Interview: The next leap in construction

Paul Wallett, regional director, Trimble Solutions Middle East & India, talks to MECN ahead of September’s Construction Summit in Dubai

Paul Wallett, regional director, Trimble Solutions Middle East & India, talks to MECN ahead of 4th Annual Construction Summit Middle East. The event takes place on Tuesday 18 September 2018 at The Westin Dubai Mina Seyahi Beach Resort & Marina. It’s theme will be Digital Transformation Powering Constructability. 

MECN: What are your aspirations for the Construction Summit?

Paul: Although it’s the fourth or fifth year of this event, it’s really only the second year where it has broadened from a more BIM-focused event to an industry-wide summit, discussing all of the particular advancements in the industry, across the different stakeholders of the full construction lifecycle. We are also introducing innovative technologies available today that people may be unaware of. Hence we’re combining the technology with an industry forum. People can ask questions and get a ‘hands-on’ feel, coupled with relevant discussions on the different forums and panels.

MECN: Give us some examples of recent projects where your software was used.

Paul Wallett: The recent FIFA Soccer World Cup in Russia is an example of where Tekla was deployed for modelling the structural solution of eight of the 12 stadia. The complexity of modern stadia requires an advanced solution such as Tekla to enable them to be created and then fabricated. Locally within the UAE there’s the Museum of the Future, Dubai Eye, the Opera House, and the Midfield Airport. Most of the complex and notable iconic buildings within the UAE typically end up being modelled using our solution. The reason for that really comes down to the complexity and level of detail that we are able to go into. In addition, it is an open solution.

Our philosophy has always been to understand the complexity of the industry and the needs of its many stakeholders, utilising many different applications from design and architecture, through to measuring and estimation solutions. What we try to bring to the table is the best solution that is fit-for-purpose at each particular point of the construction process.

When you look at these highly complex structures, the ability to model intricate details is really what differentiates these projects at the end of the day. There’s lots and lots of complexity in the connections, and attendant minor details, which requires a particular capability in manufacturing these structures. This has really been our major area of expertise over the last 20 to 30 years.

We have a solution that has become a de facto standard from a structural steel fabrication point of view. Ultimately, we’re in a good position in terms of providing a holistic solution. What we’re looking at is facilitating the capabilities higher up the value chain. Hence we have engineering solutions on the same platform for engineers to access as open architecture, linking with other modelling solutions in the market. This is in addition to solutions that sit on top of other common-use platforms. In terms of specialist MEP solutions, for example, it ranges from electrical design to plumbing and HVAC solutions.

MECN: Dennis McNelis from the Museum of the Future told me that Trimble Connect was instrumental for enabling the collaboration between the different stakeholders using different software.

Paul Wallett: Trimble Connect is derived from our G-Team solution, with Gehry Technologies as the originator of the platform as a cloud collaboration software. That project was taken forward to what we have today, and is called Trimble Connect, which is what we really refer to as our ecosystem. This means having a software solution that enables multiple platforms to link into it – not just the software itself, but also the ability to link for example data from hardware scanning devices with our field link software.

If we have a point cloud, for example, this means linking that up with our field technology through the connect platform, and then interfacing that with the physical model. Acting essentially as a conduit for all of the data hosted on the cloud from multiple disciplines, from heavy mining to industry, the built environment in terms of structures, and MEP or façade solutions. Anyone can access and upload the documentation, as well as have the ability to comment, and manage different stakeholders or groups in terms of the specific projects that they’re engaging with.

MECN: What are the main challenges in terms of technology ‘disruption’ when it comes to adopting new technologies?

Paul: The capabilities inherent in different technologies have been around for quite some time. Thus I think it’s more down to the individual companies themselves, as to whether they’re at the right point to adopt new technology, or simply remain reliant on traditional processes.

In this region, there isn’t a specific mandate to use any particular type of technology. There’s the government mandating BIM to a certain level, but that’s not enforced in terms of what level of detail that needs to be provided. And it’s targeted mainly at the architects and engineers, and not particularly at the contractors. Hence it is the NGOs that are the real innovators in terms of wanting to deliver projects faster and more economically, right from the tender stage.

There are a lot of larger contractors now deploying different specialised technologies to a certain degree. We are finding that the awareness of BIM is at a level where everybody knows what it’s about. However, to actually take BIM all the way from the engineering office to on-site execution is one area where it’s not yet had a full impact. The inherent issue in the industry seems to be that, unless it’s mandated, we’re still tied to the traditional 2D process via construction drawings that need to be signed off.

So, we’re talking about IFC in two senses in the industry. In terms of BIM it is ‘Industry Foundation Classes’. But then we have IFC, issued for construction, which essentially means you’re taking a 3D model and you are having to print out traditional 2D drawings to have these stamped by the engineer of record. So, until you take away the need for that 2D drawing, you will be unable to take a leap to that next level of BIM-enabled technology deployment.

MECN: How do you overcome this?

Paul: Mandating is one way, but it’s very challenging once you remove drawings out of the equation. That means every subcontractor has to gear up in terms of technology, and also upskill their entry-level workers. You’ve got to have user-friendly technology that is also adaptable to the environment, and technology that allows people to work across language barriers. So, it’s not as easy as simply stating ‘no more drawings’ and you have a paperless office. Getting to that point has to take into account the inherent complexity of the AEC industry at present, with its multiple contractors and sub-contractors. That’s the real challenge. It’s a slow-burn adoption process. When you look at the major projects, they’re far more on board in terms of adapting to different technologies. However, how many major projects are needed to have an impact on the industry as a whole?

