In an innovate-or-die era, automation is good for business and the bottom line

Early adopters of tech-driven innovation are developing new ways to work with automation for business that cut costs and boost sustainability.


Image courtesy of Systecon.

automation for business systecon image

Sarah Jones

August 10, 2022

min read
  • New research from Harvard Business Review Analytic Services finds that market forces, sustainability initiatives, and the need to attract younger workers all increase the pressure for businesses to innovate.

  • In an era of constant change, companies that adopt technology-driven approaches to innovation gain clear competitive advantages.

  • AI, digital twins, generative design, and DfMA processes can unleash creativity and scale innovation beyond niche projects.

  • Early adopters of tech-driven innovation are reaping the rewards today.

  • Automation’s efficiency enables new workflows that remove waste, reduce costs, and integrate processes in pursuit of sustainability initiatives.

Companies that lead with innovation rank among the fastest growing in the world. For the sectors of design and manufacturing (D&M) and architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC), “finding new ways to reduce the resources needed to design, engineer, and build something—whether it’s a scooter or a skyscraper—gives businesses a clear competitive advantage,” according to Leveraging Artificial Intelligence and Automation for Return on Investment in Innovation, a new report by Harvard Business Review Analytic Services in association with Autodesk. (Get the report for the AEC sector and the D&M sector.)

At the same time, customer and competitive demands, sustainability goals and mandates, and the need to engage a new generation of digital-native workers can increase the pressure for businesses to innovate.

How can firms overcome cultural resistance, entrenched business practices, and uncertainty toward embracing innovation-enabling processes? They can start by rethinking the role technology plays.

Technology is a key driver of innovation

automation for business hyundai elevate car prototype
Digital twins of concept vehicles such as the all-terrain Elevate traverse simulated worlds for testing, saving Hyundai’s New Horizons Studio the expense of physical prototypes. Image courtesy of Hyundai.

In a data-driven world, firms accelerate to success by tapping technology that propels innovation. Forrester Research calls this strategy “mission critical,” concluding that businesses that prioritize tech-driven innovation grow 2.6 times faster than those that don’t.

AEC and D&M organizations are using digital-forward processes such as automation, artificial intelligence (AI), digital twins, generative design, and design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) to scale innovation while streamlining processes. Data analysis from these technologies provides operational insights that aid decision making.

For example, data-backed decision making can benefit a businesses’ sustainability goals. As the need for more sustainable (PDF, p. 11) methods and materials gains urgency, “AEC and D&M organizations are turning to technology to break through traditional limitations and enable new ways of working that remove waste, reduce costs, and lead to more cohesive, integrated processes,” according to the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report.

Early adopters profit from AI and automation

AI is poised to bring a big boost to businesses’ bottom line. In its 2018 paper “Notes from the AI frontier: Modeling the impact of AI on the world economy,” McKinsey found that firms that adopt AI now could double their cashflow by 2030.

AI fosters innovation in a broad range of design and production processes, from running simulations to interpreting data to preserving institutional knowledge. AI, digital twins, generative design, and DfMA can facilitate creativity and advance innovative pursuits beyond niche projects.

Digital twins bring stakeholders together

automation for business bryden wood panels for elizabeth line in london
London’s Bryden Wood firm built panels for the Elizabeth Line stations off-site, part of its embrace of automation and DfMA. Image Courtesy of Bryden Wood.

Digital twins’ ability to provide dynamic real-world data from a virtual model connects physical and virtual environments in a feedback loop, helping everyone from designers to owners make better decisions about assets and operations.

Hyundai’s New Horizons Studio puts digital twins of concept utility vehicles into digitally simulated worlds. Eventually, the system will evaluate vehicle performance in various environments. While it develops advanced simulations, Hyundai can demonstrate vehicle performance in various scenarios that simplify vehicle performance. This helps potential customers understand products’ future capabilities while letting them provide feedback that engineers can use to iterate designs without spending time and materials building a physical prototype.

Meanwhile, Leighton Asia is pioneering the use of digital twins in construction. In the report, group manager Francesco Tizzani explains that Leighton starts with a dynamic BIM model, integrating workflows and data as construction gets underway. The team can then use the model to collaborate on changes and then apply simulation and machine learning to improve decision making and cut down on rework. Once the project is complete, building owners have a digital twin to reference for ongoing operations and maintenance.

Innovation through next-gen design approaches

automation for business DfMA platform construction system for the forge office block in london
For The Forge, a “zero carbon in-use” office block in London, Bryden Wood used its DfMA platform construction system to make standard-size components off-site and assemble them quickly on-site. image courtesy of Bryden Wood.

The need to innovate is accelerating the adoption of generative design—an iterative process that factors in design goals, parameters, and constraints to quickly generate and test design alternatives—and DfMA, which allows designers/architects, engineers, fabricators, contractors, and subcontractors to collaborate throughout the design process and work toward common goals such as reducing project time and costs.

Since London-based architecture, engineering, and design company Bryden Wood began automating processes and implementing DfMA, it’s reduced capital costs by up to 30% and trimmed schedules by 20% in many projects. Additionally, the team can now complete designs that would have taken 15 months using traditional processes in just two days.

The company took its generative design strategies to the next level, using automated design to develop a rapid-assembly, highly accurate set of parts for The Forge, a net-zero-carbon office project in South London. Because the superstructure was built to precise specifications, the electrical contractor could create components in a factory and then quickly raise each one into place. Essentially, the contractor could design for both manufacturing and assembly, with the resulting install time reduced to minutes instead of hours.

By embracing generative design and DfMA, AEC and D&M businesses develop innovative new work approaches while increasing efficiency and minimizing costs, bringing better collaboration and cohesion to the entire process cycle.

The AEC and D&M industries have always faced challenges. But a perfect storm of market pressures, sustainability initiatives, and workforce challenges is fueling an urgency to adapt. Technology-enabled innovation is essential to unlock the methods and materials necessary to meet this moment—and firms that conquer hurdles now are poised to reap the rewards.

Sarah Jones

About Sarah Jones

Design & Make AEC section editor Sarah Jones is a Bay Area–based writer, editor, musician, and content producer. Sarah’s articles have appeared in Mix, Audio Media International, Live Design, Electronic Musician, Keyboard, Berklee Today, The Henry Ford, and on Grammy.com.

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