Firm Profile: Mortenson AECbytes Profile (January 11, 2016)

Mortenson, one of the top builders and developers in the US providing a complete range of construction services, shares its perspective on AEC technology in this Firm Profile.

What is the history and background of the firm?

Founded in 1954, Mortenson is a U.S.-based, family-owned construction and real estate development services company. As one of the nation's top builders, Mortenson provides a complete range of construction services, including planning, program management, preconstruction, general contracting, construction management and design-build. The company also is a leader in real estate development, developing all asset types. It is currently the 18th largest general contractor in the U.S. according to Engineering News-Record.

Mortenson has operations across North America with offices in Chicago, Denver, Iowa City, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Phoenix, Portland, Oregon, San Antonio, Seattle, and in Canada.

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

Mortenson provides construction and real estate development services for customers across the U.S. The company’s work today includes leading sports venues, such as the U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and the Atlanta Braves stadium; several wind farms and solar installations; hospitals; higher education campuses; data centers; large municipal projects; and federal government work (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Some of Mortenson’s recent projects across the range of industries it operates in.

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

Our culture has always been driven around ingenuity and building complex structures. In 1995, Mortenson formed the “Center for Construction Innovation” (CCI) to research ways to improve the design and construction process. Inspired by emerging 3D prototyping technologies in the manufacturing and aerospace industries, we began to see the potential of computer-generated models as they related to our own industry. Something big was on the horizon.  We had been experimenting with 3D technology throughout the 1990's on projects and then we had the opportunity to build what some coined the "unbuildable" project, the Walt Disney Concert Hall.   In 1997, we entered into uncharted waters where the 3D model was the contact documents and the 2D drawings were support.  To effectively meet the complexity of this challenge, we invested in people, technology and most importantly, partnered with software developers, Stanford University, and Disney Imagineering to launch a new era in virtual design & construction.  This was just the beginning!

Today, technology has become an integral part of how we plan and execute work at Mortenson.  Construction is all about people working together on a common goal.  We leverage technology to bridge communication gaps and improve the way people work together. One of our goals in using 3D prototyping is to eliminate the interpretation of traditional 2D plans, sections and elevations.  When it comes to getting information into the hands of the people in the field or "The Last 100 Feet®", we use a wide range of technologies like cloud solutions, jobsite Wi-Fi systems, robotics, machine control, laser scanners, digital plan rooms, field PODS, and of course mobile devices, to name a few (Figure 2). Construction is becoming the leader in the use of technology to improve the way we plan and build. 

Figure 2. The timeline of AEC technology implementation at Mortenson.

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

We like to say that we are on the “leading edge" rather than "bleeding edge." The technology we implement as part of our standard practice is best in class today, but we have a team of people also investigating and piloting ideas in action and the technology of tomorrow.  We feel that partnering with academia and industry organizations to focus on future technology research is crucial to help propel our industry into the future.  We learned that lesson on the Disney Concert Hall, where through partnering with Disney Imagineering and Stanford’s CIFE (Center for Integrated Facility Engineering) organization, we researched and developed practical uses for 4D or visual schedule simulation together.  The work that began in 1998 is now a common practice on major projects around the world.  We continue to strategically partner with organizations to actively participate in the evolution of construction technology.

Our technology approach can be broken down into two activity streams.  The first is enhancing today's processes through continuous improvement supported by the integration of technology to enable our team members to spend time on the work instead of tinkering with technology to work for us.  The second is creating the future of how we want to work.  This is where we look into other industries or consumer technologies that could be leveraged to drive change within the organization and influence the industry. Both areas of focus work together in our innovation process.

For example, in 2007, shortly after the touch screen interface disrupted how the world interacts with technology, we saw an opportunity to improve how our field teams could interface with project information.  Our Integrated Delivery Advancement Team (IDAT) developed a "fat finger" approach to project information using large format touchscreen LCD screens with a custom built HTML interface. This dramatically improved how our field teams accessed information in the plan room as well as in the field. The Field POD (Plan of the Day) was born. Once we rolled that system out throughout the country, the project teams continuously improved the UI and the hardware.  By 2010, this was a common practice in the industry. The digital plan room was becoming a standard practice (Figure 3).

Figure 3. One of Mortenson’s digital plan rooms on site.

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

There are a number of challenges with technology today.  The major constant now is the speed of change.  By the time a tool becomes standard practice in the field, it is obsolete.   Another challenge is the fast pace development of new construction apps we call "point solutions," that do one thing really well and that’s about it.  This directly pairs with the security of our data in these apps and new cloud solutions.  The disruption in the industry is a good thing, but it comes with a new set of risks that we have to be ready to address. 
 
The cost of technology disruption is also a major obstacle.  At Mortenson, we strive to standardize our technology platforms across the organization to drive a consistent experience for our team members and, most importantly, for our customers and partners.   We avoid implementing technologies that only apply to a portion of our company, which allows us to focus on how technology will foster collaboration and efficiency overall while being cost effective.  The flip side to this approach is the company innovative culture.  Project teams around the company are encouraged to innovate and try new methods to improve our process.  We've been able to successfully leverage our knowledge management strategies using "Communities of Practice" (CoP) to test, pilot and recommend new technologies to invest at an enterprise level.  The most successful CoP is IDAT, made up of over 80 team members who are passionate about technology.  It's not a coincidence that most of them are our BIM/VDC experts.  There is a reason our VDC professionals are called "Integrated Construction" coordinators / managers (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Detailed, multi-disciplinary BIM models are routinely created at Mortenson.

The most important objective we have is safety.  The key concern is that technology does not impact the safety of our people in the field.  Technology such as mobile phones and tablets can be a distraction and the rules of engagement in the field must be addressed to avoid potential safety hazards. 

