People Profile: Walid Thabet AECbytes Profile (July 15, 2016)

Walid Thabet, Ph.D., Professor of Building Construction in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies at Virginia Tech, shares his perspective on AEC technology in this Profile.
"Collaboration among project stakeholders through BIM from start to end is forcing the software industry to recognize the need and importance of interoperability and embrace it more whole-heartedly to allow for this collaboration to get better."
What is your educational and professional background?

I hold a BS in Civil Engineering (Hons.) from Kuwait University, an MS in Structural Engineering (Hons.) from the University of Waterloo, Canada, and a Ph.D. in Construction Engineering and Management (Hons.) from Virginia Tech. After completing my bachelor degree, I worked at a Research Institute in Kuwait for over six months where I performed various environmental tasks and studies targeting sand erosion problems. I moved to Canada to pursue my Masters and then returned back to Kuwait where I worked in the construction industry for six years. My responsibilities mainly focused on managing cost and time for various projects including residential and commercial high rise buildings, residential housing projects, and land reclamation and marine construction. After completing my doctoral degree, I moved to Schenectady New York where I taught several design and construction classes in the Civil Engineering Department at Union College for four years. I then moved back to Blacksburg Virginia in 1997 to teach in the Department of Building Construction at Virginia Tech where I currently hold the title of the W.E. Jamerson Professor.

Virginia Tech’s Department of Building Construction has a strong alumni base and industry board members that are closely connected with the program. Through my close relationship with alumni in the AEC industry, I am continuously exposed to a range of complex projects on a regular basis, providing many opportunities to remain current with up-to-date technology and means and methods, and continuously aware of the challenges facing the construction industry.

Recently, I have started a small consulting business, Virtual Facilities Consulting, to support the AEC/FM industry and provide management and consulting services in the areas of virtual design and construction and BIM-FM.

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

As a professor in the Department of Building Construction, I teach courses with a focus on design/build, project management and the use of information technology and BIM to support AEC/FM. I use real world case studies in all of my classes and require students to work in teams. I use industry experts as guest speakers to augment the students’ learning experience. My research area has been, since the beginning, focused on information technology. Early in my career, I have investigated the use of virtual reality in two main applications: testing the applicability and feasibility of several semi-immersive and immersive displays for review and navigation of construction 3D models, and developed a VR model for training of workers using above ground conveyor belts in mining. Recently, my research has focused on the area of BIM to support the project life cycle. I currently collaborate with Virginia Tech’s Facilities Department to define their FM data requirements and develop their BIM-FM standards. I am also the PI on a research project funded by the Clark Construction Group to explore and test various software tools and develop process workflows to facilitate digital handover of facility data. I recently completed a project that integrates various BIM software with scanning technologies for automated tracking and visualization of location status of structural steel members. I am in discussion with several construction companies to explore the use of RFID technology coupled with drones (UAVs) to further improve the tracking process.

As the founder of a small consulting business, my responsibilities include marketing, business development and operations. My motivation for this startup company was to allow me to work closer with the industry to bring my experiences back to Virginia Tech to support my teaching and further enhance the learning experiences of my students.

When and how did you get interested in AEC technology?

Since the very beginning of my career. I have always been fascinated with technology gadgets and software programming. As I began my graduate studies in Canada and the US, my fascination continued to accelerate and many of the projects I was engaged in involved software, programming and the use of technology. As I further realized how the construction industry is lagging behind other industries (such as manufacturing), I became more curious about how technology can help support information exchange in the field. In 1999, with the help a colleague of mine, I approached Primavera Systems Inc., and we received funding to develop an application on the Palm Pilot Windows platform to allow users to review and modify activity schedule data in the field. Ever since completing this project, I remained interested and engaged in technology.

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

Most of what I do, whether it is research-related or engagement with the industry, is technology focused. My motivation has always been to improve efficiency and increase quality. My goal from founding my personal consulting business was to increase opportunities to explore technology and apply it to support AEC needs.

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

Interoperability has always been a road block and a challenge for our industry. With the continued increase in the adoption of BIM across project life cycle and owners gradually recognizing the value of BIM for facility management, I see light at the end of the tunnel. Collaboration among project stakeholders through BIM from start to end is forcing the software industry to recognize the need and importance of interoperability and embrace it more whole-heartedly to allow for this collaboration to get better.

How do you see AEC technology evolving in the future?

My quick answer is “continue to get better and more affordable.” Technology such as wearable computing, drones, augmented reality, laser printing and BIM tools will continue to evolve. AEC will continue to learn from other industries, particularly manufacturing, and to some extent, the military, and will continuously adopt some of the technologies that have been tested by these industries. I also believe that wireless technology and next generation broadband (5G, 6G, …, xG bandwidth technology) will continue to evolve, allowing much faster download/upload speeds. This will have a great impact on what we do today in the AEC industry, particularly as many software vendors move to cloud-based platforms.

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

Technology that delivers information in real time using user-friendly platforms. Technology such as Google Glasses, Oculus Rift and similar are very promising. I look forward to more development in this area.

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

Recently, the rate of adoption of technology by AEC has been at a much faster pace compared to that in the 80’s and 90’s. With more AEC players, particularly owners, realizing the role and benefits of technology for better project delivery, I believe that we can continue to accelerate our adoption of new technology.

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