human-centred design

How 3D printing, generative design and automation will revolutionise the built environment

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Advances in technology like 3D printing and generative design are helping reinvent building and construction for the 21st century.

Mention an industry that has been disrupted by technology, and manufacturing immediately springs to mind. For some, it’s a symbol of how innovations like robotics and machine learning are optimising processes and improving productivity.

But if you ask some in the construction industry, it’s a warning sign of things to come. According to Andy Cunningham, Regional Director at software solutions provider Autodesk, construction can be very tech averse. Thoughts of digitisation and automation play into two common fears about the rise of technology: one is the complexity involved; the second is job loss.

“People in construction and building tend to gravitate towards manufacturing as an example of what can happen,” said Cunningham.

The reality, he said, is that technology has the potential to solve some really big challenges in the industry.

“There’s a skills shortage in engineering, so the question becomes how can we implement technology to optimise our human capital, and in the process free up people to do more interesting work,” Cunningham said.

Pioneering technology

The overarching theme of the World Engineers Convention is sustainability, and making the built environment more sustainable can have a huge impact at the global level. At WEC, Matt Gough from Mace (a global construction and consultancy company and Autodesk customer) will feature as a keynote speaker, sharing more about the future of making and sustainability. He will focus specifically on how to address the housing crisis by creating capacity and scale, and reducing the impact on the environment at speed.

By 2050, the world’s population is projected to reach 10 billion people. In Australia, the current population of 25 million will grow to 41 million in that same timeframe, while the number of people dwelling in the country’s two largest cities, Sydney and Melbourne, will balloon to nearly 8 million each. That’s almost double the present day.

The challenge, said Cunningham, is not just to build more infrastructure to meet these future needs, but for the building industry to do more with less. Technology and the benefits it brings – data, reduced cost, increased productivity – will be crucial to achieving this.

“There are huge sustainability improvements to be had in construction: 30 per cent of construction material ends up as waste, and buildings consume 20 per cent of our water and 40 per cent of our energy. We can’t keep doing what we’re currently doing,” Cunningham said.

Developments like building information modelling (BIM), virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and 3D printing are game changing for building and construction, and each brings something different to the table.

Generative design can explore thousands of new forms and help engineers tap into their creative side.(Image: Autodesk)

BIM, which Autodesk is known for pioneering, is particularly useful when it comes to optimising designs to be more energy efficient.

“The ability to learn what works, what doesn’t, and to optimise operations based on what the data is telling you to make buildings more sustainable is a huge benefit,” Cunningham said.

Learnings on a building-by-building basis can then be extrapolated to the wider network, he added.

“What changes can then happen on the macro scale for a whole city? We can supersize these learnings from individual buildings to see what needs to change and work towards creating more smart cities,” Cunningham said.

Beyond sustainability, Cunningham said technology is enabling imagination and creativity in the engineering profession as well.

One promising development in this space is generative design, where the user sets constraints and a program produces numerous options based on the parameters.

Cunningham also sees huge potential for integrating 3D printing and other manufacturing methods into construction processes to bring them into the 21st century.

“People still think of 3D printing on a small scale, but it’s now moving into new forms, incorporating new materials like metals and aggregates,” Cunningham said.

“Modular construction is also having a huge impact, and it’s bringing down costs and construction waste, and increasing productivity.”

An Autodesk 3D printer at work. (Image: Autodesk)

He points to some recent examples of how these technologies are helping companies become more innovative, all while helping reduce their footprint.

One is Factory OS, a company based in the US that is using a modular factory method in home construction. According to the company, this method is 20 per cent cheaper and 40 per cent faster than traditional methods.

Another example is Van Wijnen, a construction firm based in the Netherlands. They use BIM software to identify clashes in designs to reduce sequencing changes on site. The firm is also combining BIM with generative design to create a unique spin on urban planning by setting predetermined goals like solar energy potential, backyard size and costs – and letting the software generate countless layout options.

A Van Wijnen design.

Building a community

If past experience is anything to go by, it’s hard to predict how this technology will evolve in the next five years, never mind the next 100. But if he had to guess, Cunningham said he expects to see these technologies create new improvements across the building and construction industry.

“Advancements in material handling will be really exciting, especially the use of 3D printing. We’ll see forms we’ve never seen before and better marriage of form and function,” he said.

However, there’s one thing Cunningham is sure off: it has to be a better, more sustainable world.

