People Profile: Shawn Foster AECbytes Profile (January 11, 2016)

Shawn Foster, Commercial Technology Operations Manager for the Energy business unit at Black & Veatch, shares his perspective on AEC technology in this Profile.
"AEC technology is part of the engine that drives the work professionals execute on a daily basis. It provides the necessary feedback to professionals so they may make the proper decisions for our clients, and is strategic to the organization in how business is accomplished."
What is your educational and professional background?

I attended Missouri Western State College in St. Joseph, Missouri.  I entered the United States Air Force and received professional training as a Site Developer / Engineering Assistant.  I was very fortunate to be stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, during my enlistment, as the base was starting up a major Military Construction Program to accept the new B-2 Stealth Bomber to the base.

The base was implementing a $750M ($1.5B in today’s dollars) Construction program.   Our standard construction surveying and design technician duties expanded to programming and costing, specification writing, design, and included project letting and construction inspection.  All of the project deliverable work was accomplished and delivered in a CAD system, namely MicroStation. 

Upon leaving the Air Force, I was a structural designer at a chemical plant, which was very similar to the Air Force process:  a design shop within an owner/operator where all aspects (from concept through design and construction) took place.   I moved into a dual role here of both design/production and technology management, and then became a technology reseller, trainer and AEC technology consultant for 8 years.  I focused on BIM and multi-discipline implementations in large organizations.

For the past 15 years, I have focused on enterprise implementations of design and construction technology, document management and collaboration systems.  I’ve been fortunate to be a part of operations for most of my career; being close to the projects is an important part of the process.  I’ve also been very fortunate to have the depth of experience across the entire AEC spectrum:  designer, construction, owner/operator, technology consultant. 

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

Currently, my role at Black & Veatch is the Commercial Technology Operations Manager for the Energy business unit.  I am the implementation lead in a multi-year implementation from internally created and maintained plant design systems to Commercial Off-the-Shelf (COTS) technology.  My focus is on transitioning a 3,500 person business unit across multiple globally located offices into a new way of executing projects using AEC technology across all disciplines.   This means re-evaluating and documenting all of our processes, procedures and methodologies, training all the professionals, as well as building a technical and professional infrastructure capable of using these tools for project delivery.  The role is part technologist, part manager, part evangelist, part therapist.

When and how did you get interested in AEC technology?

By necessity.  In the Air Force, we in our group implemented MicroStation by ourselves with little or no help from anyone:  we had to be self-sufficient so we could meet the mission.  Because of this, we had to dig into things thoroughly, research, read, and learn: we had to take full advantage of these expensive systems.  The more I dove into how the tools worked and interacted with the design and construction process, the more I realized that to take full advantage of these systems, I had to really get in and dig.  The more I dug into it, the more I enjoyed that aspect: it’s all about the possibilities.

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

It is my primary focus.  We execute projects.  As an EPCM firm (Engineering Procurement Construction Management), we use AEC technology in every aspect of the process:  from conceptual design through detailed production, to construction, commissioning and turnover, to operations, and then ultimately decommissioning. 

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

I see a challenge in who is using the technology to perform certain tasks.   From a tool standpoint, many of our favorite intelligent design tools create drawings in addition to all the design capabilities, renderings and analyses, and many engineers and architects eschew them because of the stigma of “the drawing.”

In some minds, drawings are the job of a “drafter” or a “design technician,” and therefore, in some professionals’ minds, not part of their responsibilities.  I am not pointing fingers at individuals here, but I have noticed that when designers gravitate towards digital tools, those tools do not involve drawings … they involve design.  On the engineering side, the digital tools of choice are analytic in nature, not necessarily drawing-centric.

As an industry, we need to work on closing the gap between design, analysis, and documentation.  We’re getting there, but we have a long way to go.

How do you see AEC technology evolving in the future?

I see AEC technology solving the challenge listed above by evolving and combining the analysis more with the production process.  Currently, those two are disparate processes:  in plain terms, someone models, and then throws it over the wall for analysis, with options and answers returning.  As processing capability increases (through cloud or “infinite computing”) and our expectations rise, the need to shrink the gap between these processes grows. 

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

From an Interoperability standpoint, there are still too many data standards in our industry.  Someone once said, “The great thing about standards is everybody has one.”  We have IFC, we have ISO15926, we have CityXML, we have GML, we have SDSFIE … the list goes on and on. 

Our goal as an industry should be to have ubiquitous standards that all AEC technology can read and write seamlessly.  By accomplishing this, it allows individuals to choose their favorite flavor of AEC technology and deliver in a single prescribed manner.  Let the standard be the deliverable to the client, and let the organization pick the best means and methods to use and to provide that deliverable.

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

AEC technology is part of the engine that drives the work professionals execute on a daily basis.  It provides the necessary feedback to professionals so they may make the proper decisions for our clients, and is strategic to the organization in how business is accomplished.  To that end, AEC technology is not your father’s drafting system, and is much more than standards, symbols, and levels or layers.  

The “CAD Manager” role from the 90s and 2000s is evolving into a “Design Technologist” role.  Some may call this a BIM Manager, or a Virtual Design and Construction Specialist.  Whatever the name, in the current state of our technology, there is a need of a bridge between the “work” and the “technology.” Previously, it was a reactive support role solving technical issues. It is now evolving into a proactive role providing the business with knowledge, best practices, and forward views of how to best accomplish the work.

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