Autodesk Takes an Integrated Workflow Approach to Infrastructure Projects
Increasingly, Autodesk is focused on connecting the different pieces within their Infrastructure Design Suite to better facilitate and coordinate the work being done across the lifecycle of infrastructure projects. Informed Infrastructure (I2) editor Matt Ball recently spoke with Paul McRoberts, vice president of the Infrastructure Modeling Product Line Group at Autodesk, about the focus of product development as well as some of the global trends such as the move toward greater urbanization that are driving changes in approach, particularly in the developing world.
I2: The global trend toward greater urbanization puts an emphasis on new development. Does that trend play right into the hands of your integrated product suite?
McRoberts: Urbanization is causing a chain reaction of events. When you take a massive amount of people and move them into an existing city, you create an overly strained environment. Every system that was designed and built for half as many people — the water system, sewer system, electrical system, transportation system — is strained and it has a cascading effect on those systems. We hear about new efforts to move more people into the city, and then you hear of them reaching capacity, without the ability to provide for the added population.
There’s a need for a balance, and to look at the collection of services. Today, with our suites we have the ability to not just look at the highway system or a rail system, but to look at multimodal for transportation, or to look at all the utility systems. That broader understanding will allow us to provide a safe and productive environment for inhabitants.
I2: With the need to act quickly, there seems to be a need for greater communication and collaboration between developers, those that manage those systems, and the cities. Are we seeing a better and more streamlined approach?
McRoberts: It does get incredibly complex, and while new approaches help streamline the process, more needs to be done on the policy side. For instance, take the Empire State Building, if you tried to build that today it would take you four to six years, but it was built in 15 months. The same is true of a new highway or rail project within a city core.
There is a combination of factors that make today’s process so much slower. The public is much more involved, there’s an enormous amount of information and data to manage, there’s the municipality with multiple departments that need to coordinate. It used to take five to six years for a new highway project, but now you’re looking at 20 years.
A lot of that is because of the availability of information, and a new group of public actors that you didn’t need to work with in the past. For the San Francisco Presidio Parkway project, there were more than 2,000 advocacy groups associated with that project.
That’s changing how we approach projects, with far more early public involvement that places the project in the context of the real world, with better means to convey what the future will look like to them, and address their concerns earlier to move projects ahead more rapidly.
Think about the impact of social media on these types of projects. This whole social aspect is something that we could be leveraging to advise and bring the project forward. We can think of this new interaction as a means to involve the public more as a partner in the project rather than those that need to receive the end result.
I2: Is the public buy-in advancing with this new modeling paradigm, and with InfraWorks gaining traction?
McRoberts: I was talking to the CEO of a company in Seattle recently, and we discussed the idea of letting people see project alternatives in the context of what they see outside of their door today. That CEO said that he spends half of his time trying to explain what they are trying to do, to people who don’t understand what they are looking at on paper. Getting away from that translation process, and seeing things in the context of the real world, breaks down so many barriers.
Municipalities really get on board with this, without having to flip through layer after layer of the old 2D data construct. Helping people visualize information in the context of what the real world looks like is what we’re after.
I2: Asia has been at the forefront of new development, and I read just the other day that India was looking to spend $1 trillion on new infrastructure. Has the new Asia infrastructure engine become a big business driver for Autodesk?
McRoberts: There’s the new, which is what you’re talking about, but let’s not forget about the 150 to 200-year-old infrastructure that is out in the world today that is absolutely crumbling. One might argue that it is easier to go out and build a new city rather than fixing the one that you’re in, because you don’t have the same constraints.
Here where I am in the Northeast, how many more power outages do we need to go through in the winter time due to ice and wind? If we had to do it all over again, we would have put all the utility lines underground. In the new cities, you have the freedom to learn from the failures of the past, with a new future look based on the performance of the city for a safe and sustainable approach rather than hurrying up and getting it built.
That’s where some of the risk comes in with some of the urbanization efforts in India and China, with the necessity to hurry up and get them built versus an approach that learns from the past. The technology is there to pull together plans based on performance as we’re no longer constrained by the size of the data, or the ability to visualize and share that information. Using the information to describe why we’re doing something, rather than what we’re doing, really helps to get public support to speed the process.
I2: There is a good deal of automation happening that helps to tackle some of the capacity issues that we have, in terms of the amount of new work that needs to be done that exceeds the ability of our workforce. Is part of the mission to improve process to meet that gap?
McRoberts: I met with a customer a short while ago about one of their “bread and butter” projects, putting a five-kilometer water main in an existing city. The problem was not how to design the new water main, that’s the easy part. The problem was the coordination of construction in an existing roadway with minimal disruptions.
Modeling the context of how the waterline will be constructed in both time and space helps the municipality, the construction companies and the public. The time savings leads to cost savings, avoiding the need for so many meetings.
