People Profile: Mani Subramanian AECbytes Profile (April 7, 2016)

Mani Subramanian, Founder and Principal of Sixth Dimension, a project, program, and construction management firm, shares his perspective on AEC technology in this Profile.
"I wish for the 'Uberization' of project management software. Something revolutionary that provides the project delivery team with a very simple way to build their own customized PM system from modular components, which is fully collaborative, assures privacy and confidentiality, and is easy and fun to use for everyone."
What is your educational and professional background?

I have a Bachelor of Architecture (Hons.) from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India and Master of Architecture from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. After a few early years of practicing Architecture, mostly in India, I migrated to the Construction Management profession. I started my CM career as a scheduler and worked my way to being a CM, PM, Project Director and eventually Executive Vice President of a top 30 construction management company. One of my major responsibilities during that time was the utilization of technology for the benefit of the programs and projects and for the company. I started my own company, Sixth Dimension, about two years ago and am truly enjoying the new challenges and successes. I am a registered Architect, Certified Construction Manage and Designated Design-Build Professional. I was recognized as a Fellow by the Construction Management Association of America in 2014.

What is your current role? What are the main projects you are involved with?

As the owner of a small and emerging business, my role is, well, everything! Marketing, business development, operations, finance and accounting, recruiting – I do it all. But I have always enjoyed managing large construction programs and projects, and I continue to do that. Currently, I am completing my assistance for the Alameda County Highland Hospital project, with the recent ribbon cutting of the new Acute Care Tower. I am kicking off two projects for Monterey County, the Juvenile Hall addition and the new jail project, which are going through regulatory agency reviews. I am assisting with the renovation plans for the State’s 24 story Board of Equalization building. I am also assisting the State of California with their Access Barrier Removal Program for State office buildings. We are close to completing the Ronald Reagan office building in Los Angeles, the first of the many projects to come in this program. I am also part of the team that is assisting the California State Department of General Services with the implementation of Primavera Systems.

When and how did you get interested in AEC technology?

It started with my early role as a scheduler in Houston, Texas. We used to fill up the code sheets for the key punch operators to punch out the computer cards that we would run through the card reader, with the information transferred to the main frame computer in Rice University. It continued, with using the very early PCs and pretty primitive software to reproduce what the main frames computers used to do. Being in project controls, I remember personally developing a document control system using “dBase II,” the early database software and enhancing it over the years using ‘”real” programmers. With my career coinciding with the start and development of the PC, I have always been eager to use the current available technology for the optimum benefit of the projects and the company. I was always looking for “off the shelf” software for appropriate purposes or developing custom software solutions when no software existed for a certain purpose.

How much of what you do today is related to AEC technology in some form?

Most things we do today are somewhat intertwined with technology.

The Highland Acute Care Tower project was designed and built using BIM. Considering that the project procurement documents were developed in 2008, it is a remarkable achievement. We had developed a comprehensive BIM specification at that time. We received push back from the industry that the requirements were too advanced and the technology was not ready yet. But we pushed back since we believed that the technology was very much there. Events proved us to be right. However, the specifications required continued use of the model for facility management. But the team gave up on that goal, lacking the initiative on both the design-builder’s side and the facility management side. This is a great disappointment for me, since I had developed such a system for the San Quentin Central Health Services building as early as in 2009 (which, by the way, was never used by the facility management). That part of the BIM transition doesn’t seem to be happening. Facility managers use legacy systems and all they want is the equipment data that they can load in to their systems. My current thought is that BIM use for facility management has to come from the “Tririgas” of the world as they transform their systems to work with BIM, rather than the AEC side trying to push it to facility management.

On the project controls side, Constructware was established as the common communication and controls system. While it was used for all official transfer of information, the CM side was using Box as their internal file management resource; the owner and CM were using Skire for the internal budget management and cost forecasting; Latista was being used for developing and clearing punchlists; and the inspection team were using their own home grown system for managing inspection requests. This is a classic example of the “fragmentation” that I discuss in the next section.

My current work with the Department of General Services (DGS), State of California, is fully a technology implementation assignment. My role is to understand and define business processes and work with Primavera experts to set up P6 and PCM to best support the processes and needs of DGS.

From your vantage point, what do you see as some of the main technological challenges facing the AEC industry today?

I see the primary technological challenge as fragmentation. Each entity in the project delivery process generally seems to have its own set of software and files, with limited use of a central “project wide”collaborative approach to information use and sharing. While technology has made advances, the legal concerns, lack of trust and inability to agree on a common platform continue to cause duplication and significant lack of coordination. This applies to BIM models and other project documents. So, the challenge is not really technology, but the most effective and efficient use of available technology. But technological limitations related to efficiently managing big BIM models, speed of access to cloud stored models and documents, concern for security and lack of a project controls system that can do it all for all information needs of a project, do play in to the full collaborative adoption of technology.

How do you see AEC technology evolving in the future?

At the esoteric level, use of drones for aerial imaging, topographical mapping and material delivery; 3D printer technology for constructing building elements; virtual reality for making users feel like they are inside of the BIM model and can feel the space before it is built— these are all likely to happen in the future, some sooner than others. But these will take time to evolve and in the early time frame, will be limited to selected projects and users. On the more “mundane” level, 3D laser scanning is likely to get better and cheaper, providing better documentation of existing conditions. With the ever increasing computer power, BIM models should be easier to access and manage and hopefully, simpler to use by non-BIM experts.

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

After talking about drones, 3D printing and virtual reality, my wish list is really pretty basic. I have always had a personal interest in project controls and electronic document management. But I don’t think that they have evolved that much in the past 30 years, since I developed my own project log system using dBase II. Yes, it is on the cloud and accessible to everyone and does have integration of the documents themselves with the document logs. But they are generally cumbersome to set up, do not provide for the customized need for various projects and entities, user unfriendly and limited in their effectiveness.  I wish for the “Uberization” of project management software. Something revolutionary that provides the project delivery team with a very simple way to build their own customized project management system from modular components, which is fully collaborative but assures the privacy and confidentiality of certain documents for the various entities, and is easy and fun to use for everyone. Yes, that’s what I would like for Christmas this year. 

Any additional information/observations/insights on AEC technology that you would like to share?

Current technology facilitates collaboration. To fully embrace its power, there need to be continuing legal and cultural change. The adoption of procurement methods such as Integrated Project Delivery creates the platform and environment to maximize the use of technology.

I don’t know if there is general consensus that the AEC industry is a “late adopter” of what technology can offer. It has been more than 15 years since the advent of BIM. Has the industry fully embraced it and all of its features and power? On the other hand, we have come a long way in the last three decades, transforming the media of design and construction from pencil and paper to AutoCAD to BIM. That is rapid change, from a historic perspective.

On balance, I think that those of us who are proponents of full and fast adoption of technology need to recognize that it is an evolutionary process and technology will find its rightful place to the extent that it makes it more efficient and economical for its users to achieve their objectives.

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