Engineering 4.0 – how we are embracing big data

Digital technology is transforming the way we work as we enter Engineering 4.0

Great design places people at its heart. This has been a guiding principle at Buro Happold since the practice was founded over 40 years ago. We have earned a reputation for creating environments that not only work for people but also actively engage and delight them.

That is why we see the digital revolution as the natural next step in our evolution. Access to big data provides us with greater insight into the way people use and interact with the spaces that we design. New technologies equip us with the tools we need to push the boundaries of possibility and deliver ever more intelligent solutions that can adapt to accommodate myriad user needs for generations to come.

“Digital is about using technology to create human outcomes that were previously unimaginable or impossible,” says Tony Scott, global technology director at Buro Happold. “Already, our adoption of emerging technologies is driving new ways of working across the practice, enabling us to break out of traditional silos and engage in much richer collaboration. As we continue to develop our digital capabilities, there is no limit to the scope of what we can achieve.”

We are always looking for the next challenge to solve. That is why we explore and incorporate the potential of digital technology at every level. However, with change comes disruption. As we embrace digital methods in place of traditional working practices – and increasingly use virtual reality, augmented reality and artificial intelligence to fulfil functions that were previously carried out by engineers – we are having to reimagine our role.

Reviewing and adapting our skillsets for Engineering 4.0

“We need to review the skillsets we have and adapt them for use in the world of tomorrow,” says Tony. “It takes real courage to see that, but by automating some of the processes we used to carry out ourselves, we can free up the ingenuity and intelligence of our engineers. This allows them to explore emerging technologies and develop new tools that will broaden our offering for clients.”

Having the vision to harness the potential of new technologies to enhance the way we work and design, combined with the agility to transform our practice from within, has positioned Buro Happold as digital leaders in our industry, as we enter Engineering 4.0. Our willingness to shed old skillsets in the pursuit of better design is also testimony to our commitment to a better built environment.

“We still need the human skills of empathy, understanding and leadership,” says Tony. “But now, with the onset of the digital revolution, we can augment these and reach beyond our existing capabilities to see, design and shape our world in new and exciting ways.”

Getting analytical about the digital revolution

The beneficial symbiosis of human experience and digital innovation is exemplified by our pioneering Analytics tool. For over a decade, our Smart Space team, led by group director Shrikant Sharma, has been collating data around human behaviour and the way people interact with spaces. This work has enabled our engineers to visualise the effects of their design decisions so that they can better realise environments that support people’s needs.

buro happold's analytics tool

Already groundbreaking in its own right, the scope of this work has been pushed even further by our team. By combining the capabilities of Building Information Modelling (BIM), Geographical Information System (GIS), Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and Agent Based Modelling, they have developed Analytics. This is a powerful data analysis, predictive modelling and optioneering engine that enables us to evaluate the effects of changes and revisions to our designs in real time.

“Analytics is all about bringing technology and humans together,” says Shrikant. “The tool turns data into evidence-based insights so that we can make informed decisions that result in better outcomes.

“Working in real time, we can interact with the engine, or sketch over it, all while getting live feedback on the effects of our changes. It produces rapid, clear and engaging visualisations. The interface has simple slider bars and 3D walk throughs that allow people to explore different design options.”

Engineering 4.0 increases our ability to design around authentic insight into human behaviour

The Analytics engine is rich in data. It contains insights into human behaviour gathered from years of research undertaken by our Smart Space team, together with client data collated on past and present projects. This is bolstered by the continued influx of information from ongoing analysis and access to new sources. Every day, more data is added to the engine; as its wealth of resource grows, so too does its predictive accuracy. This improves our ability to realise environments that are designed around authentic insight into human behaviour and user needs.

Analytics answers what was, for me, the biggest challenge facing the AEC industry, the lack of evidence-based design.

“Analytics answers what was, for me, the biggest challenge facing the AEC industry,” says Shrikant. “That was the lack of evidence-based design and, as a result, the lack of focus on ultimate outcomes. As engineers, we are responsible for ensuring that the buildings and environments we design work for the people that use them. That’s why we wanted to take the opportunity that the world of data and technology provides to gain a far deeper understanding of the impact our designs have on people along with their wider social and economic consequences.”

What is analytics used for in our business?

This revolutionary tool is being used across our practice to great effect; it informs everything from devising an intuitive passenger journey through an airport to realising office buildings that encourage collaboration and improve employee wellbeing. It is also strengthening our relationships with clients, as it gives us the opportunity to invite them into our design process. This creates more transparency and allows us to work together to arrive at evidence-based decisions that fulfil their requirements.

Analytics provides us with the means to analyse the past, change the present, and predict the future, a key aspect of Engineering 4.0.

Analytics provides us with the means to analyse the past, change the present, and predict the future. In doing so, it ensures we deliver the best experiential outcomes for people, the most economic and efficient solutions for our clients, and that we can actively shape a better built environment for us all.

We believe that people work better together. We also appreciate that we can only create environments that truly perform for everyone if a diverse range of experience, knowledge and perspectives has contributed to their design.

