Left brain, meet right brain

By Catherine
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By Catherine Bolgar

Three Jigsaw Puzzle Pieces on Table

When Louis Henry Sullivan said, “Form ever follows function,” he was talking about architecture of buildings. But today his 19th-century credo is cited in many other spheres where engineering and design interact, including technology and software.

The lines are blurring, though, so that in the future, engineering and design will be seamlessly integrated.

Good designers are engineers,” says Blade Kotelly, senior lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and vice president of design and consumer experience at Jibo Inc., which makes a social robot for the home. At the same time, customers are no longer as wowed by raw technology and they expect an easy, and aesthetic, user experience.

Design runs to the core of things,” he adds. “Large companies realize they’re being outdone by smaller companies that are putting design at the center of their thinking.”

Brainstorming Brainstorm Business People Design ConceptsThis design-thinking approach can be hard for engineers to understand, Mr. Kotelly says: “The beginning of the design process looks like very little is happening, because the designers are trying to get their brains around the problem fully. Before that, they ask whether the problem is even a good one to solve. Then they figure out what’s going to make the solution successful, then they begin the typical design process of research, prototyping, testing, iterating.”

Modular structures or open-source components that can be swapped in or out in a modular way reduce the risk of change, so “you can iterate faster,” he says.

“It’s important to think architecturally about the system—how it breaks out at the top level and the smaller and smaller components—to be able to observe technology as the landscape is changing,” Mr. Kotelly says.

The Internet of Things is making it possible to create systems as never before. However, we’re likely to soon stop talking about the IoT as it becomes the norm.

“It’s like plastics in the 1960s,” says Dirk Knemeyer, a founder of Involution Studios, a Boston-area software design studio. “The distinction of things being plastic was super-important. A couple of decades passed, and plastic things are just things.”

In the same way, “in the future, everything that is digital and many things that are not will be in the Internet of Things,” he says.

Systems require holistic thinking. And that requires integrated teams. “Getting to a successful integrated model that puts design in an appropriate strategic place can be challenging,” Mr. Knemeyer says. “It requires overcoming the biases and preconceptions of stakeholders who are already in place and who often have a skeptical view of design and creative expression as part of business. They also have existing fiefdoms they control, and fear that order might be upset by redesign of people and processes.”

Tearing down management silos provides a new problem-solving methodology and mindset that can augment the traditional perspectives, whether financial, operational or technological.

The engineering perspective is raw capability: what is the range of possibilities technology can do,” Mr. Knemeyer says. “Design says, ‘from these technologies, here are the things that can be done specific to the needs of customers.’”

Addressing customer needs is at the core of high-impact design, or design that brings a meaningful change in increasing revenues and reducing costs, he adds.

Business People Team Teamwork Working Meeting ConceptAt the same time, design thinking doesn’t just create efficiencies, but new ideas, says Mathias Kirchmer, managing director of BPM-D, a West Chester, Pennsylvania, consultancy that helps companies increase performance through cross-functional business and information-technology initiatives.

In the classic approach, a company starts mapping the processes it needs to accomplish, then optimizing so the processes will be carried out efficiently, then writing the actual software, then implementing or installing it. “It’s very inside-out driven,” Dr. Kirchmer says. “In today’s world, that’s a huge problem. First, it’s too slow. We need a faster approach. Second, the inside-out view doesn’t deliver results to drive profitable growth. It doesn’t improve the customer experience sufficiently. It’s good to be more efficient, but that doesn’t make enough of a difference for the client and move the organization to the next performance level.”

Companies compete in just 15% of their processes, he says. The rest is commodity—that is, matching competitors rather than differentiating beyond them. That high-impact 15% requires innovation enabled through design thinking.

Dr. Kirchmer sees four aspects of design thinking:

• empathy to look at high-impact processes from a customer point of view;
• transfer of ideas from unrelated fields to introduce innovation;
• storytelling to communicate the customer journey and intended innovations in a way that will resonate with all the involved teams;
• rapid prototyping to quickly get to the visual design of user interfaces and software development.

The melding of disciplines means that in the future, designers will need to be more knowledgeable about core science or core engineering. “The way science is moving is going to pull all of us into a more quantified scientific environment,” Mr. Knemeyer says.


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Spotlight on Lionel Lambourn of Syntegrate: Looking Beyond BIM to Improve Construction Efficiencies

By Akio
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Admiralty Station, Hong Kong

Lionel Lambourn, director of Syntegrate, first gained familiarity with the possibilities afforded by BIM during his studies at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, before putting those possibilities to use at Gehry Technologies. During his tenure there, he helped set up the company’s Middle Eastern branches, using BIM tools in real-world applications.

Lionel L. Lambourn, Director, Syntegrate

Lionel L. Lambourn, Director, Syntegrate

It was that firsthand exposure to the ways that technology can boost efficiency in the construction process that led Lambourn to launch Syntegrate. The consultancy’s name was coined to describe the company’s focus on “synthesizing disciplines and integrating technologies.”