MECN: In terms of companies that are forward-thinking and adopt new technologies out of their own volition, is there not an argument against being an early adopter, and letting others go through the trial-and-error process first?

Paul: I think a lot of companies will sit on the fence and wait to see others go through the teething process of new technology adoption such as BIM. Having said that, this technology is now so far advanced that if you don’t get onboard, you are likely to be left behind. It has become a competitive necessity.

If you look at the industry as a whole in terms of its drive to be cost-competitive, apart from the few mega projects, there is a lot of competition. Unless you take a different approach and stand out in adopting different technologies, in order to make yourself more efficient and cost-competitive, it ends up just being a bidding war for a particular project. Ultimately what is at risk at the end of the day is the successful execution of the project itself. If you don’t deploy new technology, all you have to fall back on is manpower, and you run the risk of winning the project based on insufficient information in the first place, and hoping that the change orders are where you can actually make ends meet.

MECN: Isn’t it about educating the developers as well about this constant price-cutting, and the impact it has on quality at the end of the day?

Paul: I hope that developers today are a bit more savvy than they have been in the past, and do not just reach out for the lowest bid. They are starting to look at a range of different bids, and don’t just opt for the cheapest one. They evaluate bids based on the criteria necessary to deliver projects successfully. On some projects, vendors or suppliers are rated in such a way that cost is obviously not the end goal. It’s based on whether or not you can deploy a certain skill set and use technology to deliver a project on time.

MECN: You arrived from the US, and have a lot of international experience, including East Asia, India, and Saudi Arabia. How do you compare the uptake between these diverse markets and their attitudes to technology?

Paul: Prior to the US, I had experience in Europe and, prior to that, in the Far East. I’ve experienced markets where technology adoption is really high, and that’s based purely on the fact that labour is so much more expensive. Other markets with cheaper labour and material costs also have a lot less building restrictions in terms of legislation, and hence the technology adoption is far less. If we take the US as an example, certain states mandate technology to be used on government projects over a certain value and size, which kick-started the uptake, and resulted in a snowball effect in other states.

MECN: Governments therefore play a leading role in advancing technology uptake?

Paul: Correct. If you look at the Far East and Singapore in particular, it is well ahead in terms of mandating different technology. I believe they even have incentives such as different tax breaks to encourage innovative solutions. Compared to the Middle East, where I have been for eight years now, when I first arrived there was a lot of talk at that time. Then it was more of an educational phase, whereby the industry was coming to grips with BIM and its implications and effective deployment. A lot of people got sucked into the idea that BIM is all-encompassing and pervasive. The complexity is daunting, especially having to go from a zero base to fully-fledged BIM, Contractors posed many fundamental questions at the outset. I think we’ve evolved from that early phase, to where people now have a better idea about what BIM means, and that its potential is much more than just as a modelling solution, but that sub-contractors can be integrated into the entire construction lifecycle.

So, the Middle East market has transformed, and is certainly positioning itself as the global ‘smart’ technology region. It has ambitious plans in terms of ‘smart’ integration. In certain areas we’re seeing success, but again, it’s a big step to go from nothing to a highly-integrated IoT industry whereby everything’s linked via smart devices. Certain advances in terms of information access via smart devices, and businesses devising special cloud-linked apps, may not be related to the construction industry per se, but it just goes to show we’re all heading in the right direction in terms of technology. I think that, from an overall construction industry viewpoint, we need to invest more in order for technology to have a bigger impact. We can probably take a much bigger leap forward as a result.

MECN: How do you address the challenge of low-skilled workers having to use technology on-site?

We have to develop solutions that cater for those skill subsets, ensuring our solutions are intuitive and easy-to-use. It means that the icons displayed on smart devices have to be understandable by all. We have to instead let the technology do the hard work, and make the interface as simple as possible. Smart device interfaces are moving away from a plethora of options to a much simpler and comprehendible interaction. It’s not easy to achieve, but we already have proven cases where technology has been able to overcome language barriers in terms of machine operation, for example.

MECN: In terms of Trimble’s R&D effort in the US, how does its experience in the Middle East market feed back into new product development?

Paul: Our products are really user-driven. Yes, we have a lot of patented ideas and solutions across the board. Essentially, products that we’ve had in the market for many years were developed with the customer in mind. Customers can give feedback about what they need in a product, and that goes to our development teams. Then later on you’ll see those different requirements built into the software in future versions. This is something that we have been doing for many years. If you look at our solutions like Tekla Structures, typically we have releases that come out each year. So, the innovation in terms of our strategy is knowing the direction the industry is going in, in parallel with features and enhancements requested by users.

About Paul Wallett, regional director, Trimble Solutions Middle East & India

Paul began his career in the construction industry 27 years ago. A 1992 civil and structural engineering graduate from Leeds Metropolitan University, he spent many years working as a structural draughtsman and project engineer. An industry expert with hands-on field knowledge, he was one of the early adopters of 3D structural modeling. Paul subsequently transitioned to the software construction business where he has remained since.

With his excellent knowledge of enterprise, ERP, and BIM technology solutions, Paul has spent the last 19 years in the UK, Far East, USA and now the Middle East providing support, training, consulting and management thus enabling commercial engineering, offshore EPC companies, fabricators, and contractors to successfully adopt BIM. Paul is based in Dubai and leads as the Area Business Director for UAE and India operations


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