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Future Forward: AI Is the Latest Enabler of Engineering’s Digital Transformation Journey

Todd Danielson on May 9, 2024 - in Articles, Profile

This interview was recorded by Todd Danielson, the editorial director of Informed Infrastructure. You can watch a video of the full interview above or by visiting bit.ly/3UlLyVH.

Carolina Venegas Martinez is the senior water industry strategy manager at Autodesk.

When I interviewed Venegas Martinez at the 2023 Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas, the intended focus—based on her experience and job description—was on the water industry and its associated technology. However, like most topics at that event (and in the last half-year since), it quickly became a discussion on AI and how its related technologies are rapidly changing all industries.

Venegas Martinez repeated several times a simple phrase reminiscent of John Lennon: “Give it a chance.”

“I know for a lot of people, [AI] may be super scary to super exciting and every point in between,” she notes. “I see AI as a great opportunity to unleash a new level of creativity.”

Venegas Martinez explains that the amount of data technology is creating is so massive that it’s almost impossible for human beings to take advantage of all of it and make things better. She believes AI can take over the repetitive, unproductive and error-prone tasks and tackle the massive datasets to analyze climate methodologies and past and present events to better predict the future and understand what’s happening in real time to plan, design, build and operate better infrastructure assets.

The Journey Continues

According to Venegas Martinez, AI is the catalyst in a long digital transformation of the engineering industry. She recalls learning the basics of the trade creating paper drawings on large boards. Computers soon developed new and faster technologies such as BIM and then full 3D models. AI began as “generative design” and “machine learning,” and many of those aspects already exist in most design software. What’s now discussed as AI merely enhances the “learning aspect” of computers.

“You can see where you can optimize energy consumption or chemical usage if you’re in a treatment-plant space,” she notes. “You can plan for better operations. You can plan for better projects—just give it a chance.”

One of the next steps on the journey, adds Venegas Martinez, is for designers and technology to look at all projects as a cycle instead of a linear process of plan, design, build, and operate and maintain. Past and present lessons need to be applied to future designs, rather than essentially starting over.

“Learnings from the operation should be fitting into what is planned for the next asset or for the improvement of those assets,” she explains. “That’s where there is no data lost between handover of the different phases, but the data is really flowing consistently across the different lifecycles, phases of the lifecycles, and the owners and operators don’t have data silos or broken systems where they don’t talk to each other, but they have a consistent single source of truth.

“Not only the power of AI and what we’re doing with the iterations and bringing in more data, being connected to the different solutions, but it’s also how the machine can continue learning from those previous experiences,” adds Venegas Martinez. “If I can take those lessons learned, start from that point and then continue maturing, that’s a big win.”

About the Water

Although AI was prominent in our discussion, we did find time to discuss water infrastructure and technology. With a PhD in “Science Hydraulics and Environmental Science and Engineering,” Venegas Martinez knows what she’s talking about on this subject.

“Water is life,” she notes. “My advice to this current generation and the new generation of water engineers: let’s make it relevant.”

She believes water too often is taken for granted. Water assets are mostly underground and not as exciting as a stadium or bridge, but none of these structures can have power without water. She also sees the water industry as too isolated, where different utilities and public works systems only cover one aspect, such as sewer or stormwater or drinking water. She calls a better approach “one water.”

Each drop of water should be treated with the same level of importance throughout all water systems incorporated through master planning and lifecycle engineering, not passed or traded to the next caretaker. “That’s going to really help us connect those different assets, protect the most wonderful resource that we have,” she says.

Coming back to AI, of course, she notes how it can help in terms of water management and conservation.

“In the past, customers would’ve had to spend hours to see where water was channeling and ponding in different areas, and iterate and coordinate,” she notes. “Now they can do that in seconds and move the storm controls. They can plan for better controls … Just give it a chance.” 


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About Todd Danielson

Todd Danielson has been in trade technology media for more than 20 years, now the editorial director for V1 Media and all of its publications: Informed Infrastructure, Earth Imaging Journal, Sensors & Systems, Asian Surveying & Mapping, and the video news portal GeoSpatial Stream.

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