Building Toward Automated Construction Workflows

Construction software giant Autodesk has doubled down on a commitment it made two years ago, when then-new CEO Andrew Anagnost said it was a construction software company first, so making its tools work in an automated construction workplace is its future.

“We know that a future with more automation is necessary,” Anagnost said at the company’s annual Autodesk University conference and trade show in Las Vegas. “The fact that four billion people worldwide enjoy prosperity is good, but we also know that making more plans for more people is a reality we all need to face up to,” he said. Anagnost and other executives said Auto­desk would focus on how to better integrate its vast software library with the workflows of on-site robotics as well as with prefabrication and modular construction. He highlighted how customers such as modular builder Skystone and contractor Hensel Phelps are already deploying these capabilities today.

Hensel Phelps demonstrated how it used the Boston Dynamics-developed Spot robot to capture the hundreds of photos it uses to create its 360° jobsite image. Using HoloBuilder’s SpotWalk app, the little robot follows a route through the jobsite carrying a 360° camera payload, capturing all the imagery Holobuilder needs to document the site.

“[It empowers] a staff member to have better communication and coordination with process and procedural chores,” said Andrew Cameron, Hensel Phelps’ project manager for the Harvey Milk Terminal project at San Francisco International Airport, where SpotWalk was deployed as a pilot project.

In addition to freeing up staff, Cameron says Hensel Phelps got better-quality data using the robot and app because Spot took site photos in the exact same locations every single time, even as the project advanced. “It’s not left-justified one day or right-justified the next,” he says.

On the modular side, Marriott International has used some form of prefabrication — be it whole modular units, bathroom pods or simple assemblies — on 70 projects and, as an owner, is now working on the tallest modular hotel in New York City — the 26-story, $65-million NoMad Hotel. Marriott echoes Hensel Phelps, saying that its turn to automation is driven by need to maximize its workforce’s time.

“We need more people in the trades,” said Jennifer Abuzeid, senior director global design strategies at Marriott. “We have a very similar group of owners as Hilton and IHG. We’re thrilled we started down this [modular delivery] path a number of years ago, and we’re thrilled to be in this position of leadership, but this has to be a Hilton, an IHG, a multifamily construction thing too, because of the number of people we need.”

All the modules for the NoMad project will be produced by DMDmodular in its factory in Skawina, Poland. Skystone, the general contractor on the project, will transport the modules to the site and install them.

When asked what shifting tools toward robotics and modular design means for contractors, Nicolas Mangon, Auto­desk vice president of AEC strategy, says it will ultimately create new jobs. “The typical general contractor [today] does not have a factory, and won’t have enough products to build a factory,” Mangon says. “The theory we are working from is there will be a new group of middle prefabricators that will have those capabilities and reduce the scope of the general contractors.”

Jim Lynch, another Autodesk vice president and general manager of construction, says it will create more opportunity than disruption in the long run.

“It’s not heavy lifting, we have the tools,” he says, saying it’s the integration that matters. “Making those connections is where we’re at right now.”