The discipline of designing and engineering infrastructures – such as roads, bridges, and buildings – is undergoing a dramatic transformation thanks to technological innovation across the industry. Ever-advancing 3D design tools may be the most visible aspect of this transformation, but we’re also poised to experience profound changes in how professionals create, collaborate, and integrate their work to build safe, durable structures across America.
I have spent most of my 25 years in the technology arena at HNTB, where I now serve as chief information officer. As the years have gone by I’ve watched design professionals transition from “slinging ink” for blueprints, to working at terminals with (often sluggish) connections to mainframes, to adopting 3D/ CAD software tools on local desktop computers. The local-computing approach continues to dominate our industry, mostly because built-out desktop workstations quickly and affordably handle many computing cycles. This is why, in many cases, design professionals continue to use basically the same CAD and geospatial tools they were using a decade ago.
This paradigm, however, is beginning to shift due to several factors. First, the advent of cloud computing now allows professionals to harness more computing cycles using any device, from anywhere, at any time. Second, it allows for an entirely new level of collaboration with clients and business partners. Third, portable devices can now perform many desktop-like functions, which puts power in professionals’ hands wherever they need to be, such as out in the field where the infrastructure is being built.
"The convergence of ever-more-powerful technology and ever-more-capable professionals will ensure that the buildings and bridges of our future will emerge with greater strength and efficiency than ever before."
Building a New Collaboration Platform
HNTB has professionals across the country who routinely collaborate on complex infrastructure projects. Speed and precision are critical, which is why we have worked with tech industry leaders to create flexible yet powerful platforms for collaboration. For example, we have been at the forefront of putting CAD cloud applications to work across our enterprise. We have successfully brought many new projects onto these platforms this past year, winning over clients by demonstrating the level of efficiency that such a solution can deliver.
Such advanced tools can only perform if a firm’s technology backbone can handle the data load. HNTB’s projects are highly complex, and the project files we share are enormous. Intense, real-time team collaboration has driven ever-greater network demand, which is why we have implemented Software-Defined Wide-Area Networks (SD-WANs). By moving from our legacy systems to SD-WAN, we can shift bandwidth priorities on the fly, offering more bandwidth to critical applications or enterprise platforms, as needed. If a crucial operation requires more bandwidth, it gets it.
Integrating local devices with cloud computing naturally creates new risks to data security, which must be addressed. But, the upside to this kind of on-demand computing power and bandwidth is far too compelling for us to remain in a local-computer mindset. As the U.S. market becomes more security-aware, contractual requirements for data security measures have become more prevalent among asset owners. Thus, it is critical for contractors and firms like ours to engage reliable technology partners that allow us to meet these requirements with confidence.
People Remain Key
Underlying all of these technologically-enabled opportunities is the enduring reality that success hinges more on human behavior than on other factors. Firms that embrace new tech need to educate staff and clients about the potential gains and risks involved, provide adequate training where applicable, and clearly explain what will change, and what will not.
When we get to critical mass – when most architecture, engineering, and planning professionals have transitioned to a cloud production environment – these people no longer will be tethered to their desks. They will be able to take a tablet or convertible device into the field and, in immersive fashion, interact with relevant project data in real-time.
They also will be able to interact with the universe of project professionals in an entirely new way, one that could potentially upend traditional organizational hierarchies. After all, when everyone has access to the same information, and there are fewer office walls or nameplates to signal seniority, there’s a chance that those with technological prowess will appear more capable than those with decades of know-how and experience.
Such a scenario would do a disservice to both groups. Junior professionals need the guidance and mentorship of senior professionals to expand their understanding of their fields – mainly, what could go wrong and why. Conversely, those who have many decades of know-how but little agility with technology must tap into the skills of the rising generation of professionals, to fully embrace unfamiliar but vista-expanding concepts.
This convergence of ever-more-powerful technology and ever-more-capable professionals will ensure that the buildings and bridges of our future will emerge with greater strength and efficiency than ever before. For those of us in the infrastructure field, it’s a great time to be alive.