Firm Profile: Ghafari AssociatesAECbytes Profile (July 30, 2014)

Ghafari Associates, a full-service architecture, engineering, and consulting firm headquartered in Michigan, USA, shares its perspective on AEC technology in this Firm Profile.

What is the history and background of the firm?

Ghafari Associates was founder by Yousif B. Ghafari, PE, in Metro Detroit in 1982 based on his belief in the potential of computer-generated design. At the time, it was a rare tool for the AEC industry, which had relied on paper drawings as its trusted standard. Mr. Ghafari, however, saw an untapped opportunity to increase efficiency, eliminate waste and harness the potential of technology. Initially, Ghafari operated as a CAD services provider, primarily catering to the automotive industry. Expansions and acquisitions that followed gave the firm the resources necessary to both expand its service offerings in response to client needs and serve new market sectors.

Today, Ghafari has 400 employees across nine offices worldwide and serves more than 25 markets, including automotive, aviation, commercial, education, energy, food, government and industrial / manufacturing sectors. The firm has been ranked among Engineering News-Record’s “Top 500 Design Firms” for 24 consecutive years and was recently named the “2014 Firm of the Year” by the American Institute of Architects Michigan chapter.

What is the firm’s current focus? What are the key projects it is working on?

Ghafari is committed to client service and efficiency in project delivery. Whether it is through the adoption of a new technology, design technique or delivery method, the firm is guided by a drive to serve its clients more effectively, incorporating its array of facility and process design capabilities combined with advanced technological tools, sustainable practices and lean principles.

Some of Ghafari’s current major projects include multiple corporate / manufacturing campuses for Woodward in Illinois and Colorado; a large-scale aircraft maintenance campus for Saudi Aerospace Engineering Industries in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia; and a major renovation to the GM Technical Center’s Research + Science Building, among others.

When did the firm start using AEC technology, and how is it being used today? How important is AEC technology to the firm?

Ghafari has been at the forefront of the utilization of AEC technology since its inception. Starting in the early 1980s with the transition from hand drafting to CAD, the firm invested heavily in the development, training and implementation of new technology. This continued with the early adoption of BIM-enabled processes and associated modeling software in the early 2000s. While a large segment of the industry is still dealing with the transition from CAD to BIM, Ghafari has benefitted from its early adoption and gained a successful track record over the last decade.  This commitment to using the latest AEC technologies available continues to be a primary focus and philosophy of the firm and is seen as the primary driver behind its growth and sustainability, enabling it to consistently deliver high quality projects and service.

Multi-disciplinary BIM models are routinely developed and used for coordination.

During early BIM-enabled process planning, Ghafari realized the critical importance of all project partners utilizing the same real-time information. It adopted Bentley ProjectWise to fulfill this need, which allows it to grant access to active files to all project team members. It also allows for direct file sharing of CAD and BIM Models, as well as other standard office documents. This fully integrated working environment has eliminated the use of out-of-date information and wasted time transferring data between office locations and team members. As the technology advances, Ghafari continuously adapts this collaboration process to take full advantage of the software. 

During the evolution of its BIM implementation, Ghafari began offering high definition laser scanning services in 2003, recognizing that it is critical to have accurate existing facility conditions to complement its BIM models. It uses three laser scanners and has dedicated scanning teams that specialize in the development and implementation of this technology. Its ability to provide high definition laser scanning as part of its in-house services allows it to be a one-stop shop for BIM projects.  

An example of a high definition laser scan of existing conditions used for new construction. The point cloud information is loaded directly into the CAD or BIM application for coordination of new work.

Ghafari realizes that AEC technology is advancing at an even faster rate than before, and it is imperative to continue to research, develop, implement and adapt. It is continuously evaluating new cloud-based delivery solutions, smart tablets, integration process tools, core software advancements, and many other technology solutions. It considers it critical to its business to remain as cutting-edge with AEC technology as it did in 1982 when the company was first started.

Does the firm have a specific approach and/or philosophy to AEC technology? If so, what is it?

Ghafari’s philosophy as it relates to AEC technology is to maintain a leadership position. This does not simply mean being an early adopter; it also involves a commitment to learning and understanding how new technology can be used to create value.  The introduction of new technology can be a disruptive process. If done improperly, one can expect a considerable decrease in productivity. Ghafari is dedicated to easing technological transitions as much as possible to minimize the potential downsides of this disruption.

Ghafari’s Practice Technology Group alongside its Information Technology Group thoroughly research and test each new technology prior to its implementation and use. Together, the teams develop a case study for the new technology to validate that it will work and align with the firm’s long-term goals. If the technology is thought to bring value, further research activities are conducted.  Implementation is treated as a real project, tracking and validating the new technology against the old system. If it is determined that the technology provides no additional value, it will not be utilized or further developed. If the conclusion is that the technology creates value, Ghafari’s teams then map out an implementation plan.      

Once an implementation plan is developed, required training and deployment are initiated. The Practice Technology Group establishes a support procedure and designates Subject Matter Experts to help keep the project on track. These Subject Matter Experts are the champions of the process and responsible for implementing the new process as well as troubleshooting. 

What are some of the main challenges the firm faces in its implementation of AEC technology?

Ghafari faces many challenges when implementing new AEC technologies, given their often disruptive nature. These challenges include the cost of keeping hardware and software up-to-date in a rapidly evolving industry, regular staff training and new technology research.

Staying current on the hardware and software demands of technology is a key challenge, and a costly one. Machines intended to last more than five years are being made obsolete in two years. Software is now pushing machine hardware to the limit. In addition, file sizes are growing and graphic requirements increasing. If not managed properly, these issues will become too large for machines to handle and production time will be lost due to slow hardware performance. It is therefore paramount to continuously adapt to these changing conditions.

The amount of new software applications being developed and utilized in the market is also a considerable challenge. As more software is developed, firms are faced with the difficult decision of which programs to use. It is impossible for a firm to support and develop all of the available options in the AEC industry. Ghafari dedicates a lot of time to conduct proper research to ensure that it is making the most appropriate selections, considering factors as market adoption, the longevity of the product, staff knowledge, and the license demand on its organization. 

How does your firm see AEC technology evolving in the future?

If current industry trends continue, Ghafari anticipates that a truly collaborative work environment will become the norm for project teams. In this type of collaborative environment, all parties will have instant, real-time access to project documents through their local office machines or on their mobile devices. This will depend largely on the software providers advancing their cloud-based document management software, such as Bentley ProjectWise and Autodesk BIM 360.

Continual advancements in AEC BIM software tools will also be made. These tools have already come a long way but there is still plenty of room for further development. These tools need to become more interchangeable to allow increased interaction between companies that utilize different software applications. For example, there is still a major gap in the software used in design development versus construction documents. Progress has been made in the direct digital exchange of BIM models during the various phases of a project; however, there is still not an easy transition that seamlessly transfers all the parametric information.

If your firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?
  • Better interoperability between software platforms.
  • Industry standards that better define how AEC technology should be utilized.
  • Design software that is more interchangeable with fabrication / construction software and facility management software.
  • Continual development of mobile applications.

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