You might be surprised to learn that even today architects and engineers still use paper blueprints for viewing construction information on their projects. While the actual architectural drawings are made from some of the most advanced CAD software available today, viewing those drawings often still takes place on cumbersome, multi-page, 30"x 42" sheets of paper--the ones you see rolled up under the arm of a hard hat wearing engineer. Within the last few years these blueprints have been digitized, but they are merely digital representations of their paper cousins.
However, Todd Wynne and Joe Williams are two engineering entrepreneurs looking to revolutionize the industry by replacing the weighty paper blueprint with a much more flexible, accessible and portable digital form. They call it Project Atlas.
Wynne and Williams recently presented their prototype at a 2015 BIMForm based in San Diego and received a very enthusiastic reception from attendees. "The feedback was flattering to say the least. People were really excited about this idea," Wynne states.
So what is Project Atlas? "Basically it's a mapping engine for construction information," Wynne explains. "We've been called the Google Maps of construction." Like Google Maps, Project Atlas' user interface lets you zoom in and out on mobile devices to gain access to finer amounts of detail. The most important feature is that contextual information appears and disappears as users move in and out of specific areas. So you're only supplied with the information you need at that level of view.
For Wynne and Williams, a construction site is basically just a map itself, so developing Project Atlas in this manner seemed a natural fit. "Project Atlas is an attempt to tie all of the construction information of a project down to a location on a map," Wynne explains. "A blueprint is just a map of how to build a building. Normally the building is broken up to fit onto pieces of paper. But, we wanted to design Project Atlas to be more organic and intimate. If you're walking along a location on the site, why not navigate with a map and then receive direction on how to construct the building all in that same engine?"
Journey vs. search
Also similar to idea of a digital map, the accessibility of information in Project Atlas is much more akin to a journey. "I think more than anything it changes the way you access construction information," explains Williams. "Before, when you needed to look for something specific, whether in digital print or on physical paper, you kind of had to already know what page to look on. Project Atlas helps you discover what you need to know."
Therefore, supervising engineers can find a much more powerful tool that lets them not only access specific information quickly, but also utilize saved time to easily explore potential areas for problems before they occur.
From a practical perspective, Wynne and Williams also thought modeling Project Atlas off of Google Maps was the perfect way to ensure quick industry-wide adoption. "We've become so accustomed to accessing information with this type of interface in our own personal lives," Wynne explains. "We just wanted to give engineers and architects the same experience in their professional lives. What helps is that Google has already trained our entire industry on how to navigate for location based information in this way. It's something everyone already understands. It's intuitive."
What PDF viewers lack
PDF viewers do exist for architectural drawings already. However, like paper blueprints, these allow very limited views of construction sites. For example, one of the things Wynne and Williams want Project Atlas to do is provide a way of viewing multiple levels or disciplines of a blueprint at once, something very difficult to do when looking at paper formats and quite impractical with PDF viewers.
For one, it's still difficult to overlay sheets or view them side by side inside a PDF. "Even if you're looking at blueprints in a PDF viewer," Williams explains, "you have to flip back and forth between two drawings." However, one of the biggest challenges of traditional plan formats is the search for detailed building information within confusingly placed and sometimes almost hidden building details.
While it's possible to zoom into rooms within a PDF sheet, this only makes the actual drawing bigger. It doesn't really provide you with any more information. What you see is still what you get, now it's just bigger.
If an architect wants to show the finer details of a particular room, they'll normally re-draft another, larger version of the room with all of the pertinent details that weren't on the original floor plan. However, that's just another sheet to add to an already enormous document set.
"And if you don't know where that sheet lives in a 500 or 600 page document set," Williams explains, "it might take you a month to two to even find it. What we want Project Atlas to do is show you all of that contextual, detailed information when you zoom in."
Another key benefit of overlaying information is that an architect or engineer can view multiple disciplines (electrical, HVAC, structural, plumbing, etc.) all overlaid on top of one another. The advantage? Seeing when other disciplines conflict, like when plumbing falls outside of wall lines due to bad planning or design changes.
Combining and layering information makes it much easier to spot such problems before they happen, potentially saving time and money and avoiding rebuilds. Wynne explains:
"Initially, after loading real project information into our prototype, we discovered three specific instances where disciplines were conflicting with each other. We could see there were some things that had slipped through the cracks among the building's designers that revealed themselves immediately when you zoomed into that area and toggled on that different discipline. You could see that things weren't lining up. That allowed us to catch mistakes very early on compared to catching it out in the field when we're trying to put the material in place."
One of the other exciting aspects of Project Atlas is that it has the ability to let designers bring in other information systems and predictive analytics as overlays onto the map content. "We see this being scale-able to where we can start bringing in information that we've never been able to before," states Wynne. "It gets really exciting when you start doing actual data visualization on top of your project information."
Some of this new data, Williams predicts could come in the form of real time feedback information that could be used to create data maps that show specifically where projects were progressing and/or behind schedule. Such data could help supervisors spot trends, identify causes and predict future delays before they happen.
"The software would be comparing against other pieces of data and information such as the project's schedule," states Wynne. "It's starting to say, hey, this area is having a lot of issues, and we got a milestone coming up here, so therefore you need to take these proactive measures to succeed."
Wynne and Williams are just beginning to bring Project Atlas from the prototype phase to the actual production. They are currently looking for start up investments, which will help bring the Project Atlas project into full production.