Architecture, manufacturing, and entertainment — not many years ago, they were separate industries and separate worlds. Those who worked in these fields used distinct skill sets and unrelated processes. Crossover between them wasn’t unheard of, but it wasn’t common, either.
Today, these industries are converging as professionals seek out better, more efficient ways to design, build, and make, and as advances in technology create new opportunities to adopt and adapt methods for greater advantage in the marketplace.
Architects and builders are looking to manufacturing to make the construction process more like industrial assembly lines — modular, repeatable, and efficient. And they’re finding ways to use standardized parts and digital tools to improve safety and accelerate project timelines.
At the same time, designers and manufacturers are learning about the benefits of agility from the construction industry, creating factories that can be restructured and re-engineered quickly to create smaller batches of high-value components for niche markets. It’s manufacturing viewed as a service, one that can respond to the changing needs of customers — something builders have had to contend with for as long as there have been architects.
And both AEC and manufacturing are embracing technologies and processes that were originally the domain of entertainment and media. Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), originally developed for gaming and movies, are now helping creators of all kinds design, collaborate, and connect. What’s more, these immersive technologies are helping customers experience what they’re buying before it’s fabricated, empowering better decision-making.
“It’s easy to see convergence when we get the owners and clients together with the architects and engineers and discuss how we’re going to build these buildings faster — and still make them efficient and cost-effective,” says Andrew Leavitt, an electrical designer with Leo A Daly Architecture and Engineering.
Changes in Process, Changes for People
As approaches and technologies are implemented across industries, so the skill sets of professionals are crossing over in new ways. Architects are creating structures that function more like products and designers are creating products that look more like structures. For the first time, we can glimpse a future where making and building becomes relatively consistent across industries and people can move flexibly between fields, taking their talents and tools with them.
“Today, because we have the tools, we don’t necessarily need these very specific disciplines,” adds Johannes Braumann, founder of the Association for Robots in Architecture. “We can have a designer programming. We can have a designer creating tools for robots. As a user, you now have the possibility to control an entire process.”
“With convergence, we have the opportunity to bridge the gap not only with software, but also with people,” says Bill Allen, CEO of EvolveLAB, a company that provides computational design and BIM support for the construction industry. “The lines between designer and fabricator begin to blur.”
A Smarter, Safer Approach to Construction
The construction industry has historically been both dangerous for workers and relatively wasteful. Experts estimate that 30% of the materials on the average construction project are thrown away or never used, and that construction accounts for 40% of what’s in our landfills. By adopting processes and approaches from manufacturing, industry leaders are finding that they can reduce waste and accelerate project completion, while also creating safer job sites.
“Construction companies are beginning to realize that trying to get all the construction done on a job site is very difficult,” says Raghi Iyengar, a founder of ManufactOn, a company focused on helping the construction leverage the power of prefabrication. “Why? Because they are very congested, a lot of people involved, and too many interdependencies. And there’s no space to put the construction materials. All of them are looking to figure out how to take construction off-site so you can make the construction site more like an assembly plant.”
“Whether it’s wall panels or piping racks or even entire modules like rooms, [we can] build them in the factories as assemblies, [then] deliver when needed so it all comes together on the job site,” Iyengar says.
“This trend is benefitting every stakeholder in the construction industry,” says Shubham Goel, a data science manager at Autodesk. “It’s great for the general contractors because it leads to buildings they can deliver with higher quality and higher safety because it’s a repeatable process.”
Sustainability is another major benefit, according to Goel. “[Convergence] is great for the environment,” he says. “For example, when the Olympics happen in a particular country, all those buildings that are built up [aren’t needed] after the Olympic event is over. With these new processes, these buildings can be disassembled and moved somewhere else. Or they can be broken down and one stadium can be converted into two stadiums in two cities.”
A Shared Evolution
The industries that make our built world are always in a state of development and flux. But until now, these fields have followed separate, if similar, evolutionary paths.
But today, through the use of new digital tools and the new approaches these tools enable, these paths are beginning to converge. And the convergence is just beginning. How this will affect the things we make, the ways that we make, and the roles that people play will take clearer shape in the years to come.
“Convergence to me means…change,” says Stephen Goetzinger, senior consulting applications engineer at furniture-maker Steelcase. “Convergence draws people all the way from manufacturing [to construction] because in the end, people make stuff. And they make stuff because they want to make their lives better. And that means we all have that common better goal.”