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

There are three fundamental revolutions occurring today in the AEC industry.  One is the integration of designer, supplier and contractor.  Second is the adaptation of manufacturing techniques, being able to prefabricate sub-assemblies and deliver them "just in time" to the construction site as the final place of assembly.  Third is using technology to really enable us to effectively implement the change of both integration and manufacturing.
 
We are actively investigating and testing four evolving technologies as part of "creating the future" of construction. One is modularization and prefabrication.  Technology tools like BIM and VDC play a large part in how we collaborate with the stakeholders to make the best informed decisions early, but we are still missing a system that helps us manage the overall flow from design to installation.  We see future technology solutions improving the integration of the designer, supplier and contractor to effectively manage the design through fabrication and final installation of building systems.  Today, there are a many related technologies like RFID and mobile tracking solutions that aid individual stakeholders, but lack insight into the supply chain.  The challenge will be more about a change in behavior than technology.  
 
Second is automation.  With more and more design optimization technologies evolving, the future will leverage cloud computing and artificial intelligence to run thousands of iterations on a design or constructability problem to render outcome driven results in hours instead of weeks.  We will be able to pick the best solution based on the desired performance outcomes (cost, time, energy consumption, etc.) that we are hoping to achieve.   This is just one example of a new revolution in the AEC industry, thanks to computational applications such as Grasshopper and Dynamo.  As Jeff Kowalski, Autodesk CTO stated at the 2014 AU keynote, "We will be moving from telling computers what to do, to telling computers what we want to achieve."
 
We have experienced just a glimpse of this through our partnership with CIFE and in wind research.   Through a computational algorithm, we were able to reduce a traditional 2-3 week process of identifying the best location for wind turbines and substation as well as developing a construction schedule and estimate down to a few days.  The real value of the automation process was optimizing the wind power output and minimizing environmental impact through this new optimization methodology. 

Third is wearable technology.  Over the past five years, we've proven through research and in practice that VR (virtual reality) is a valuable design phase tool in helping our customer and project team make better informed decisions.  2016 is rumored to be the "year of VR" by many sources.  It's only a matter of time before VR is commonplace in the AEC industry.   Instead of a co-located stakeholder reviewing meeting in front of a monitor, we will be all experiencing the design together, but remotely with VR.  This is already here, but not standard practice. 

We see AR (augmented reality) technology as the next major disruptor to how we interact with technology, similar to what touch screen technology had in 2007.   What does that mean for construction?  A whole lot!  With the accelerating advancements in cloud computing, sensor technology, AR and location awareness, we see a future state where technology is integrated into our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to improve the construction worker’s awareness to their ever changing environment, the jobsite.  Replacing mobile phones or tablets with wearable technology will be a near future evolution.  Instead of pulling out a tablet, workers would be able to access project information by simple gestures or voice command.  Imagine performing a safety or quality inspection where the worker calls up the model and related information that is overlaid onto what they are seeing.  We will have “on-demand” access to all relevant project information and  company best practices to deliver best in class performance.   We began experimenting in 2006 with AR, but the technology was not yet ready.  Well, the time is now, we will see more consumer and AEC specific wearable technology converge on projects as soon as Q1 2016 (Figure 5).

Figure 5. Exploration of AR and other upcoming technologies for design, rendering, and construction.

The downstream affect to the owner community will be even more impactful with AR.  We've been fumbling with BIM deliverables for over a decade with little to no real tangible value for owners during operations.  The owner's operations team will use the information captured in design and construction, paired with the reality capture and AR to effectively manage and operate their facility.  The BIM deliverable will play a crucial role in design and construction, but will be referenced through AR and other reality capture technologies in the future.

Lastly, we will see robotics play a major role in construction.  Think of an automotive assembly line.  Why couldn't construction sites leverage the same technologies to help improve productivity, quality and safety of our projects?  What if we could spend more time designing, solving problems and virtually planning the project, so that when we are ready to fabricate and install, it is done right the first time?  It's not about replacing the workforce, but to streamline design and construction, or better yet, the new building manufacturing process.  Construction will see more UAV's in 2016; however, this will yield incremental improvements—the greater opportunity will be to leverage land bound robotics to help drive productivity and to perform dangerous work safely.

We can't discuss robotics without referencing additive manufacturing or 3D printing.  This will play a major role in how buildings systems are fabricated.  Connecting automation and robotics will allow the AEC industry to design and build structures like never before. 

If the firm had a wish list for AEC technology, what would it be?

We are continuously adding to the technology wish list that is referenced above.

Any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology implementation that the firm would like to share?

With the increased adoption of BIM over the past decade in the US and abroad, there is a great emphasis on virtual model use cases for design and construction.  BIM has a place in the operation phase of buildings, but it may be far less important as a viable tool to support operations. We see laser scanning and other reality capture technology, coupled with referencing BIM and the information populated during design and construction, to play a larger role in the future (Figure 6).  What the industry talks about is the information in BIM.  Well, if information is what we are concerned with, the model is just a placeholder for reality.  We will never develop a BIM to match the as-built reality, so why don't we focus time on finding better ways of integrating reality with information populated during design and construction? 

Figure 6. Mortenson expects the use of laser scanning, shown here on one of its projects, to increase in the future.

For more information on Mortenson's Technology Journey visit www.mortenson.com/vdc-journey.

Acknowledgements

Much of the information in this firm profile was provided by Ricardo Khan, Senior Director of Project Solutions with Mortenson Construction. He has more than 19 years of working experience in the architectural and construction industries, and his focus at Mortenson is on enhancing today's project management processes with a strong focus on operational innovation for the future of construction. He leads Mortenson's Integrated Delivery Advancement Team (IDAT) made up of over 60 VDC professionals that drive and support the use of virtual tools and technologies on projects.

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