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Inside the Autodesk labs testing the future of construction, from drones to holograms

Autodesk has created a residency program for companies using new technology to solve problems in design and construction. Cue the flying robots.

Inside the Autodesk labs testing the future of construction, from drones to holograms
[Photo: courtesy Autodesk]
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When renovation work began on a century-old YMCA building in Beverly, Massachusetts, a laser scan of the building revealed a unique challenge: nearly every ceiling in the building was slightly uneven. Reframing the walls of the building would require hundreds of different sized studs. Building them on site would be a complicated nightmare.

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So Windover Construction, the company leading the renovation, sought out a technological solution. In collaboration with the New Zealand-based manufacturing company Howick, they fed their laser scan data into an automated steel frame fabrication machine that precisely produced light gauge steel studs and panels for the building. The machine also added one critical feature. The new studs are able to telescope, shrinking down to more easily transport into and through the tight spaces of the historic building, and then expanding out like a shower curtain rod slotted into place. “It’s really transforming the way we work in existing and old buildings,” says Amr Raafat, a vice president at Windover Construction.

[Image: courtesy Windover Construction]
The telescoping wall stud is just one of the construction innovations that have been developed in a unique new multidisciplinary program run by the architecture and building software company Autodesk, maker of the standard architectural design tool AutoCAD. Through what it calls its Technology Centers, Autodesk has created a residency program for companies working to use new technology to solve problems in design and construction. Companies like Windover and Howick came together through the program, realizing one had technology that could solve the problem of the other.

[Photo: courtesy Autodesk]
Rick Rundell is the global head of Autodesk’s Technology Centers, and he says the goal is to provide startups and researchers with the free space and technology training to help them innovate and cross-pollinate ideas. And that’s also helpful for Autodesk. He says the new ideas incubating through the residency program and its online version help the company to understand “the future that our customers’ businesses will be a part of, and what we should do next. We’re looking out at basically 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 need to work in the future, and then we can learn from them to better plan for that future.”

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Currently, the construction industry is a relatively low-tech affair. Despite the fancy design tools and advanced building information modeling systems that are used by architects and engineers, once a project starts construction, it’s thrown into a decentralized world of general contractors who source materials, hire workers and build projects based on their own formulas. Best practices in the industry tend to be based on what each contractor has done in the past. A more systematic approach to building, 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’s seen a growing interest in the architecture and construction industries in applying new technologies to the often analog world of building. “What we’ve seen is a convergence of design and make and the expression of that convergence is that innovations in fabrication or how something is made drive innovations in design,” he says. “Think about the automotive industry. The way a car looks is heavily influenced by what is possible to do with a piece of sheet metal. This is still an emerging idea in the building industry.”

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[Photo: courtesy Autodesk]
The Technology Centers, located at Autodesk offices in San Francisco, Boston, Toronto and Birmingham, England, are like big fabrication labs, where companies and researchers try to find ways for new manufacturing tools to address challenges in the building industry. Initiated in 2018, the centers feature computer numerical control metal working equipment, 3D printers, water jet cutting systems, 5-axis robotic arms, and labs where composite materials, glass and ceramics can be used to create new parts and tools. Autodesk offers residencies ranging from two weeks to two years, giving startups, academics, and established industry players space and tools to test out new ideas and invent innovative approaches to design and construction.

One company that developed its technology through the residency program is SkyMul, a construction company that is using drones to handle the laborious process of twist-tying the rebar cages used to reinforce concrete foundations. “This is time-consuming, hard work for people to do manually on a construction site, and it is a little bit dangerous walking around on a mat of rebar that’s unfinished,” Rundell says. Flying in drones frees up 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 manufacture an intricate steel pedestrian bridge now crossing a ravine in Los Angeles.

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The pandemic forced Autodesk to shutter its Technology Centers, though Rundell says they’ll gradually reopen beginning this month. In any case, the shutdown of the centers didn’t stop the collaboration. Autodesk transitioned the residency program to a virtual format in which companies can meet and collaborate online. Without the need to travel to one of the Technology Centers or give up billable hours to take on a residency, more companies reached out about getting involved. There are now about 160 companies and organizations in the residency program’s network.

[Photo: courtesy Windover Construction]
Windover Construction has used the network to find other solutions for its construction work, including a partnership with Fologram, an Australia-based mixed reality company. Using Microsoft HoloLens goggles and Fologram’s mixed reality technology to guide the assembly of hundreds of roof trusses for a construction project, Windover was able to cut that part of the project’s timeline, reducing the amount of manual labor by about 70%.

Windover Construction is using its involvement with the residency program to start changing the way it works now. Raafat says the technologies and tools the company has tested through its residency are already starting to become part of its standard operations. The telescoping wall studs, for example, are now being used on a second renovation project. He says these kinds of ideas likely wouldn’t have been developed without the collaboration enabled through the program. “As a construction company or a robotics company alone this wouldn’t have happened,” he says. “We need each other. We need to collaborate with each other so we can really transform construction.”