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Can HPC Cloud Technology Help the Building Industry Go Digital?


Author’s Note – One of great advantages of writing for DMR is that I am often contacted by experts in Manufacturing, High Performance Computing and related fields. This column results from such a conversation.

Is there an opportunity for digital manufacturing to expand into the design and construction of skyscrapers, condominiums and residential homes? Greg Howes, a founding member of the Digital Fabrication Alliance (DFA) thinks so. What’s more, Howes believes that high performance computing in the cloud (HPC Cloud) just might serve fabrication the same way it is catching on in manufacturing.

According to Howes, digital fabrication is a small subset of the multi-trillion dollar building industry. Digital fabricators seek to digitize every phase of design, engineering and construction of structures. Most importantly, they rely on software to simulate a design in three dimensions and then use this information to control the machines that perform the actual cutting and milling of components. Made of steel, wood or composite, these fabricated pieces are then assembled into a house or office building.

Right about now, you’re probably scratching your head and saying, “Hold on. Aren’t there all kinds of architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) software packages on the market made for the building industry?”

You’re absolutely right. And there are also computer numerical control (CNC) machines that do the cutting and milling of pieces (3D printing on a large scale!). But the disconnect is the lack of interoperability among these software packages – often with no capability to export 3D data directly to the CNC machines, Howes explained.

The largest vendors of building industry CAD software are already heading in this direction by moving design into the cloud and purchasing CAM/CNC companies. One example is Trimble Buildings, which, in addition to purchasing SketchUp from Google, also purchased leading steel fabrication software companies like Tekla and StruCad.

The technology may be here, but the problem is one of human interoperability, he explained. In the building industry, few people seem to have wrapped their heads around the tremendous benefits that could be achieved if a structure and all its parts and systems could be conceived, designed and engineered in parallel or in series, as appropriate, in the context of a fully simulated and visualized digital 3D environment.

In the aerospace industry, Boeing did exactly this in developing its new Dreamliner. So, it’s possible.

If the building industry can create an all-digital 3D environment and securely and seamlessly export the data directly to CNC machines, Howes predicts efficiencies and profits will skyrocket. And he says the entire global building industry, not just North America, is poised to benefit from this revolution. On a smaller physical scale, this is what digital manufacturers are accomplishing now with the help of the HPC Cloud.

Assuming roadblocks created by entrenched mindsets can be overcome, Howes believes HPC Cloud technology is needed by digital fabrication to create simulated environments to handle the massive 3D volumes that must interoperate with multiple software platforms in real-time. The critical challenge is the sheer volume and variety of data that are typically involved in fabricating a structure from concept to completion.

Howes is realistic about how HPC might be integrated into the complex building process. HPC Cloud acceptance won’t happen throughout the entire workflow at once. And no one can predict whether adoption will be led by industry innovators of will it be consumer/marketing-driven? Ultimately it must be introduced at each critical point where the benefits and profitability will be instantly recognizable. Howes suggests the first integration point might be in the marketing of a building or new home.

Imagine a potential home buyer walking with their prime contractor through a 3D immersive simulation of the house they might buy – powered by HPC Cloud technology – peeking into every closet, seeing how light plays through each window, and noticing the line of site from the kitchen to family room. If they don’t like the size of the powder room, they simply move the digital wall, seeing immediately how that affects the size of the room next to it. (If you know Polish, check out www.ihome.pl for an example.)

Customer satisfaction will soar, Howes believes, prompting the builder and contractors to expand the digital experience to include the software systems — commonly referred to as IPCM or interactive product (or production) configuration management — that calculate costs and schedules. Then, not only will the potential buyer see the new layout instantly, they will immediately be informed of the impact on price tag and completion date.

And once the HPC Cloud takes the 3D data from marketing through to the engineering and design phases and delivers them to fabrication machines, the process will be complete. Every home and building can be a custom product at a potentially lower cost than their mass produced predecessor. Incidentally, this new digital fabrication capability directly addresses the megatrend of mass customization, mass tailoring and CYO (Create Your Own).

Are you interested in learning more? Please visit the Digital Fabrication Alliance or contact Greg Howes in Portland, Oregon, at greg@ideabuilderhomes.com And keep your eyes on the DFA website for new case studies showing innovation by some of the industry leaders.

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