Most of the work that Southland Industries roughly 4,000 employees do tends to be hands-on, performing MEP installations on projects across the U.S. But that work can’t happen without the labor of its team of designers, building out and detailing the BIM models that make it possible for the company to integrate its work within larger projects.
But the company was hitting the upper limits of what fully upgraded desktop PCs can perform, and it was cutting into the bottom line. “We have to have a level of performance our users are comfortable with,” explains Israel Sumano, Southland's senior director of infrastructure services. “We had looked at the cloud before, but we were waiting for the technology to catch up with our needs.”
The modelers and detailers Southland employs often have to load up very large Revit and Navisworks files for detailing work and clash detection. Loading up a 50GB model on a water-cooled desktop with at least 32GB of RAM, a quad-core processor and the latest graphics card could still take a while, and those beefy machines needed to be maintained and set up at remote offices or even directly on jobsites for larger projects. “We had these models that could take an hour-and-a-half to open, including the time to download it and load all the links,” recalls Sumano. Performance on laptops brought out to jobsites was even worse.
“We could always have watercooled desktops in a room and remote in to them, but that would be too expensive,” says Sumano. The company began testing out a range of cloud-based systems in addition to machines with the latest upgrades, “but the tech didn’t really catch up to us until we started looking,” he says.
What they settled on was Workspot, a shared working environment on the Microsoft Azure cloud platform. Now the computing power to load up dense BIM models is entirely offsite, and modelers can work on lightweight laptops or even mobile devices. “Now instead of having to send engineers and detailers to the jobsite, they can work from anywhere,” says Sumano. “In the past we had to open small offices for one or two users [near the site]. We spent a lot to get connectivity to them. When people tried to sync the Revit model to their [high-end] laptop, it takes over an hour. Now it’s a ten-minute upload.”
While Workspot was the cloud platform that eventually clicked for Southland Industries, Sumano sees the shift to the cloud for processing power as a potential sea change for design work at specialty contractors. “If we have a worker in another state, it’s an opportunity for them to work from home,” he says. “Like right now we have a lull in construction in Colorado, but have a lot of talent there. With [Workspot] we have three detailers we sent out laptops to and they can work on any job across the country.” With the cost of setting up offices and high-end PCs removed, Southland has been able to balance the workload in busy regions like Southern California with detailers based in Colorado, Las Vegas and Chicago, says Sumano.
Waiting for Better WiFi on Site
But moving everything to the cloud may not be the perfect fit for BIM work that has to happen in the construction trailer or around the site. Wireless connectivity is still a sticking point on jobsites, particularly early in the project when power and heat are seen as the real priorities. "We are having some success in getting everything digital, but we just don't have the bandwidth in the field to take advantage of it," says John Jurewicz, director of technology at Walbridge.
He says that wrangling big BIM files has always been an issue when you have to have them on site, but working in a cloud-based, virtualized environment makes some big assumptions about available internet connectivity. "It gets even worse if the client has some security requirements, then you are encrypting and decrypting these large BIM files," he says. New technologies such as 5G connectivity and ultrawide band mesh networks might fill the gaps but each has their own technical limitations on a jobsite.
While Jurewicz is not opposed to contractors and specialty contractors shifting toward cloud-based systems, Jurewicz says the next step is to convince owners that getting good wireless internet access installed on-site earlier in the process will pay huge dividends in productivity and quality. "It's great stuff, but we could be smarter about deploying this infrastructure earlier," he explains.
Taking the Plunge
Despite these challenges and after years of skepticism about cloud-based computing, Sumano says the available “solutions” are starting to catch up with the industry’s demands. “Executives were always reading about the cloud. I said we would not go to the cloud [because] five years ago it was not ready,” he says. “Now we are seeing the cost benefits, [and] no cost for expensive hardware. We’re terminating all our leases for the hardware. It was a shock to my staff when I announced it.” Southland's investment in developing this system has earned them the title of Microsoft partner. The company did not disclose the final per-seat cost of the Workspot agreement.
Of Southland's roughly 2,000 active computer users, only 500 are designers and modelers. Over half have already switched over to Workspot and are performing their work in the virtualization environment. Sumano says the rest will have migrated by the end of September. “We haven’t seen any productivity lost; if anything it’s been improving,” he says. “One of my BIM leaders can get a call on the weekend, saying the concrete trade has updated this detail and it needs approval of changes to the model. They could see the whole model on their phone at their kid’s baseball game. It’s no comparison.”