How one of the world’s most innovative firms stays ahead of the competition
Robert Otani is one of this year’s keynote speakers at Shadow Summit. He’s CTO of Thornton Tomasetti (TT), 1,500-plus person engineering consulting firm headquartered in New York City. TT has provided the structural design for several of the world’s tallest building structures, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; and Taipei 101 in Taiwan.
We spoke with Rob to understand how one of the world’s most innovative engineering firms stays ahead of the curve, and what technologies he predicts will transform the industry within the next 5 years.
What is your daily role as CTO of Thornton Tomasetti?
Generally, it’s four things: making sure the firm as a whole is using the correct technology that exists in the industry — the latest and greatest, so we don’t get left behind.
Secondly, we understand the technology that does exist out there isn’t always what we need for the specific practice we have at TT, so we have our own software development team, called CORE Studio. Of 20 people, 15 are working on software 100% of the time. We also do AEC technology R&D – we’re building software that will make a big impact on TT and others in the industry, but isn’t solving our day to day issues yet.
We also have a team called CORE modeling that provides advanced computational modeling internal and externally in the office. We call it extreme BIM modeling, for geometric and analytic projects.
Lastly, we have CORE R&D which is an internal R&D platform for the entire office. Anyone can submit ideas, what their plan is, how much that may cost, and the potential return on investment. Based on those criteria, we fund up to 25-30 projects per year and give people a platform to do some research on both adjacent and transformational ideas.
I also still do structural projects. Embedded in all of this, I have to do a lot of technology integration. A lot of it is convincing people that there is a better way to be more productive. There are various levels of tech that people are willing to embrace. Someone with 40 years experience, it’s more challenging than with someone right out of college. So that is a huge part of what I have to do as well.
What are some of your biggest challenges at the moment?
There’s an industry challenge I’ll be talking about at Shadow Summit: The way we coordinate and deliver our designs to the contractors who actually do the work, and are probably the most important piece of this puzzle. Construction has been less productive since the advent of the computer than any other industry. It’s the way we communicate with each other.
Of the construction costs of a project, AE is 10% and C is 90%. If we don’t tailor our workflow to meet theirs, then there’s an incongruence of information. When I first started in the mid-90s, there was a uniform platform: 2D drawing. 40% of the work was still hand-drafted. Nowadays, we have these ridiculously robust 3D models and we still issue the same 2D drawings. The contractor has to recreate a smart 3D drawing, then gives us back the same 2D drawings, and builds from the 3D. We’re switching platforms, and losing levels of detailed information.
My goal as a CTO in this industry is to change what we call the standard of practice. It hasn’t changed at all. A lot of it is legal issues, a lot are jurisdictional issues. The same drawings we issued in 1995 are the same drawings we issue in 2019 which doesn’t make sense at all. Vertical integration entities like WeWork and Katerra are disrupting that process because they’re getting rid of the annoying and inefficient ways of communicating between design and construction.
What is Thornton Tomasetti’s approach to uncovering new technology?
Honestly, getting out to conferences helps a lot, including hosting our own conference. One of the best ways that we understand how well we are doing in terms of staying on the cutting edge is to have these conversations about work relative to the rest of the industry. You get a pretty quick sense of where you are based on the reaction that the audience gets you.
We also do hackathons ever year. That’s where a lot of new ideas come from because you get this mashup of skillset and technology backgrounds, all willing to share with each other their knowledge. Some projects don’t go anywhere but many have second or third lives. 75% of the CORE studio work came in one way or another from a hackathaon, so we definitely rely on that. You can imagine, if you keep everything completely internal you’ll only be as innovative as the people that are surrounding you. The idea of a hackathon is to open that up, break that apart.
What technologies are you particularly excited about?
It is probably cliche right now, but artificial intelligence and machine learning. 4 or 5 years ago, one of my developers introduced me to some of the possibilities of ML. It wasn’t commonplace to hear about ML at the time. For engineering purposes, because it’s so rule-based, and at the end of the day the classifications or characteristics of buildings are not that different from each other, we realized that’s easily something that, if we have good data, we can automate using ML.
For example, we brought in a Ph.D. from another practice with a deep background in ML and data science. He’s building a computer vision tool that will automatically detect building facade damage — cracks, miscolated bricks — just by seeing pictures of it. We’re going to have that rolled out by the end of the summer.
Sooner rather than later it will be as good at classification as a human and can be done using a drone with substantially more access and ease of inspection than a person hanging from a building on a rope. Not just 2x better, but potentially 100x better than what we do today.
What projects have you successfully used new tech on recently?
Many. The reason why my team has grown from 1 person in 2010 to 20 people today — and we’re completely at cost to the office — is that everyone has seen gains in their productivity and marketing value, of being able to do something, even just a little bit better than the competition. It’s so competitive that any advantage makes a big difference.
We immediately found a use case for drones, to do a detailed inspection of a dangerous collapse in a building. That was the first use, and now all of our offices have drones around — it’s a common thing now.
In CORE studio, we have 4 trajectories we tend to focus on:
- The first is interoperability (our Konstru product is one of the platforms we use to solve that issue).
- The second is data visualization, to collaborate easily and design better, faster and with more fidelity.
- Third, automation. Anything that will reduce 20 clicks to 5 clicks of your mouse saves time and therefore saves money.
- The last one is the AI portion. It has the potential to do things we would never do before because it wasn’t economically feasible.
We’re building a tool called T2D2 — if we can do an inspection of a building in an hour, 20 times a year, instead of 10 days one time a year, that means whoever owns the building has the chance to detect something easily fixable before the damage requires extensive or costly repairs. That’s the future.
To hear more from Rob, grab your ticket to Shadow Summit before they’re all gone.