“The construction space is the big piece of the sustainability puzzle … We can’t afford to engineer in isolation. It’s imperative to consider how the surrounding community will be affected – we don’t just build a building, we build a community,” Cunningham said.

“There are big benefits when these concepts get translated into the real world.”

The future of engineering innovation and technology will be explored in detail at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.


How necessity inspires invention in the mind of engineer James Trevelyan

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Professor James Trevelyan opens up about the many inspired inventions that have characterised his vast career.

Pointing across his office to the small appliance projecting cool air, Professor James Trevelyan gives a working example of his engineering philosophy — that necessity is the mother of invention.

He said that good engineering enables people to do more and live more comfortably, and with greater certainty, less effort and less consumption of energy.

But it was a lack of good engineering — regular power outages on hot nights in his wife’s native Pakistan — that inspired that small, quietly humming air conditioning unit.

The Close Comfort air conditioner provides extremely energy-efficient cooling.

The invention, along with the rest of his body of work, won Trevelyan the Professions award in last year’s Western Australian of the Year Awards.

Trevelyan, an Engineers Australia Fellow and University of Western Australia School of Mechanical and Chemical Engineering Winthrop Professor, laughs as he recalled a night when it was 40°C indoors with 70 to 80 per cent humidity.

“We had a battery inverter that could generate about 300 W, so I was trying to think of something that would run on that amount of power,” he said.

The result was Close Comfort, a tiny portable air conditioner that creates a microclimate providing localised cooling.

Conventional air-conditioning technology focuses on cooling entire buildings, but Trevelyan said that wastes energy when it is actually just the people who require cooling.

“Close Comfort runs on 300 W, whereas a conventional air conditioner for a room of this size” — about 5 m x 5 m — “would require 2.5 kW or more, so it is incredibly energy efficient,” he said.

Close Comfort produces a near laminar stream of air and directs it to where cooling is needed, as opposed to creating a turbulent air flow that mixes up the air in a room.

Trevelyan said the machine also exploits human physiology, which dictates that if the face is being cooled then it will have a flow-on effect to the rest of the body.

Based in Perth, Trevelyan’s company, Close Comfort, is now marketing its namesake product in five countries, including developing countries like India and Pakistan.

Shear genius

Trevelyan also led the team that pioneered sheep-shearing robots for the wool industry between 1976 and 1989.

“At the time we realised we needed a different kind of education, because it didn’t make sense for engineers to learn how to write software on the job, or learn how to design electronics on the fly,” he said.

“So it was projects like the sheep-shearing robot and other similar projects around the world at the time which gave rise to the field of mechatronics.”

The team decided the traditional hand-shearing tool was the best way to cut wool and so set out to emulate expert shearers and recreate their skills in a machine.

The robot used a machine vision system to generate geometric models of the sheep’s surface, determining the arm trajectories and providing feed-forward information into the cutter motion-control system.

While the robot was not put into widespread use, the team found that the system provided a successful working example of sensor-based control, trajectory adaptation and online strategy planning.

In 1993, Trevelyan led a team of students to create “Australia’s Telerobot on the Web”, a six-axis industrial robot linked to the internet and one of the earliest demonstrations of the Internet of Things.


James Trevelyan’s pioneering sheep-shearing robot emulated expert shearers.

A thirst for more

Today, at 70, Trevelyan is not slowing down. He told create that life keeps on getting faster. He is turning his attention to providing clean drinking water in developing countries where water supply utilities are a “disaster”.

The main cost is not in filtration, he said, but in distributing safe water.

“I would like to create a water distribution system where people see value for money and will repay the cost of the service,” he said.

“We need a deeper understanding of people’s behaviour and value perceptions around our engineering work, and that has to be as much a part of an engineer’s knowledge as any technical discipline.

“It’s not rocket science, yet holds immense potential for Australian firms.”  

Making it count

Some of Professor James Trevelyan’s later research has examined how engineers create commercial value from their work.

“A lot of the engineers I interviewed often said they spent their time looking at spreadsheets or signing off on design specification documents and that they don’t get to do any ‘real engineering’,” he told create.

“My goal is to say to engineers who think they are not doing anything fancy that they actually are creating immense value by enabling investors to invest big money by reducing the apparent risks or protecting social and economic value already invested.”

James Trevelyan will be speaking on the topic of achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals at the World Engineers Convention 2019, 20-22 November in Melbourne. 

Register now.