The significant commitment and resources of the UAE government have led to many projects and opportunities for companies in the construction and engineering sector. Reports suggest that the UAE’s construction sector is expected to see a solid recovery in the next five years, with the construction industry’s value expected to grow between 3.7-4.7 per cent. As part of the Projects of the 50 initiative, the UAE government announced plans to implement a series of projects aimed at accelerating the UAE’s economic development to transform the country into a comprehensive hub for all sectors, with a view to attract $149.8 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) over the next nine years. This brings a tremendous focus to the commitment on the side of the developers to keep up the pace of the projects. The construction sector, historically, has been a real-world phenomenon. For this reason, many developers still believe in the legacy system of working on paper, which may be hindering the progress of the sector on many grounds. Technology has the potential to help improve the scalability of business models and utilise assets more effectively. However, the construction industry has consistently been a slow technology adopter.
Naji Atallah, who has been with Autodesk for 10 years, elaborates why there should be disruption now in the real world of construction. He also stresses that companies must adopt and invest in technologies to remain competitive and relevant.
Excerpts from the interview:
The construction sector in the UAE has been awarded the biggest piece of the pie in new projects in Q3 2022. Is this why you think the industry needs to adopt digital project delivery at the earliest to keep up the pace?
Historically, construction isn’t necessarily an industry renowned for digitisation, when you compare manufacturing with other broader sectors. In 2017, McKinsey conducted a study where they earmarked 25 different industries in terms of the adoption of digital technologies. In that study, construction ranked second to last, ahead of only agriculture and hunting! This has translated into lower growth in productivity in construction than in any other industry. But today, there has been a transformation from within companies to adapt to technology and improve processes. I can safely say that all large projects that have been completed in the recent past couldn't have been done on time and within budget without depending on digital technology — the bigger projects were the earlier adopters. Digitalisation can help in two ways: take the time strain off ambitious projects and also put in checks and balances on the sector’s environmental footprint to reduce the negative impact of construction on the environment.
What is the carbon footprint of the construction sector currently and how can digitisation help?
The sector is one of the largest industries in the world, but it’s also highly energy-intensive. Buildings are the cause of 38 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) worldwide. Out of which about 28 per cent can be attributed to building operations — energy for HVAC and lighting accessories, for example. The rest is made up of the construction itself and associated materials. Contributing over a third towards global carbon emissions doesn’t bode well for the industry as we aim to achieve Net Zero worldwide.
In this aspect, new and emerging technologies are proven to maximise efficiency, productivity, collaboration, quality construction, and profit margins and move us closer towards sustainable practices. By digitising the design and construction processes with Building Information Modelling (BIM), projects result in less waste on field. This, in turn, leads to a reduction in the environmental impact.
With BIM, different project stakeholders add their own design information to make the most constructible version of the actual project with collaboration. This ensures that there are minimum design clashes on site, and with simulations now possible, this empowers better designs with regard to sustainability and construction. All of the decisions made earlier lead to better project outcomes. A case in point is Amana Investments in the UAE. With its industrialised construction strategies enabled by BIM, the firm has managed to reduce construction waste by over a third compared to traditional projects.
As the leader in BIM, Autodesk is the industry’s preferred partner to realise better ways of working and enabling efficient outcomes for businesses and the built-up world.
At Autodesk, we also walk the walk; we have neutralised greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across our operations and entire value chain for the second year in a row.
Autodesk is a leader in design and make technology. The focus lies on the Autodesk Construction Cloud. So, could you tell us about its immense opportunity and how it fits into the sustainability model?
The nature of the construction sector, by default, is collaboration. In traditional models, you have an owner of the asset, who works with an architect, a consultant or designer, a contractor, and then you have a number of subcontractors.
With the adoption of cloud technologies in construction, I see this as the third wave of digital transformation in the construction industry after the move to CAD during the early 1980s, and then to BIM in the early 2000s. With Autodesk Construction Cloud (ACC), we've taken the construction workflows online, made them even more collaborative and extended them to the construction site. Now, there is no limitation on where teams sit because information can be accessed from anywhere, seamlessly and securely across geographies and entities.
