That’s really the decisions that we’re making now. It’s not so much about 3D as it is about the workflow. Making sure that we can get the job done effectively and do the right things. That’s the biggest thing for us.

C+S: I would like to get your brief impressions, or predictions maybe, of impacts on the AEC industry of trending technologies that we hear about today. First is the cloud.

Butts: Four years ago, I was doing a class about CAD versus BIM. We were explaining using cloud technology. And at that point, I said, “We’re not going to the cloud.” Why did I say that? That was idiotic. That’s crazy because we’re moving to the cloud so fast now it’s inevitable; it’s coming to us.

People get scared by that kind of stuff. They’re worried about security. They’re worried about ownership of files, accessing the files, how do we get to them. A lot of those early complaints have been resolved. A lot of different entities, like the EU, have come along with their standard, saying, “If you’re going to do the cloud, then as a company, as a provider for that, you have to meet this standard so somebody can obtain their content. It’s not going to be held without their permission and it’s not going to be used in a way or distorted in a way so it’s no longer representative of what you designed.”

So when I look at the cloud, I see the difference in capability. I look at my phone and just the capability that I have just in that device, and what evolved over the last four or five years and what I can do with it. My project managers are going to the field now, with the phone, with the Revit projects in the cloud, sitting down in front of the client. They’ll pull a wall away from the building, let the client look inside, and say, “This is how we’re going to design your building.”

When they see that graphic image, it makes it very easy for them to comprehend what they’re seeing and what’s being designed. The cloud gives us that capability. It allows us to take things to the client. It allows us to take things out in the field and see what’s there.

It’s so much of a better communication tool than a written spec or something somebody has to go through that’s 1,000 pages long. This image of what we’re doing with the tools and what we’re doing with the software, that’s what the cloud brings to us

The next thing that the cloud is bringing to us is the ability to harvest all of this data, because really the “I” in BIM is the most critical part. It’s the information that lives with these parts. If I’m talking about a database of information related to a project, I can’t harvest all that just on a server on somebody’s network. I need that information to be open and available. I need to be able to share that information, not just with other firms, but with other software packages.

When we talk about the unified data environment, to me, that’s the next evolution of cloud. Not just being able to take the graphic images of the models, but when I design this pump in Inventor, and I put that piece of equipment together, I can harvest that same information and bring the pump into Revit that allows me to populate my schedules, allows me to populate my specs. It becomes that one source of information. Is it perfect? No. Is it going to need work? Yes. Is it an evolving technology? Absolutely. Is it something we’re excited about? Absolutely.

C+S: The second one is drones.

Butts: If you think about the ability to put something up in the air to be able to see things and visualize something from a different perspective, that brings a lot of value to the construction industry. I was reading something recently about the fires in California and how people were taking drones up to see where there was damage. It extends man’s vision. It gives us the ability to see things from a different perspective.

The biggest advantage for us is the ability to map structures. We can go, look at a whole plant, and come back with pictures, and get a perspective view that we wouldn’t ordinarily be able to see. [It’s] import for us as we go through renovating existing facilities — probably half to two-thirds of all our work is renovation work right now — to see these things from a different point of view without having somebody climb up on that roof or potentially put themselves in a hazardous situation like in a chemical tank or something like that. It just expands our vision. Drones, to me, give us that extra set of eyes that we didn’t have before.

The fact that I can take that photography and convert it into a 3D model, that’s just icing on the cake. It’s still at a stage where the detail level isn’t quite there. We wind up still having to model something, but it’s a lot easier to see it if I have that picture, if I’ve got that scanned model. Drones are already providing a great benefit to a lot of design teams, and we do use them.

C+S: What about augmented reality and virtual reality?

Butts: I was at Duke University several years ago and was in their 3D booth. Without the goggles on, I’m standing inside this environment and I’m looking around at all the walls, and I would walk up to an edge and it would stop. Then they had me put the goggles on. That was a mistake. I couldn’t adapt to that very well. It would get you seasick; it would give you those issues. It really depends on the user.

Now, I look at my kids and I look at younger kids. They have this technology now. They grow up with it; they’re used to it. So, [they have] the ability to immerse themselves in this technology and be able to see things that aren’t there to get a presentation of something that’s augmented to what they may see.

I can walk up to a site and there’s no building there, but I can take VR and see the building there. The advantage of that, is that as I have on those goggles and I’m seeing what the potential use of that area is, it’s much better to see what the design expectation is. A great impact would be like shadow studies or solar studies. If I’ve got that building up there and have it as augmented reality, I can put that into a specific time of day and view the impact on an adjoining building.

I think it’s becoming an expected item now. It’s not a technology that’s still in its infancy. I think because of generational changes, because of changes in what I grew up with, as opposed to my children, I think it’s now expected. So we have to be able to develop that technology and harvest all this information we have of existing geometry and then be able to superimpose something like pipes underneath the street so when we’re digging, we’re not cutting through a power line or a wastewater line.

The fact that augmented reality kind of gives you x-ray vision like Superman to be able to see through that information and know what’s there, it cuts down on mistakes, it cuts down on errors, it cuts down on damage. But it also helps you learn what you have there and what it’s going to take to update it, what it’s going to take to fix it.

To me, that’s like a child’s dream that I always wanted to be able to see that. The fact that we can do that now — we can take GIS and BIM and put it together and see everything together on a site — it’s great to be able to see that kind of technology and know that this isn’t a pipe dream anymore. We can do this. We just have to gather all the data and put it together so we can really take advantage of it.

C+S: The last one is 3D printing.

Butts: When I was with my first reseller we sold the first 3D printers, from ZCorp. It’s just like when we used to watch the old pen plotters draw; it’s utterly fascinating. We had a powder-based 3D printing system that we printed the Jefferson Memorial. It was fascinating to see. I came from a generation where we did cardboard cutouts. We would cut the cardboard and design the building in cardboard. It was art back then. That was really an artform; it’s lost.

Now we bring the 3D printers into play. When I first started looking at this, my idea was this was just going to supplant what we did in cardboard. Then we got some different chemicals together and we designed a blood vessel, and it moved. This is more than just visualization of an object. We can rebuild our world. We can go back and change what we produce and how we produce it. We’re seeing people printing buildings. Think about what we do with materials and how we reuse materials and how we structure things in such a way that we’re minimizing our impact. 3D printing gives us that capability to create that object, in the field, where we need it to fit that circumstance right in that time. It gives us the ability to give us something we can use in a medical relationship, something that we can map from a 3D like somebody’s heart and say, “I need to fix this part.”

That capability now is just tremendous, and it affects everything. It doesn’t just affect what we have in the architecture and engineering world. It affects almost everything that we do — how we live, where we are. We can take all these different components and build things now, and build them much faster and much easier than we did before, but it’s just an extension of what we’ve been doing with the 3D model — that natural outgrowth. How do we get what we design in 3D into something in the real world? That end result has always been the building; it’s always been the railroad track; it’s always been the grade. But now we have all these other things that we can make by deriving what we started off by working in the very beginning in 3D. It’s just a natural evolution of it. It’s really great to see that the technology has come that far along that now I can use materials such as liquid polymers. I can use all kinds of materials and print something and have it right there with a much lower cost of technology — much lower capital investment.

Bob drake is web content editor for Civil + Structural Engineer. Contact him at bdrake@zweiggroup.com.