ENR Top 500 Design Firms Invest in Technology to Do More – Engineering News-Record

KCI Technologies (No. 48) is providing construction management and inspection services on the replacement of the Governor Harry W. Nice Memorial/Senator Thomas ‘Mac’ Middleton Bridge over the Potomac River between Maryland and Virginia.
Photo by Lee Anne Janney, courtesy of KCI Technologies.
Money from the $1.2-trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act has yet to reach most state agencies, but ENR Top 500 Design Firms report being busy with value engineering projects up to the shovel-ready phase.
Overwhelmingly, firms say staffing is their No. 1 priority going into the COVID-19 pandemic’s third year, but revenue numbers show that firms are learning to do more with fewer hands on deck—at least for now.
Keeping revenue strong among firms in the Top 25 are large companies that win big projects requiring increased capacity to meet speed-to-market demands, such as building manufacturing facilities for semiconductors and electric vehicle batteries.
Faced with rising inflation costs, firms are finding that they need greater capacity to meet demands for compressed delivery of design packages and construction schedules to avoid potential cost increases.
“The name of the game is building a strong AEC team committed to serving clients to help them meet their goals,” says Kevin McNutt, director of engineering at BSA LifeStructures. A team must be “open and flexible to the unexpected along the way,” he adds.
How firms go about creating these teams seems to be as diverse as the firms themselves.
As part of scaling up the breadth of its design services, Jacobs says the company is thinking far “beyond traditional scope, schedule and budget” to meet demands of the market and changing client needs. The firm has held the No. 1 position on the Top 500 list since 2018.
On March 3, Jacobs announced the creation of a new data solutions accelerator that will integrate cloud, cyber and data-management technologies for clients across all of its design markets.
“This move recognizes the significant progress we’ve made,” says Steve Arnette, president of its Critical Mission Solutions unit. “More than that, it acknowledges the importance of embracing disruption and innovation to drive solutions horizontally across the company and create value for our clients.”
For Burns & McDonnell, moving company operations to cloud-based platforms has allowed for better resilience, availability, cost management and security, says Chairman and CEO Ray Kowalik. “Our clients continue to move toward more integrated delivery models,” he says. “They are increasingly wanting one entity to handle their project safely, on schedule and on budget,” he says, which makes protection of client data even more paramount.
“Cloud computing has been an area of explosive growth, and we are working with the biggest names in tech to develop data centers around the world,” Kowalik says. “Our data center, architecture, engineering and construction teams have grown significantly to meet these needs.”
To help the firm better calculate operational and financial risks long before shovels hit the dirt, Kiewit Corp. has also rolled out major investments in data technology, says vice president and operations controller Dave Freeman.
“We’ve placed greater emphasis on capturing the right data to drive better analysis and operational improvements,” he says.
In addition to changes to the company’s overall data management processes and structure, Kiewit has added data stewards for “monitoring data use to ensure accountability,” Freeman points out. “There is a positive shift in the company to ensure that data of all types is treated as a core, crucial asset to better estimate our work at the right price, build work at the lowest cost, and manage our people and assets,” he adds.
In the last several years, Hargrove Engineers + Constructors has made what it says are significant investments in its in-house laser-scanning team, with numerous technologies, including drones, laser scanners, ground-penetrating radar and electromagnetic detection systems. Team members receive Federal Aviation Administration certification to operate drones.
“This equipment can maximize the data collected and minimize the number of trips to client facilities,” says President and CEO Ralph A. Hargrove. “This team is also able to incorporate [virtual reality] elements to our client-facing materials in the design phases of a project, making communication clearer and more precise.”
Additionally, he finds more clients are expecting digital-twin technology and process modeling packaged as value-added services. “Examples of services offered include equipment analysis and troubleshooting, optimizing real-time process controls, and predictive maintenance,” says Hargrove. “Expected client benefits include increased throughput and quality, lower operating costs and increased equipment uptime.”
Barr Engineering says the company is continually learning by experimenting with technology applications, including integrating 3D scan data with simulation and augmented reality. The firm recently acquired an augmented reality platform that allows it to view and interact with GIS and 3D designs overlayed on real-world data and imagery.
“We’ve been piloting the platform for the past few months and will be using it for an upcoming client project,” says Ward Swanson, president and CEO.
In the areas of AI and data science, the firm is developing what it refers to as a “data science pipeline” to streamline its ability to perform advanced analysis on project data. “We’ve seen a large increase in the size of data we are collecting, recently moving from billions of records to a project requiring us to collect over a trillion records during the lifetime of the project,” says Swanson, explaining that he foresees projects evolving to “require a deeper understanding of what normally occurs through typical data analysis and visualization.”

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Emell Derra Adolphus has more than a decade of writing and journalism experience. He is senior editor of ENR’s Top Lists and Survey Rankings at ENR magazine and frequently contributes stories on technology, climate resiliency, diversity, equity and inclusion.

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