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Artificial Intelligence and Digitization at Forefront of MEP Innovation Conference

Apr 12, 2022

U.S. Engineering

Early this year, our team attended the 2022 MEP Innovation Conference in Tampa, Florida. The three-day event was designed to improve productivity and profitability for MEP contractors. Each session offered industry-related information on new tools, software, technology and processes.

We interviewed Ryan Reed, Senior Technology Manager, U.S. Engineering Company Holdings; Hannah Thomazin, Project Controls Coordinator, U.S. Engineering Construction; Charles Miller, Regional Manager of Virtual Construction, U.S. Engineering Construction; and Lauren Wilson, Preconstruction Engineer, U.S. Engineering Construction. We asked each person to share their takeaways from the conference, along with emerging trends they heard about in conference sessions. Artificial Intelligence (AI), process improvements, and digitization were front and center. Read about their thoughts on these and other topics below.

What were your primary takeaways from the conference?

Hannah: Before you can begin innovating, you have to know where you’re at. My biggest takeaway was learning that we should start documenting our current processes. With that data, we can identify “workarounds” that are realistic and find opportunities for innovative improvements.

Ryan: One of my primary takeaways is how impressed I continue to be with U.S. Engineering’s leadership and foresight to re-invest in our people. I felt like many of the topics presented as “Innovative” are things that we’ve tried. In many cases, we’ve gone a step beyond what was presented.

Charles: To echo Ryan, it was very clear that we are on the leading edge of mechanical contractors. Many of the innovations presented are strategies we are currently implementing and refining.

Lauren: For me, the conference was very beneficial. It helped me gain a greater understanding of where the industry is headed in its digital transformation, and I got a greater sense of where U.S. Engineering fits into that picture. Essentially, the industry is evolving rapidly in almost every dimension of our businesses. However, every company has chosen different aspects to focus on first. It was encouraging to realize that we are focusing on more than just one or two of our main workflows, which puts us a little further down the road.

What kinds of industry trends or recurring themes did you identify while you were there?

Hannah: The integration of AI is the next big thing. One of the showcases I attended focused on the Spot robot dog from Boston Dynamics. They’ve teamed with Trimble to utilize Spot in construction environments to navigate dangerous terrain and automate routine inspections. It was interesting to see how they applied this technology to our profession.

Ryan: One theme that was consistent throughout the conference is an investment in your people. A strength of the top-performing organizations was collecting feedback and creating action plans outlining how to improve. Performing more pulse surveys and collecting viewpoints from the entire company greatly improved productivity, happiness and ultimately profitability. After listening to these ideas, our teams will be considering new ways of gathering feedback to help organize and plan innovative initiatives at any scale.

Charles: Paperless jobsites and fab shops seem to be the new industry standard. Many of the top tier contractors are using construction management software like Procore and Stratus to make this possible.

Lauren: There were several points that came up throughout the conference in relation to implementing new technologies in your company. First, they suggested working in waves and integrating new processes at the start of projects rather than disrupting the flow of those in progress. This approach leads to a more comfortable transition. Secondly, they said standardizing tools across all teams and building consensus on how information should flow has a tremendous impact on efficiency and communication. Finally, the most important aspect of any of these new technologies, tools, processes, etc., is keeping your team up to date, involved in the change and informed of what is happening and what is to come.

Did you hear anything new, or were speakers diving into known, but relevant topics? Why do you think that is?

Hannah: I found that many organizations were just beginning to focus on integrating KPIs and impact metrics into their leadership reports and workflows. Quantifying impacts and success (e.g. using the ‘X-Y-Z Formula’ on my resume to get a job or thinking about a new tool and asking, ‘How many people are utilizing this tool in beta vs 6 months after production?’) is something I learned in college. Our firm’s project controls team has been actively working on this for at least a year. I think this is already a common practice in the tech industry where more young grads flock after graduation.

Lauren: One major topic that came up often was workpacks. It was clear that workpacks have become the industry standard, though everyone’s methods vary slightly. I think the focus here was important, because it seems as if most people are experiencing growing pains, whether it is with their technology, field logistics, or understanding the financial impacts of workpacks on their projects.

Another new interesting topic was the various applications of AI and machine learning. Seeing how it can be applied to many different construction workflows, both in the office and in the field, was fascinating. Several new technology companies are basing their entire service on a single advanced model, while others are making their addition optional based on the data their service provides (such as Salesforce and Microsoft). This appears to be at the focus of future, technologically-based process advancements in our industry.

Which presentation offered something unexpected? What was it?

Ryan: When I first reviewed the schedule before attending the conference, I was excited that they had a session on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB). Listening to Lt. Gen. Ronald Bailey speak on the topic was an honor. He was the first African American to command 25,000 marines and sailors in the First Marine Division and received many high honors during his 40 years of service. It was interesting to learn how focusing on DEIB allows companies to bring ideas together with people from different backgrounds and create a high-performing, innovative company culture.             

Charles: I was surprised to hear about the power of AI software programs related to the construction industry. When I think of construction, AI is one of the last things I would consider to be relevant, but it could become an industry standard tool in the near future.

Lauren: One presenter mentioned that COVID has sped up the digitization of the industry to 5 years, as opposed to the 10-15 years which was previously expected. After hearing about all of the new tools that are now available, it definitely seems likely. In fact, it feels like a race to see how quickly we can solidify our foundation, so we can leverage all new opportunities.

After attending, are there any new strategies or tools you’re planning to implement? If so, what are they and why do you think they’ll be valuable?

Ryan: While machine learning and AI are industry buzzwords, there are companies who are starting to forge new ground in this space. Businesses are using images taken out on the job site and automatically identifying unsafe working conditions. Others are parsing construction contract documents for important keywords that might be important to flag. These technologies are going to become more and more prevalent in our industry, as they can take massive amounts of disparate data and help us make real-time business decisions.

Lauren: Our team came back with several new action items. One that I’m the most excited about is creating a monthly article focusing on the most relevant technological innovations both internally and externally, so our team members are informed of all the cool things that are happening around us. We are also putting a lot of effort over the next few months into mapping out our processes as best we can, so we can solidify how we work now and provide a road map for optimization as we move forward.

Header image from the MEP Innovation Conference website

Charles Miller

Regional Manager of Virtual Construction, U.S. Engineering Construction

Charles started his career at U.S. Engineering 10 years ago as a Sheet Metal Foreman. He was a part of the initial team that set up the Front Street manufacturing facility in Kansas City. He joined the Virtual Construction team as a Sheet Metal Detailer after seven years in the shop, and he now manages the VC team in U.S. Engineering Construction’s Midwest Region.

Ryan Reed

Senior Technology Manager, U.S. Engineering Company Holdings

Ryan creates technology-driven solutions for operational teams and has been with U.S. Engineering for close to 10 years. He has a passion for bringing concepts to reality through the process of collaboration across high-performing teams.

Hannah Thomazin

Project Controls Coordinator, U.S. Engineering Construction

Hannah works with a variety of project teams across the organization on workflow improvement processes, business intelligence analytics, and schedules. She joined U.S. Engineering in 2020 and holds a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Benedictine College.

Lauren Wilson

Preconstruction Engineer, U.S. Engineering Construction

Lauren joined U.S. Engineering in 2018. Her focus is on the development of user-driven tools, analytics, and trainings to improve company-wide processes and team collaboration. She studied Mechanical Engineering and Computer Science at the Colorado School of Mines and is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Computational Data Analytics at Georgia Tech.

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