Autodesk labs testing the future of construction, from drones to holog


When renovations began on a century-old YMCA building in Beverly, Massachusetts, a laser scan of the building revealed a unique challenge: Almost all of the building’s ceilings were slightly uneven. Cropping the walls of the building would require hundreds of studs of different sizes. Building them on the spot would be a complicated nightmare.

Windover Construction, the company in charge of the renovation, therefore sought a technological solution. Together with New Zealand-based manufacturing company Howick, they fed their laser scan data into an automated steel frame fabrication machine that accurately produced thin gauge steel posts and panels for the building. The machine also added critical functionality. The new uprights are able to telescope, shrink to more easily transport in and through the tight spaces of the historic building, and then extend like a shower curtain rod inserted into place. “It really transforms the way we work in existing and old buildings,” says Amr Raafat, Vice President of Windover Construction.

[Image: courtesy Windover Construction]

The Telescoping Wall Post is just one of the construction innovations that have been developed in a unique new multidisciplinary program managed by architecture and construction software company Autodesk, maker of the standard AutoCAD architectural design tool. Through what it calls its Technology Centers, Autodesk has created a residency program for companies working to use new technology to solve design and construction problems. Companies like Windover and Howick came together on the program, realizing that one had technology that could solve the other’s problem.

[Photo: courtesy Autodesk]

Rick Rundell is Autodesk’s global head of tech centers, and he says the goal is to provide startups and researchers with free space and tech training to help them innovate and pollinate ideas. And it’s also useful for Autodesk. He says the new ideas incubated through the residency program and its online version help the company understand “the future that our clients’ businesses will be a part of and what we should be doing next.” We’re basically looking at a ten-year horizon. How is technology going to affect what’s possible, ”he says. “We’re looking for teams to challenge our assumptions about how our tools should work in the future, and then we can learn from them to better plan for that future. “

Currently, the construction industry is a relatively low-tech affair. Despite the sophisticated design tools and advanced building information modeling systems used by architects and engineers, once a project begins construction, it is thrown into a decentralized world of general contractors who source their supplies. materials, hire workers and build projects based on their own formulas. Best practices in the industry tend to be based on what every entrepreneur has done in the past. A more systematic approach to construction, using technology, is still more of a concept than a reality.

Rundell, who previously worked for a construction technology startup that was acquired by Autodesk, says he has seen a growing interest in the architectural and construction industries in applying new technologies to the world often analog of construction. “What we’ve seen is a convergence of design and manufacturing and the expression of that convergence is that innovations in manufacturing or the way something is made lead to innovations in design,” says -he. “Think about the auto industry. The appearance of a car is strongly influenced by what can be done with a piece of sheet metal. It is still an emerging idea in the construction industry.

[Photo: courtesy Autodesk]

The technology centers, located at Autodesk’s offices in San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and Birmingham, England, are like large manufacturing labs, where companies and researchers try to find new manufacturing tools to meet challenges. of the building industry. Initiated in 2018, the centers have CNC metalworking equipment, 3D printers, waterjet cutting systems, 5-axis robotic arms and laboratories where composite materials, the glass and ceramics can be used to create new parts and new tools. Autodesk offers residencies ranging from two weeks to two years, providing established startups, academics and industry players with the space and tools to test new ideas and invent innovative design and build approaches.

One company that developed its technology as part of the residency program is SkyMul, a construction company that uses drones to handle the laborious process of twisting the rebar cages used to reinforce concrete foundations. “It’s laborious and tedious work for people to do manually on a construction site, and it’s a little dangerous to walk on an unfinished mat of rebar,” says Rundell. Flying in drones frees workers to take on more important tasks.

[Photo: courtesy Autodesk]

The Technology Center in Boston was also recently used by a team of students from the University of Southern California to robotically fabricate an intricate steel pedestrian bridge now crossing a ravine in Los Angeles.

The pandemic has forced Autodesk to shut down its technology centers, although Rundell says they will gradually reopen from this month. In any case, the closure of the centers did not stop the collaboration. Autodesk has evolved the residency program to a virtual format in which businesses can meet and collaborate online. Without needing to visit one of the tech hubs or forgo billable hours to set up in residence, more and more companies have asked to get involved. There are now approximately 160 companies and organizations in the residency program network.

[Photo: courtesy Windover Construction]

Windover Construction used the network to find other solutions for its construction work, including a partnership with Fologram, an Australia-based mixed reality company. By using Microsoft HoloLens glasses and Fologram’s mixed reality technology to guide the assembly of hundreds of roof trusses for a construction project, Windover was able to reduce this portion of the project schedule, reducing the amount of manual labor involved. ‘about 70%.

Windover Construction is using its involvement in the residency program to start changing the way it works now. Raafat says the technologies and tools the company tested during his residency are already starting to form part of its standard operations. Telescopic wall studs, for example, are now being used in a second renovation project. He says these kinds of ideas probably wouldn’t have been developed without the collaboration the program allows. “As a construction or robotics company alone, that wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “We need each other. We have to collaborate with each other to be able to truly transform construction. “

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