Behind the Build: Interview with Ahmad Ashraf, Head R&D Engineer at Hassan Allam

Productivity is a very long-standing challenge for the construction industry – and companies around the world are looking for ways to improve their efficiency and output.

A key part of the problem are the highly repetitive, manual processes that often take up the time of highly skilled individuals. These tasks are unfulfilling and error-prone, and can represent thousands of hours of lost time across a project, limiting company performance.

Technology – and specifically automation – has the power to change that, which is something that has been at the heart of Ahmad Ashraf’s career. He works at Hassan Allam, one of the largest companies in Egypt and the MENA region, with more than 85 years of experience in the engineering, construction, and infrastructure spaces.

Hassan Allam Holdings specialise in engineering and construction and investment and development and are also taking solid strides in renewable energy, water, logistics, mobility, and social infrastructure.

As the founder of the BIM R&D Unit, Ahmad looks for new ways for Hassan Allam to use technology to improve efficiency, offer new services and ultimately deliver the high quality projects the company is known for.

We spoke to Ahmad to learn about the potential – and the challenges – of bringing innovation to a company with Hassan Allam’s heritage, as well as the importance of hard work.

Could you talk us through your career to date and what led you to your current role?

I had graduated as a structural engineer and during my master's programme, I was undertaking a very heavy task. I had to complete the analysis of 10,000 models using software to monitor the behaviour of a cable structure element, and I had to do it manually. This led me to searching the internet and asking professors around the world to find out the best way to do such a thing. They advised me that the best approach was to automate a specific application to do the work for me, and as a result I developed an add-in that created an analysis model. Of course, I needed to make sure it was error-free before using it, but once I validated it, I was able to perform unlimited analysis at any one time – where manually one individual analysis would take me 15 minutes.

So that was the starting point for me to accelerate my engineering using programming languages, such as Python and VBA, and to start thinking outside the box. From there, I started linking in other softwares like AutoCAD, Revit, PDF and so on. When I applied to my role at Hassan Allam, it was the ability to work on more than structural engineering alone that earned me the position of founding the BIM R&D unit.

What do you do today?

I’m one of the first people at Hassan Allam to lead R&D in the BIM department. I look at the digital technology that’s out there and see how and where it can be implemented to support the company. I work with the heads of different departments to discuss their challenges and new approaches, basically because there's always another way to do things smarter.

For example, this week there was an engineer doing the most repetitive of things: opening a riser diagram AutoCAD file with machine names and pairing the flow rates for each machine which was stored in an Excel sheet. The engineer had to not only manually replace data but then carry out manual calculations to obtain the data they needed. It was anticipated that this task would take one whole week: one week of an engineering mind’s time. I was able to create a simple application to perform both the replace and calculations automatically, and it was completed in one single hour. 

It's all about splitting and accelerating manual tasks from those that need engineering sense. Imagine the scale of the time-saving from these kinds of tasks – and with coding experience, you can do it.

What impact have technologies like Autodesk Build had on your work?

Initially we used Autodesk Docs and Collaborate Pro, and now we’re introducing Autodesk Build. The benefit so far has been that we all have a single source of truth. This ensures that we are all on the same page.

Autodesk Build will have the amazing effect of reducing rework. Before introducing Autodesk’s ABC Pro to the site, the site engineering team had been cut off. They might have made quick updates to a model to meet a deadline, without sharing it more widely with the team. That could lead to issues in head office with version control, when there might be people working from an outdated model. With Autodesk Build, we will be able to further close the gap between the site and head office teams. More live information will be available; for site engineers they’ll have Revit 3D models in their hands to complete checks live. The site team couldn’t be more updated.

Why do you think developments in R&D and advancing BIM are so important for the construction industry?

It’s really important because technology updates are very rapid right now – and companies need to know how they can use them. The challenge is there are lots of people from the old school ways of working, who have the mindset that we’ve been doing things a certain way for many years, and those people can be quite senior. There’s a tug of war, between the need to introduce new technology and the question of how much companies will invest.

My role is about bridging that gap, to implement new technologies, save time and ultimately convince people of the need for change. I’ve learned that walking people through the actual steps and showing them that things can be done more easily with specific training is really effective, and helps to convince people how things can be better.

How are you advancing innovation at Hassan Allam?

We’re constantly innovating. One project we’ve been working on recently is the creation of an immersive box for sites. When you go inside, there are three projectors displaying the consolidated live Revit model, which can be controlled with a gaming console, keyboard or mouse.

So, if we have a client visiting a site who wants to see the final output of the project, we can actually walk them through the consolidated Revit model live with all the machinery and assets inside it. If there are any modifications or comments, these can be added directly to the model thanks to the use of Autodesk’s ABC Pro.

The plan is to make this immersive box available on certain construction sites, where we want to give the client the ability to see and understand that final structure.

What has been your proudest achievement at Hassan Allam, and what advice would you give to anyone looking to pursue a career in the construction industry?

I’m so proud of actually establishing R&D unit and being the first engineer to hold this title. At first, it was sometimes difficult to be heard. But through hard work – and being able to show the time saved through the technology the company deserved – the senior team were convinced. That has been my principle throughout my career: hard work pays off. So that's my model, through all the work I do.

My other advice for people starting a construction career is to learn programming languages, and particularly Python. I know a lot of programming languages, but Python specifically is my love; it is easy to learn and it’s amazing. By applying coding and artificial intelligence, we can make our construction industry far better and change the world.

Mohammad Abou Assali

Senior Customer Success Manager, Autodesk