Automation and artificial intelligence (AI) are rapidly changing the way we work and navigate the world.

Construction is not immune to the impacts. Some studies place architecture and engineering among the top professional services businesses impacted by AI. Rather than the conventional rhetoric focusing on AI replacing the work done by humans, we should instead focus on how these technologies can make humans more efficient at their jobs, helping us achieve what hasn't yet been in reach.

A better future begins with solutions that emphasize connection, innovation, and stewardship. Creativity and innovation are critical components as engineers design a world that can support future generations. Experts, leaders and businesses must stay ahead of the innovation curve by investing in technology, training internal experts and leveraging automation to provide clients with future-focused solutions. 

Clients expect engineers to drive efficiency in the design process. AI allows for the focus to be on the quality of the deliverable, not the engineering time to produce it. Engineers will seek out organizations that leverage technology, empower innovation and invest in their people. Design firms can remain relevant for both clients and talent by investing in internal software development capabilities dedicated to automating repeatable tasks and prioritizing innovative and creative ideas.

Making the Case

Traditionally, design firms and the contractors they provide documents to have been wired to prioritize time-and-material contracts. Engineers often begin projects through the lens of a previous, similar successful project. Technology disrupts this longstanding mindset — and it’s time to rethink how we integrate it into our design processes. Design automation must be grounded in both current needs and future opportunities, serving as a lifeline between where we are today and where we need to be tomorrow.

We can start projects by identifying which portions of the work can be automated. Software vendors in the AEC space have leaned into program innovation furthering automation opportunities and access across the sector. Clients are expecting us to drive value through speed and efficiency with innovative thinking woven in from planning to design.

The goal of digital transformation is to complete high-value work faster, ultimately delighting clients while allowing employees to focus on the best parts of their jobs. The time is now to foster a culture that leverages existing technology and empowers innovation as technology evolves. 

Design firms and contractors have a tremendous opportunity to add software development capabilities to allow engineers to use automation tools and technology to be more agile and innovative while continuously improving. Of course, this is easier said than done. Implementing a dedicated software development team takes time, money and resources.

The AEC space is currently experiencing a highly competitive labor market — there is more demand for work than there are engineers. Recruitment and retention efforts are more crucial than ever in today’s competitive labor market. People want to work in firms that prioritize innovation and empower employees to use the best parts of their brains to learn, stretch and grow. Technology enables us to meet that demand. 

Implementing a System

Implementing a software development team internally benefits the organization by eliminating repetitive tasks to encourage innovation and maximize efficiency. Automation and AI don’t replace engineers. Instead, engineers who effectively leverage automation and AI replace those who can't. The technology augments the physical space and mental capacity of engineers.

As architects, engineers and contractors continue to experience a highly competitive labor market, organizations can be an employer of choice by empowering employees to be innovative through technology. The biggest obstacle to successfully implementing automation and software development is a lack of people with software development skills that also understand engineering design software. Finding experts who overlap in both software development and engineering is no small feat. Therefore, organizations must seek opportunities to not only acquire but develop software engineering expertise that can work at the nexus of software and automation.

Because it requires a significant up-front investment, leaders must believe in and commit to a future that leverages technology. Not only do organizations need to establish a software development team, but they must also plan to train this newly acquired software engineering talent to drive automation and house internal expertise for a sustained period of time. This can be done by either hiring engineers and training them in software development or hiring software developers and training them in design and construction. Either way, multiple skills and resources are needed to do it well.  

Build, Don’t Buy

Because design and construction knowledge is imperative to successfully leverage technology, the most cost-effective and talent-focused solution is to train those with design or construction expertise and automation skills who are already inside the organization with software development skills.

Internal software development teams can either be a cohesive unit of software developers in their own department of an organization or they can be software developers embedded in various departments across an organization. No matter which format works best for your business, the software development team not only needs software engineers familiar with the technology but also those with business process expertise who are familiar with the space and how engineers work together. 

In its ideal state, the software development team consists of software engineers with various skills as well as a mix of tenure. Industry veterans must have the expertise and capacity to train technicians in the software skills needed to automate their work and identify future opportunities for automation. To deliver high-quality work, automation cannot be an overly complicated system or process and it cannot be a “black box” — engineers must be able to understand how it works together to deliver work and see future opportunities.

A software development team can implement automation into engineering processes in a myriad of ways. Small incremental changes, such as automating simpler, less time-consuming tasks, can have a meaningful impact on individual workloads and efficiencies over time. Whereas complete automation of monotonous tasks can have a more immediate effect, freeing up significant time, resources and space to invest in deeper innovation. Either way, the priority should be to deliver better work faster and with fewer errors. This improves client experience and creates a better value while internally driving the expertise necessary to leverage technology in advanced ways. 

Encourage Knowledge Sharing

Beyond the software development teams, engineers have an obligation to drive value and efficiency for clients through knowledge sharing. Pair your people with automation and create an environment that leans into and supports innovation and automation. Empower employees to explore their capabilities and support innovative problem-solving. 

Design and construction have an opportunity to embrace the impact of automation and AI in our day-to-day work. Creativity and innovation are crucial to designing a world where we can solve critical challenges today while supporting future generations. We must focus on how the technology can augment the work our teams do, which will contribute to greater efficiency. Simply put, engineers who maximize technology will replace those who don’t. In order to remain relevant with clients and the talent market, organizations and their leaders must invest in emerging technology, internal expertise and automation, provide future-focused solutions and stay ahead of the innovation curve. 

Nick Ingolfsland is chief innovation and technology officer at Ulteig in Fargo, N.D.