One of the companies that we work closely with in the ACC space is Khansaheb, a leading UAE construction company. With our technology, Khansaheb managed to reduce the time spent on snagging onsite by 60 per cent. Traditionally, information was flowing from the design office to site and the latter part had to make sense of the information. ACC has created a feedback loop that goes from site back into engineering to make sure that the right data reaches the right person at the right time for better decision making.
With ACC, you get a unified database, where everybody is on the same page — in the process, building a sustainable data infrastructure.
Coming to the UAE, how would you rate the digital project delivery adoption?
Looking at some of the flagship projects like the Museum of the Future and Expo 2020 Dubai, I would say that these projects would not have been delivered in the timeframes in which they were delivered without adopting BIM and cloud processes. We are now seeing that policymakers in the UAE are working to establish a digital project delivery mandate. Therefore, the landscape here is encouraging and the rate of adoption of BIM is increasing. We’ve seen it on all major projects across the nation first before it trickled to smaller projects too.
How is Autodesk aligned with the Net Zero goals of the UAE government?
Six months ago, we published our global impact report for the previous year. And for the second year in a row, we are a net zero greenhouse gas emissions company. So, the subject is of the utmost importance to us. We have also significantly reduced our emissions across our value chain and our suppliers through science-based goals for our suppliers to reduce their carbon footprint.
In October 2021, Autodesk issued its first sustainability bond offering, totalling $1 billion to further align our impact strategy with our financial strategy. And these funds will be used to improve and develop tools including better design and production.
However, as a leading technology company, our impact is not just what we do, but how we enable our customers to reduce emissions in the industries that they operate in. We are constantly developing new tools that can better measure the impact of projects and decisions on the environment.
Data is a huge asset as well as a challenge for construction companies. What role does Autodesk play in creating a seamless experience?
Data provides us with insights. Having said that, data is not something that’s scarce in the construction sector. A report by FMI says that over 95 per cent of the data that the industry generates during a construction project is actually unused. So, as an industry, a lot of data is created and, it’s not used or the benefit is not understood. A reason for this is that, traditionally, data can be unstructured, and can be in huge volumes. So, as humans, we are less likely to identify patterns and impactful insights. Here, I see the vital role ACC plays in mining data and extracting actionable insights. The platform can warn users of potential risks. And this is the direction that we're taking Autodesk Construction Cloud towards; we want the platform to enable decision making rather than just a passive place where data is being stored and consumed.
You spoke about predicting risks on projects, which also means that ACC can actually go a long way in safety management in project sites as well.
Data openness is one of our values for better collaboration in construction. As such, we have opened ACC through Autodesk Platform Services. Here, you can customise, extend, and connect Autodesk products with other solutions to create seamless end-to-end workflows and meet business objectives. This is what our coders use to develop Autodesk technology. Third-parties can use those same tools and add functionality through utilities and apps to our platform. In cases where our customers have their own unique requirements, they will have the ability to customise their solutions. However, ACC will be the central platform into which everyone connects.
Through third-party applications, the platform can monitor photos or videos for example to identify and highlight issues like not wearing a safety helmet.
With open platforms, comes the challenge of cybersecurity. Have you taken any steps to protect an open data platform?
We abide by industry standards in relation to data security and in many cases, we exceed these standards. We have partnered with Amazon Web Services (AWS) who has made a significant investment in its data security system. With data sovereignty, we still deal with questions around whether data should be hosted locally or on the cloud. But again, this is also changing fast. With so many benefits that cloud computing provides, many governments are happy to host data on clouds elsewhere.
It’s a misconception that Autodesk is only for professionals. SMEs and students can also benefit from the ACC software. Can you explain how?
We want to make sure that the designers of the future are skilled in business tools when they embark on their careers. Of course, engineering and design experience can only be earned working on projects, but we don’t want technology to be a limitation to students’ learning. Autodesk offers aspiring students and start-ups free access to Autodesk tools and learning material. This is part of our efforts to raise a new generation of digitally advanced workforce in the UAE and other countries.
