Behind the Build: Interview with Robert Lownes, Director, BIM Services at Gray AE, PSC

There's something to be said about doing important things before you need to do them. For example, many people go to the doctor for regular checkups before any signs of illness appear to stay healthy and get ahead of potential issues. 

This lesson also applies to digital transformation. It's best to digitize your processes before you need to, so you're not scrambling to catch up if something (say, a global pandemic) pushes you to do so. 

Robert Lownes, Director of BIM Services at Gray AE, PSC, had the foresight (and a bit of luck!) to transition from desktop and on-premise servers before COVID-19 hit, so the company was well-positioned to implement remote work and continue its projects with minimal disruption.

It's a great story, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. 

To kick off our latest Behind the Build feature, we asked Robert to walk us through his career in the AEC industry and the lessons he learned.

Check out what he has to say below. 

Tell me a little bit about Gray AE and what you specialize in.

I currently work for Gray AE, but Gray, Inc. is a much larger organization. It consists of a family of companies. These 10 Gray companies have a strategic presence in select locations in North America and Europe, individually or collectively providing engineering, design, and construction, along with smart manufacturing and equipment manufacturing services that serve the following markets for domestic and international customers: Food & Beverage, Manufacturing, Distribution, Data Centers, Advanced Technology, and Commercial.

Essentially, Gray AE supports Gray Construction's design-build projects but also works directly for end users. That includes architects and engineers, process and packaging engineers, automation and controls design, equipment fabrication, you name it. Anything that supports the design-build process, we have a company for it. We work exclusively in the industrial market. These manufacturing facilities are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of square feet. I like to consider them horizontal skyscrapers. We may have a building that's thousands of feet long in any direction. These are extremely large buildings and house lots of heavy manufacturing and process equipment. 

Our projects include automotive manufacturing and assembly facilities, food and beverage facilities, advanced technology, and more. If it's a consumer product, we've probably designed a facility to either manufacture or distribute it.

When I say "design the process," we actually help develop processes for our customers in terms of, "Your product starts here, it might be in this form, it goes to this point down the line, and you end up with your product for sale." That's one example of what Gray Solutions does, which is another independent company within the Gray family. 

In a nutshell, Gray provides turnkey or discrete services for customers through its complementary offering.

Walk us through your career and what led you to become Director of BIM Services.

My career has always been model-based. In my first job, we designed wastewater treatment facilities and had a turnkey process that we delivered to the customer. The piping was designed in 3D, so we came up with the idea that if the piping is in 3D, everything else needs to be in 3D as well, so we can just generate cut sheets off that model.

That's what we did back then, utilizing AutoCAD-based products. There was a program called AutoPLANT, which was made by Rebus. It was piping design software, and we just used AutoCAD to go along with it. 

That was my first job, and I worked there for a few years. After that, I moved into a competitor of Gray, another design-builder who does heavy industrial projects like we do. They were on the front end of clash detection as we know it today.  

We were using Navisworks before Autodesk bought them. We loaded our models into it and ran clash detection, and people were just blown away by it. We could modify our fabrication models and find issues before they were actually going to be built in the field. This was all done back in the nineties. That segued into visualization, and we used a variety of solutions, including 3D Studio VIZ, 3D Studio Max, etc. 

I was with that company for ten years before joining Gray in 2009. Once I got here, we started developing a team. All the things that I had learned from the past—3d modeling, clash detection, renderings, all those types of things—required more people to be able to do them, so we started training people.

It is interesting to note that the company was first getting its feet wet in Revit when I got here. I remember we had a goal of doing just five projects in Revit, and then ten, and then eventually, we just said, "We're going to do it all in Revit." 

The same happened for BIM 360. We said, "Well, let's just do one project in BIM 360. All right, that worked pretty well; let's do them all in BIM 360." 

So, that's my story.

What is your proudest accomplishment in your career at Gray AE? Why?

It always boils down to the people on my team and seeing them recognized for helping win projects. We have a cultural element here where we "Ring the bell." Whenever we win a project, we ring a giant bell in the lobby of our building. It’s a time to bring everyone together and recognize team members for a job well done. Just having my team up there to ring the bell is a great accomplishment for me. I love seeing them succeed.

Another accomplishment is helping the company go from just starting to use Revit when I got here to now doing laser scanning, clash detection, model coordination, and more. You name it. If it's something that's technology, we're doing it.

Finally, I'm proud that we decided to level up our technology right before COVID. We had an idea and said, "You know what? Let's get rid of all the desktops in the office and move to BIM 360. Let's put all our projects in the cloud."

We went totally wireless, got rid of the server in the office, and then COVID hit. 