Why integrated technologies? As Lambourn quite simply explains, construction is a highly integrated discipline. It requires the work and knowledge of multiple disciplines to create something so complicated as a building, but it’s often at the intersection of trades where problems arise.

Today’s advanced software technology can easily be leveraged to ease the coordination required among building professionals and smooth the transitions of trades and materials.

Click to TweetClick to Tweet: “#Construction requires multiple disciplines;
problems arise at intersection of trades”

“In this day and age I see integration of technology as the best way to address some of the accepted, in-built assortments of waste and inefficiency in the construction industry,” Lambourn says. “Our mission at Syntegrate is to leverage technology to realize our built environment more appropriately, more efficiently and more sustainably.”

An Environment of Waste

Waste and inefficiency, Lambourn says, are the single biggest challenges faced today by the architecture, engineering and construction industry.

“I believe waste and inefficiency overwhelm all the other issues and encapsulate all the challenges that we face in the industry,” he says. He offers an example to put this into perspective:

“By some reports, worldwide construction and buildings consume 40 percent of the world’s energy. However, we can conservatively estimate from available data that 20 percent of construction ends up as waste. To make these numbers more tangible, let’s put these numbers in the context of national GDP—worldwide construction is comparable to the size of China’s economy and each year the entire output of Spain is wasted.”

Click to TweetClick to Tweet: 20% of #construction ends up as waste.
How can we do better?

Lambourn sees much of this waste and inefficiency could be solved by better coordination among contractors — a collaboration that could be easily facilitated by the integration of technology such as BIM.

A Tool for Coordination and Visualization


Admiralty Station, Hong Kong

Lambourn offers as a case in point Syntegrate’s work on the Admiralty Station, part of the South Island Line (East) Project, which will become the first four line interchange in Hong Kong.

The ongoing underground excavation and building work, which poses its own inherent risks, is being undertaken adjacent to the existing Island Line and Tsuen Wan Line, and the busy existing Admiralty Station – all within a densely populated area with many other underground structures in close proximity.

MTR Corporation, the owner of the project, recognizes the return on investment that they stand to gain from the comprehensive implementation of BIM on their many Projects, from construction through to operation.

The general contractor on the integrated Admiralty Station—a joint venture of Kier, Laing O’Rourke and Kaden (KLKJV)—were early adopters of BIM technology and are certainly at the forefront of the global construction industry in the implementation of BIM on their projects.

For Admiralty, the joint venture has chosen Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE Platform as their BIM platform. Syntegrate works closely with the joint venture to refine its construction sequencing, from the coordination of excavation to concrete pours to formwork erection. By carefully scheduling each step, the general contractor has been able to execute each phase of this highly complex project with minimal rework, which in turn reduces schedule delays.

Moreover, the solution provides the joint venture with a visualization of the complicated underpinning work required to support the existing rail lines and platforms which remain in operation throughout construction.

Repeated simulations of the onsite work helps the construction team to effectively “practice” and perfect its planning, Lambourn says, so that when workers move onsite they are able to perform their work correctly the first time. This allows the joint venture to realize a dramatic reduction in waste of time and materials.


Admiralty Station Rebar Junction

Broadening Technology Solutions

As projects become more complex, Lambourn believes that the use of BIM technology is a strong first step toward improving the collaboration of architecture, engineering and construction professionals. And he sees many opportunities to bring other technologies to bear, especially given the pace at which new technological advancements are happening.

“These days, we need to broaden our focus of technology to consider technologies such as 3D laser scanning, 3D printing, and even the use of drone technology to improve the way that a building is delivered,” Lambourn adds.

Click to TweetClick to Tweet: “We need to broaden our focus of
#technology for #AEC”

On the Admiralty contract, KLKJV utilizes 3D laser scanning extensively to capture the as-built conditions of the tunneling works at a level of precision that was not available several years ago and that is unachievable by orthodox survey methods.

“When the laser scan is introduced into the BIM platform, we can determine, exactly, how much over-break (excess excavation) has occurred and where any areas of under-break (insufficient excavation) exist. By repeated laser scanning as they proceed, the joint venture can optimize their works so that they achieve just the right amount of over-break with no areas of under-break, ensuring the highest levels of construction quality.”

Using integrated technology is but one solution to what Lambourn sees as a two-pronged approach to solving construction inefficiency.

Realistically, Lambourn says, “We would be naïve to think that the industry alone could tackle such a large problem of waste and inefficiency. Something like that has to come not only from the industry but also from a governmental level.”

Lambourn suggests that governments may need to step in to reward the reduction of waste and efficiency, ensuring this becomes a market factor that the industry must build into the way it does business.

Case in point: Lambourn notes that the industry still relies heavily on the delivery of 2D, paper drawings for contractual permissions.

“A building could be done completely paperless and much more efficiently through a 3D environment. However, governments need to come to the table and recognize that, and change the way that the legislation around the procurement of buildings is formulated so that there is not a real and contractual reliance on paper drawings.”

That doesn’t mean that architecture, engineering and construction practitioners should sit back and wait for governments to do something, however.

