Automating construction and creating a collaborative, seamless cloud-based central space for all aspects of a project cycle dominated the scene at Autodesk University 2017. Global firms demonstrated advanced, real-world use cases of virtual reality, augmented reality and prefabrication, amid announcements of updates, partnerships and the debut of Autodesk’s new CEO.

Addressing 50 years’ worth of fears that automation will cause traditional industries to lose jobs, new CEO Andrew Anagnost asked, “Are we kidding ourselves? Are we dangling our feet over a chasm of job destruction? Will we automate ourselves away?”

Speaking in his first keynote address at the company’s annual user conference in Las Vegas in mid-November, Anagnost pointed out that construction productivity is actually down amid persistent infrastructure needs. “What about the Hoover Dam? What if we had to rebuild it?” he said. “We can’t even keep up with the basic infrastructure needs we have now.”

He noted how the $27-billion Three Gorges Dam in China displaced millions of citizens and caused “gigantic” environmental harm. Automation, he suggested, “could help us reimagine hydroelectric power,” as well as construction in general, by helping to address productivity and environmental issues. Automation also can fill the labor gap. “We have a scarcity of workers, not jobs,” he said.

The show drew 10,000 engineers, designers and tech experts of all stripes to display their latest wares and practices. The parade of presented case studies included a $35-billion expansion of the Paris metro; the Netherlands’ Van Wijnen, touting house prefabrication on steroids; and Norway’s Norconsult, which boasted a 90% reduction in change orders on a hydropower dam project through the use of integrating Revit, Civil 3D, Navisworks and other tools through BIM 360.

“We’re able to show different design options, materials options and the costs associated with that—all in virtual reality,” said Kelsey Stein, senior preconstruction technology specialist with Skanska. Her company used VR to pursue six jobs last year and won five. “We’ve had a great reaction from clients,” she said. Her workflow, Max Interactive, consists of going from Revit to Live to Stingray in order to bypass traditional rendering techniques, she added.

For the Georgia Institute of Technology’s planned “living” building, the Skanska team was able to cycle through materials and glazing in virtual reality to show how the building would look with different materials. “We had a 35% glazing option and a 45% glazing option, and the 45% option was much nicer,” Stein said. “It let in more natural light and cost $100,000 less.”

Forging New Partnerships

Autodesk unveiled a preview of its next-generation BIM 360 platform, a seamless cloud service built on the Forge cloud platform that connects an entire construction project’s life cycle. “It’s one product with united capabilities for preconstruction, execution and hand-over,” said Sarah Hodges, Autodesk’s construction business director.

Autodesk also launched the Connect and Construct Exchange, a partner program designed to bring third-party software applications and data into the BIM 360 construction workflow. The Connect and Construct Exchange launched with more than 50 inaugural partners, including PARIC, a construction services firm.

Andy Leek, PARIC’s director of VDC, called the program a game-changer.

“Construction software is so fragmented, with endless vendors claiming to offer the best mousetrap for each particular process. PARIC is trying to solve all of our problems as seamlessly as possible, and Autodesk BIM 360 could ultimately be our backbone to connect everyone, from design to ownership, in one place,” he said.

Autodesk announced a variety of upcoming releases that will serve this goal, including a new Webhooks API that will let Forge users easily connect their applications to popular third-party applications. Another partner is Triax Technologies, which is integrating its Spot-r system with BIM 360. Spot-r users will be able to view the current location of workers wearing sensors on 3D BIM models, said Chad Hollingsworth, Triax CEO.

Companies can monitor worker movements for safety, efficiency and workflow statistics. Triax also introduced Spot-r EquipTag, a new internet-of-things sensor that tracks operator identity, equipment location and utilization. It can send immediate alerts for unknown or un­authorized operators.

Another partner is Pype, a software tool that quickly generates spec submittal logs. It can compare specs in real time and export logs and requirements directly into the Bim 360 platform, said Samil Dorairajan, Pype CEO. Autodesk also announced a new collaboration with Esri Inc., a global GIS software provider. The aim is to enable BIM and GIS mapping software to work together to optimize planning, building and operating infrastructure. Moreover, Ross Piper, vice president of enterprise at Dropbox, said an app for viewing an AutoCAD file on Dropbox is now available.

Autodesk also announced that it's Autodesk Forge investment fund—together with the participation of existing investors Satterfield Vintage Investments and Assemble Investments—has led a $12-million Series A round investment in Assemble Systems. Asemble Systems is a SaaS platform that consumes BIM models, drawings and point clouds, enabling users to condition, query and connect the data to key workflows. “We can manipulate different views, select data and compare design changes,” said Don Henrich, CEO of Assemble Systems.

The conference also included a transportation technology showcase that kicked off with former U.S. Dept. of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who conceded that the current “spaghetti bowl of governance … makes it difficult to make decisions and be nimble … [and therefore] slower to adopt technologies.”

Lisa Campbell, Autodesk senior vice president of business strategy, noted that internet-of-things sensors have resulted in a 99% reliability rate for the Barcelona train system. Machine learning can help to promote “predictive, not [just] preventative, maintenance,” she said.