If you think about the kinds of projects that we deal with in the infrastructure space, each one is tied to the economic performance of a location or country. The sooner that we get this infrastructure in place, the sooner the economic benefit can be felt. Accelerating that whole process, and getting people on board with what’s going on with these projects, will completely revolutionize the way that projects will be done. I do not expect that within three to five years that infrastructure projects will be done the same way they are done today.
I2: That plays into the hands of those firms that are more nimble. Are there quite a few holdouts that are resisting the change?
McRoberts: There is an environment today where it is difficult to coordinate project details. You go to the gas utility company and they have their own GIS and data system, as does the water utility, and the state department of transportation. They all have their own for the purpose of managing their own areas of responsibility, and rightly so. When you’re able to take that GIS data and bring it into one environment, you understand the impacts across all of these areas of responsibility.
I was working with a customer in Brazil that is responsible for land use. They worked with the utility and transportation companies, and they now have a model for the entire area where they are working on a big project. All they did was combine existing data into InfraWorks, and they now have a complete model of underground infrastructure, roadways, the terrain, and how things look now.
The data is there, it just has to be aggregated and looked at in a way that each of the stakeholders can share with each other. As they begin to design, they don’t have to call each other up to determine the location of each gas or water main. With the data readily available, outside of the silos of information, allows us all to do a better job. It’s not just one entity with an advantage, they all have the advantage as they understand the project and data better. So, I don’t think it’s people holding out, it’s more trying to understand the value of being involved.
I2: How important is the mobility of this information, with seamless extension to the field?
McRoberts: I was in Qatar, and I was having a conversation with a company that was in year eight of a 15-year implementation of a GIS system. They openly said that the technology has changed so much that when they’re just three quarters of the way done, they’ll need to start planning for the next generation system. I was talking to them about what they were trying to accomplish, and their main objective is to bring together a lot of data together to reconcile it. The biggest challenge that they have is that every time they do something with the data, someone is saying that the data and the data quality isn’t any good.
With augmented reality you can go in the field with that data and do audits of actual information, because with infrastructure everything in our world has x, y and z coordinates. You can stand on the manhole and correct the model if it shows that the model is six feet off from reality. Having the right location information in my model as the real world is so much easier these days.
Back in the old days of arcs, lines and polygons, the information just wasn’t trustworthy. Now in the new world with an augmented reality view, you can look at a pole or a manhole in the model and get information that you were never able to get before without climbing up a pole, opening that manhole, or digging underground. The “Call Before You Dig” services won’t go away any time soon, but we’re so much further ahead than we were before.
I believe that the data quality will get better so much faster and that the data quantity will expand exponentially, because of so many data sources feeding into location. We’ll see more data from municipal 311 systems, Twitter and other social media, all with conditions and location.
I don’t know if you’ve heard about the iPhone application called Bump, where you turn it on in your car and it detects potholes as you drive. The mayor of Boston is sending road crews out to respond to these reports. In the past, you’d have to send out someone to assess road conditions, and another crew would go out later after the report was in. This is so much better than a phone call system, with a large volume of data coming in at such a rate that changes how we operate.
I2: How are you responding to these data inputs within your modeling software tools?
McRoberts: We have built the capability for the social interaction to take place within a cloud environment. So, when you have a model of a county, town, or city, having the ability to take in location information from mobile devices (whether a consumer’s device or a field worker’s device) and being able to track where it came from, when it came in, and what they are reporting. The old days of marking up a drawing and sending it in are gone. We envision this as a photograph, a voice message, a text, or even a markup on a drawing that is captured where you are, it’s aggregated into a database along with other information to help you understand the condition of the asset over time – at it’s location.
That capacity, with the new interaction, didn’t exist even five years ago. We want to enable that interaction between agencies and the public. You have to be able to manage and represent the data to help everyone understand what’s going on.
The way that things have been done, you’d go to a map view, click on an asset, and pull together data on it. You have access to some details, but so much of what we do is managed by experience today, because of older crews that likely also installed the asset. Those people are moving on, so we need to capture that experience information. That’s what we’re looking at with InfraWorks, it’s really a 3D physical asset by location environment that isn’t limited by your data or your scale. It helps you understand what’s out there in the real world, and what you can do with that in the future.
I2: What are some of the changes that have taken place with software and hardware to enable this new modeling environment?
McRoberts: The ability to take in massive amounts of data, in the order hundreds of petabytes, which don’t limit us on data size or scale. Improvements on CPU and GPU processing that allow us to visualize this large data rapidly. The improvement of data quality. The whole augmented reality piece, that allows us to understand where virtual things are in relationship to physical reality, and to compare them through a mobile device. Adding all those things together, and we’re really at an inflection point of technology that will fundamentally change how infrastructure projects are carried out, and how geospatial data is managed.