Digitisation will force industry to standardise

Design tools will have to speak the same language for services to benefit from automated building engineering, says Atkins’ Isabelle Smith

The shift towards digitisation is radically changing the way we work and, together with automation, is set to have an impact on all facets of building design, construction and management. Buildings have thousands of components, and designers prepare calculations to size and select every one – so we have been advocates of automation for decades.

With such a complex end product, however, no one tool – or even set of tools – has come close to being the answer to design automation. I have no doubt such a tool will be a reality soon – but what will it look like? Other industries can give us an insight into the possibilities.

Electronic chips are designed by computers, using algorithms to optimise the layers and distribution of wires, before being manufactured robotically. The car industry gives power to the buyer, allowing them to pick off-the-shelf options, through a visual interface, to create their own design. This illustrates the dual goals of improved accuracy and productivity, with greater customer usability and choice.

I see a future in which a ‘master’ model re-engineers optimised designs to rapidly reflect changes. It would enable clients to simulate different options through a virtual reality interface, with a dashboard of key information: capital expenditure, operation expenses, construction time, user wellbeing, energy and carbon. This master model would then be used for offsite fabrication and ongoing asset management that reacts automatically to plant performance and occupancy evaluation.

Today, the building services industry does not have an integrated digital design process; it has multiple tools that operate in silos, speaking different languages on different platforms. We must learn from our experience of building management system (BMS) software and ensure our tools work together, using a common language and platform. An open-source approach, with collective software and engineer collaboration, is key to driving joint innovation and ensuring long-term viability.

There are semi-automated tools – for example, daylight and thermal modelling, plantroom sizing, emitter sizing and routing – but a robust and seamless process is still a very long way off. To encourage this, we must change the way we build and not focus on bespoke designs, in order to to accelerate automation and digitisation around standardised and modular component manufacture and installation. This will need buy-in from manufacturers and regulations that enable innovation, while streamlining the industry.

 The industry has multiple tools that speak different languages on different platforms” 

Standardised manufacturing, paired with parametric design, will be key to automation. The water industry has tools that create regulation-driven models in seconds, based on a few, key user inputs (see www.dynamic-objects.co.uk).

When producing off-the-shelf components from a predefined library – such as sewer pipes and storm-water tanks – the output is intrinsically linked to a master model, CAD drawings, and a bill of materials that includes cost and embedded carbon information. If we move towards standardised manufacturing, this could be our first step to automated design.

We are also seeing a move towards human-centred design and wellbeing (see atkins-hcd.com). Automation that optimises design from learned behaviour will put occupancy evaluation at the forefront of design. Integrated design apps are now equipping architects and building services engineers with predicted information about the wellbeing of future users.

Digitising and automating design – and, especially, asset management – will result in an even greater quantity of data. This will exacerbate challenges around storage, analysis, accountability and security, and will need to be regulated.

Primarily, there needs to be a change in attitude for automated design and build to become commonplace. Users and clients will expect rigorous review and testing if they are to have sufficient trust in the output. Designing trustworthy technology will be critical to the success of the next generation of automation, and whole-team collaboration will be needed to mitigate uncertainty.

Automating building engineering will result in changing job roles, leading to a significant skills mismatch across the industry. It is likely that the digital engineer will replace traditional engineering roles as technology drives design. How we procure and cost projects could also change significantly, as the certainty of cost will be much higher at a very early stage. The existing design phases may become defunct, as planning and procurement stage-gates adapt to a rapidly moving design process.

Digitisation and software will be the new differentiators and, increasingly, the focus of competition, so it is paramount that the industry adopts this new pace and style of automation. Great engineering can coexist with automated design, but there will be hurdles to overcome.

CIBSE’s Society of Digital Engineering offers a platform for the industry to discuss, collaborate and share. Visit www.cibse.org/sde