For smaller companies and SMEs, we provide flexibility in terms of how these companies can access technology. A subscription model is in place to ensure that the initial investment for SMEs is much lower. They are also given the flexibility to subscribe, based on their requirements so there is no need to procure the software. All this can be done in our e-stores.
What are your thoughts on companies still working in the legacy mode?
My advice to them would be to assess where they are in their digital maturity against their business goals to create a clear digital transformation roadmap. Digitising for the sake of digitising often fails, because it simply does not drive the right value. Any company still in legacy mode needs to take a holistic view, combining technology with the right processes and people to ensure they do not just compete, but thrive in the future.
Could you talk about some of the vital projects that you're involved in currently, and probably in future as well?
One of the largest projects we are supporting now is the Red Sea Development project in Saudi Arabia with Amana Investments as one of the main contractors. Amana Investments has fabricated modules here in Dubai to be shipped to the coastal village of the development project, where they assemble these modules, rather than having to build them from scratch. This translates into less people on site, fewer materials wastage, and shortened schedules. We’ve also been a part of many iconic large-scale projects that you hear about — Museum of the Future in Dubai, Riyadh Metro in Saudi Arabia, and creating the Dar bridge, the bridge that designs and builds itself, among many others.
Dar Smart Bridge
Another exciting project we were a part of was creating a bridge that builds and designs itself. Together, with our customer, Dar Al-Handasah, a leading name in the regional construction industry, we generatively designed and manufactured a two-metre long smart bridge, a first-of-its-kind in the EMEA region. One of our aims was to reduce the amount of material that would normally be used to build a bridge of this scale.
The bridge was realised through state-of-the-art processes and technologies, including Autodesk's generative design technology, which has transformed the way people design. Instead of a Dar designer sitting infront of a piece of software and actually telling the software how the bridge should look, the designer describes the intent of the bridge to the algorithm and then the algorithm proposes an array of solutions.
Then it is up to the designer to choose the best solution out there for manufacturing. After the design was finalised, the model of the Dar bridge was fed into a 3D printer that used recyclable polymer-reinforced plastic.
A five-metre 3D prototype of the smart pedestrian bridge was showcased for the first time to more than 9,000 people at our annual design and make conference, Autodesk University 2022, which took place in New Orleans in September. It showcased the potential of the future of smart buildings and large-scale civil structure designs and provided a proof of concept that construction can be more intelligent and more sustainable.
The Riyadh Metro is the world’s most extensive public transportation system currently under development. We are proud to be supporting our customers, Atkins and FAST Consortium, in constructing this project which is instrumental to achieving KSA’s Vision 2030 and bringing progress and prosperity to the country.
Our BIM solutions are being used to design and deliver three lines of the Riyadh Metro. The BIM software connects design teams scattered across the world, by enabling discipline-specific design processes and performing coordination reviews across individual disciplines and entities. In turn. this empowers the team to produce designs with high quality, accuracy, and efficiency, which set the project on the road to success.
Do you think partnerships help in creating vital projects and make them more fruitful?
Yes, I believe so. One of our partnerships is with AWS as mentioned previously, where we host our applications. Another is with Esri — the global market leader in geographic information system (GIS) software, location intelligence, and mapping. Autodesk and Esri have joined forces to put GIS and BIM data at the centre of projects. Our shared vision is an integrated and collaborative workflow that removes silos and improves understanding of projects in context, reduces inefficiencies, and delivers more sustainable and resilient infrastructure.
Final thoughts on how technology is disrupting the construction industry and cloud connectivity and how will it transform the way we work in future?
With technology, the way we work will definitely change in the future. Algorithms and machines will do what they do best — iteration and extraction of insights from data, which will enable us to do what we do best as humans — make decisions in the context of the outcomes that are desired from the project.
My view is that technology is not here to help us with better execution alone, but rather, ensure the scalability of construction; the seamless inclusion of all relevant stakeholders in the design and decision-making process; and always with one eye firmly on reducing the industry’s impact on our earth.
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