By becoming involved with organizations promoting and standardizing the use of BIM, the industry can help determine future technology requirements. Lambourn expects governments initiatives will spread more widely.

For example, the UK government has committed to what they call a “Level 2” BIM implementation by the year 2016 and several months ago, the strategic plan for “Level 3” BIM implementation was released under the title of “Digital Built Britain.”

Click to TweetClick to Tweet: Lionel Lambourn of Syntegrate:
Looking Beyond #BIM to Improve #Construction Efficiencies

Related Resources

Syntegrate website

Collaborative, Industrialized Construction from Dassault Systèmes

Game-changing graphene: the amazing properties of a single-atom layer of carbon

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar


Step aside, silicon. There’s a new substance that promises to revolutionize medicine, industry, water treatment, electronics and much more. That substance is graphene—a single-atom-thick layer of carbon, a millionth of the width of a human hair.



The world’s first two-dimensional material, graphene is potentially plentiful (carbon being the sixth most abundant element in the universe) and cheap. And it possesses amazing qualities and potential uses:

It’s transparent, but conducts…

electricity and heat. Most good conductors are metals such as copper, which is opaque and quick to heat when electricity passes through. But they are prone to hot spots, which form around defects and cause electronic devices to fail. Graphene, by contrast, transfers heat efficiently. “It’s a good alternative to copper,” says Nai-Chang Yeh, professor of physics at California Institute of Technology. Indeed, electronic equipment may in future use graphene-coated copper interconnections to prevent overheating or wear and tear.

It’s light and flexible, but it is…

Hands of scientific showing a piece of graphene with hexagonal molecule.200 time stronger than steel. The carbon-to-carbon bond is very strong, says Rahul Nair, Royal Society fellow at the University of Manchester. In addition, graphene’s carbon atoms are arranged in a tight, uniform honeycomb structure, which is able to bear loads and resist tearing. A membrane of graphene could withstand strong force without breaking, says Dr. Yeh. It may someday be used in aerospace, transportation, construction and defense.

It’s a superlubricant

“If you take one piece of flawless graphene and put it on top of another, and slide one against the other, there’s almost no friction,” says Dr. Yeh. Coating machines parts with graphene could minimize unwanted friction, providing industry with countless applications.

It’s impermeable…

Graphene’s honeycomb structure is too tight for any molecules to squeeze through. “If you have graphene on metal, it’s perfect protection, because other molecules in the air cannot penetrate that honeycomb hole,” says Dr. Yeh. Indeed, Dr. Nair has dissolved graphene oxide in water to create a paint-like film that can protect any surface from corrosion. This graphene paint could be used by the oil and gas industry to protect equipment against saltwater, or by pharmaceutical and food packaging firms to block out oxygen and moisture, thereby extending their products’ shelf life, says Dr. Nair.

…but can also be permeable. A single-micrometer-thick film containing thousands of layers of graphene oxide has nanosize capillaries between its layers, which expand when exposed to water. However, those capillaries don’t expand when exposed to other substances. This is unusual because a water molecule is bigger than a helium or hydrogen molecule. However, water behaves differently when it’s within the confined space of a nanometer, moving rapidly through the graphene oxide nanocapillary. By contrast, salt that is dissolved in the water is blocked. One use for this, says Dr. Nair, could be water or molecular filtration.

It’s a chemical contradiction

A sheet of graphene is inert, but its edges are chemically reactive, says Dr. Yeh. A little graphene flake has a large perimeter relative to its area, allowing for more reaction. These flakes could be used to remove toxins from water.

It can be magnetic

MagnetThe zigzag-shaped edges of graphene have magnetic properties.“People imagine that you will be able to use graphene sheets as a magnet that can pick up iron at room temperature,” explains Dr. Yeh. That something all-carbon can be magnetic is “amazing,” she adds. Coupled with its electric conductivity, graphene’s magnetic properties may open up all sorts of applications in spintronics and semiconductors.

Graphene’s potential may be extraordinary, but how easy is it to create? It was first isolated in 2004 at Manchester University by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov who won the 2010 physics Nobel Prize for their work. They arrived at graphene by using adhesive tape to peel off ever-thinner layers from graphite, a process subject to continual improvement. In one common method, copper is heated to 1,000 degrees Celsius, near its melting point. Methane gas, comprising carbon and hydrogen molecules, is then added, and the copper rips off the bond between the two molecules, dissolving the carbon into the copper and letting the carbon “grow” on the surface, Dr. Yeh explains. The result is a sheet of graphene.

David Boyd and Wei-Hsiang Lin, working with Dr. Yeh at Caltech, however, found that what counts most is not heat but clean copper.  Copper oxidizes quickly in air and so has a thin layer of carbon oxide on its surface. They use hydrogen plasma, which has “gas radicals that behave like erasers and clean up the surface of the copper,” Dr. Yeh explains. The process allows graphene to grow in five minutes at room temperature.

Most importantly, this method could be scaled up to produce industrial amounts of high-quality graphene—a huge step towards realizing its true potential.

Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. 

For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion.


Photos courtesy of iStock

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