I'm proud to say that we didn't have any downtime at all because everybody was already on laptops. Everybody was already in BIM 360, and they could work all over the country because we had forethought of doing that. 

Even to this day, we only use laptops and cloud-based services for all of our files. We don't put anything on premise anymore. It was an excellent accomplishment to play a part and to help lead that effort. 

What are the biggest challenges you face in your role? How does technology help you overcome those challenges?

One that I face often is trying to get teams aligned on the technology we want to use. It's not just Gray teams that we have to interface with. We're interfacing with people nationwide, including design-builders, subcontractors, and design outsources who have never used some of these tools. So that's a big one for us because we're always teaching.

Let's say we decide that we'll use BIM 360. From there, we need to answer several questions. What is that, and what does that do, and why do I need it? And then, what licenses do we need? How much are we going to spend to make it happen? 

Another big challenge—which has been solved with laptops and cloud-based solutions—is having people all over the country who need to collaborate. How does that happen when team members are in different locations and time zones? 

The good news is we have tools like Teams and others that allow us to work on the same files. Then there's backend logistics like how much data and what type of internet hotspots we need to keep everybody from buffering all day. Those are things that we had to solve.

Are you using Autodesk Construction Cloud on any unique and/or challenging projects? If so, what has been the impact of using Autodesk Construction Cloud for these projects?

We use BIM 360 and Autodesk Construction Cloud. The most significant impact is that these tools set us up for success right from the beginning.

Setting up a job is easy. You could set up a job in five minutes because we have templates. So you just set up the project, add the template, add the people, and you are pretty much off and rolling at that point. Since we have templates and settings that are easy to modify, people outside of me can set up projects in different offices, and they all look the same. 

The thing about Gray is that I may work on Project A today, but I may work on Project C tomorrow. We want the projects to all look and behave the same. So having BIM 360 and Autodesk Construction Cloud helps, and it also gives people outside of Gray a familiar interface.

Speaking outside of Gray AE, we have a Pre-Construction team at Gray Construction. Sometimes, these team members utilize the project. They use Build, Takeoff, and other features that Gray AE doesn't typically use, but the platform keeps all the data in one place. 

The AE team can work on their files, and Pre-Con can access these files without having to go to different places, which means they can do their takeoffs more easily with more accurate data. Then, Gray Solutions, for example, can use the model for assets and other items related to process design. 

It's great to see different companies use the modules in various ways. It keeps everybody in one place, and that's what we like about it.

How has Autodesk Construction Cloud driven more predictability and confidence in your projects? 

If I'm a sub or a customer and I work with Gray, I know what I'm going to get because Autodesk Construction Cloud has allowed Gray to set up the projects in a certain way that I've come to expect. 

And because they've templatized everything, projects look and behave the same, which means I can expect that outcome from Gray on every project.

How has partnering with Autodesk helped make your projects more successful?

We have a standing meeting with Autodesk at least once a month. During that time, we go over any issues or challenges the team may be facing, and the Autodesk team helps facilitate them. 

They also keep us informed about the vision for the future. They tell us, "Well, this is coming out next month or the month after." We can then take that information to the project teams and say, "This is coming; we could probably use this on the next job." All of that helps us predict how we can execute future projects. 

Plus, we have Autodesk tracking tickets to ensure issues get resolved, and that's been great for us. Having that relationship with Autodesk has been extremely beneficial.

When you think about the future, what are your plans to advance innovation and productivity at Gray AE?

This is one of the challenges in my role. But since I have such a great team, I've asked them also to join in that process. 

We have initiatives that every person has taken on for innovation, whether it be a process or software, and we track that and talk about it. So, they may want to work on TwinMotion or think that certain file naming nomenclature is the best way for the entire company, and they're working on that. 

We have all these different types of initiatives to help progress the company. And once they get to a certain point, we will take that to leadership and say, "Hey, we've looked at this, and we think this is the path forward. Yay or nay?” Lots of times, they'll say yay, and then we will roll that out across the company.

We send lots of people to Autodesk University every year, and they'll come back with all these great ideas. We vet those and do the same process. And you never know. Some things get approved, some don't. But it's all part of the cyclical process of innovation.

What advice would you give to the next generation of men and women entering and preparing for the future of the industry?

Don't be so afraid that you're going to fail that you don't do anything. 

My advice is to ask someone, ask two people, then make your decision and live with it. Whether it's successful or not, it's part of learning, and that's how you become a very successful person in life.

Kelsee Campbell

As a Senior Customer Advocacy Program Manager at Autodesk, Kelsee has the privilege of working with Autodesk customers to champion their stories on the Digital Builder Blog. Kelsee strives to create an engaging experience that amplifies customer perspectives, fostering a sense of community and connection.