Creating a common language across the AEC industry

It is this premise that underpins another area of digital innovation within our practice – the creation of an open source Buildings and Habitats Object Model (the BHoM). Developed by Buro Happold directors Al Fisher and Rob May, the BHoM is an industry-wide computational project that aims to support greater collaboration between AEC professionals by enabling architects, engineers and contractors to standardise design data and share code.

“The BHoM is our response to the challenge we face as an industry to work together more effectively,” says Al. “Its core purpose is to tackle the problem of interoperability between software, so that we can transfer design models between platforms efficiently without losing information. To achieve this, we needed to establish a common language across the different software that is used to define design objects and features.”

“The process has been a real learning curve,” says Rob. “It revealed that the way we described objects, even within Buro Happold, was different depending on which discipline we worked in. So we had to release a lot of unconscious bias across the practice to collectively agree on simple, basic definitions of objects, and in doing so establish a discipline-agnostic base to work from.”

Open sourcing results in a common design language

From this point, Al and Rob were able to develop a common language that engineers within Buro Happold can use to pass information between software. They then looked at how to structure the BHoM so that, unlike any other building software, it allows hundreds of people from across the AEC industry to contribute to it. This was key to its success.

“We are not architects, and we are not contractors,” says Rob. “We don’t have the expertise and know-how in these subjects to build out that part of the BHoM. That’s why, on 21 December 2018, we open-sourced the code to everyone. Our aim is that, between us all as an industry, we can work towards a common design language.”

What began as a quest to standardise data over processes, software or databases, to help us work more effectively within Buro Happold, has developed into a tool that could have major implications further afield. It is still in its infancy, but by establishing a shared design language that is cross-discipline, software-agnostic and location invariant, the BHoM has sparked a new conversation about the way we work across the AEC industry, as this new era, Engineering 4.0.

The digital revolution and the role of “twins”

As well as creating new tools within our practice, we are looking to transform existing workflows by integrating additional digital capabilities, as we move into the the revolution that is Engineering 4.0. We have used GIS to explore design options more rapidly, develop integrated solutions across disciplines and ensure the overall design quality. Now, however, we are developing GIS technology for use in a more complex and ambitious format, which will reimagine not only the way we design the urban realm but also the remit of our role within it.

examples of engineering data being used as part of engineering 4.0

“For the last year, we have been looking at ways to expand our GIS footprint,” says Anthony Tuffour, associate director and GIS lead. “Integrating more information into our models so that we can move beyond creating 2D maps and, instead, build data-rich 3D replicas of assets in the digital world.”

These complex 3D models are called digital twins. Comprising intricate layers of data gathered from an array of sensors and sources, these twins are linked to connected technologies that allow for real-time environmental and system data capture. This information is used to adjust and fine-tune the performance of physical assets – ranging from street lamps and traffic lights, to bridges and buildings, entire cities and even countries.

“The concept that digital twins revolves around is the collection of data, both past and present, and applying it to monitor the performance of physical assets in real time,” explains Anthony.

“Using data in this way enables us to predict future scenarios, identify potential issues and rectify them before they occur. Doing so also improves the efficiency of our designs, minimises downtime, and makes the built environment a more accessible and enjoyable environment for people to exist in.”

“What would normally be done manually and painstakingly over weeks, months or years, can now be done digitally, to advance that process,” adds Irfan Soneji, digital services director.  “The use has been somewhat limited, but that has changed now. We’ve expanded our understanding of how we can build different assets — a dustbin, a lamppost, a building, or anything in the public eye. We use the information available for that particular asset, and effectively replicate that into the digital world.

“Take an example of a building, or a mug, or a pen — wouldn’t it be useful if we could mimic and replicate that in the digital world, to be able to learn from it, do simulations on it, understand how we would want to modify and change it, and then see what effects that has in the real world?”

Whether our findings inform switching streetlights on at the right time to improve safety, adjusting traffic lights according to the density of vehicles on the road, or monitoring the usage of city wide energy grids to understand where resources are being spent and where they can be saved, digital twins are allowing us to develop intelligent, responsive and agile infrastructure across our cities.

Digital twins help cement an ongoing relationship with clients

“As well as enabling us to monitor our designs more precisely, understand their performance and prevent potential problems, the use of digital twins also allows us to establish an ongoing relationship with our client throughout the lifecycle of our designs,” says Anthony.

“This changes the role we play in shaping the built environment. No longer do we deliver a project over, say, five years, and then step away from it. Rather, we stand by our work, continually assessing the performance of our designs so that we can gather ongoing data to inform our understanding of their efficacy, and rectify any issues we may discover.”

By remaining involved, we are able to adapt and enhance designs to make them increasingly responsive to human need as we move through Engineering 4.0. Digital twinning provides us with the capability and proximity to ensure the spaces that we design are equipped to face multiple challenges.

The decisions we make during the early stages of our design process have a lasting impact on the social, economic and experiential outcomes for generations to come. It is this responsibility that drives us to seize the opportunities that Engineering 4.0 affords to gather greater insight into the effects of our work. This empowers Buro Happold to deliver solutions that make life better for us all.

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