Norman Disney & Young’s (NDY) IT director, Frank Italia, has witnessed some incredible digital transformation in the property sector, leading the firm through generations of new design technologies, right into the groundbreaking building information modelling (BIM) techniques.
Starting his career in 1981, Italia was originally a fire protection designer, planning gas and fire suppression systems. It took three years before he was first exposed to computers, when working on design calculations for fire protection systems to be used in some of Australia’s first data centres.
“These data centres took one or two complete floors in commercial buildings and were privately owned,” he tells me.
“[My calculations] were done by connecting a 1200 baud modem and acoustic coupler to the computer to the United States. The calculation was performed on what would have been the equivalent of a super computer at that end. Those were the days!”
From there, Italia recognised a growing demand for work in IT, joining property design and engineering firm NDY in 1986 as senior fire protection designer. During his time in this role, he assisted with several landmark projects in Victoria during the then-property boom.
As NDY made the multi-million dollar move away from drawing board design to computer-aided design (CAD), Italia gravitated into the IT space, picking up a postgrad in Internet technologies, while developing programs and administering support on the job. But this was only the beginning of his work helping to drive the success and innovation of the business.
There and back again
In 1992, Italia left NDY to take up a role with Siemens, working predominantly with the electrical contracting department. Here he performed various IT functions supporting the design, construction and asset management of major infrastructure projects in power generation and water distribution within Victoria.
“Siemens is a great company, it’s a big company, and they have a lot of strings on that bow, it was a good experience and I really enjoyed it.”
After three years in the role, Italia returned to NDY in 1995 after he was approached with a job offer that would eventually lead to his role as director of IT.
“It was around the early ’90s, and there was quite a deep recession in the property sector so things were a bit miserable. At the time, NDY was changing platforms and they called me and asked if I’d be interested in coming back,” he said.
“It sounded like an interesting project, swapping out a system I was familiar with, putting in a new Autodesk system I thought was the right answer at the time.
“That was my first project, which turned into managing that project, which evolved into implementing office automation systems and networks, and all kinds of things that we have today.”
Italia has now responsible for IT strategy and operations internationally at various management levels for six years, and is constantly looking to the horizon for the next big thing, fascinated by the continued and exponential rate of change.
“I still remember having just one computer at NDY for all our email. In the 20 years since, there have been phenomenal changes in computing and the expectations of IT.
“The continued focus on integrating technology at every level of our business has been interesting me for more than 20 years now, and I will be interested in it long after I retire,” he says.
Having been at NDY for so long, Italia has had the opportunity to be part of the consistent change in how the firm has adapted technology to deliver design documents in a way that exceeds industry expectation.
He has helped in a variety of major infrastructure projects including the New Children's Hospital in Perth, the Bendigo Hospital in Victoria, and the Sydney Westconnex tunnel.
“These three projects alone had more than $5 billion in project value and I am proud to be associated with them all.”
In his remit as IT director, Italia has also supported the geographical growth of NDY in Asia, North America, and just this week, Canada. He has overseen the implementation of NDY’s project ERP system - Deltek Vision, which took two years to roll out. The company is also in the final testing phases for a new document management and production support systems.
His main ongoing focus, however, has been the constant adoption of new and improved design capabilities of NDY workers who have gone from using design drawing boards, to 2D CAD documents, to 3D CAD models and then finally, BIM.
Italia is also very interested in how to apply emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR and augmented reality (AR) to the construction and design industry, as well how the Internet of Things (IoT) will influence the built environment.
“Dealing with the masses of data, changes in construction techniques, how clients will be increasingly want to interact with the built form they work in, or interact with – these are all exciting areas.”
NDY’s fairly lean IT team includes 12 workers, that are effective enough to allow himself and his operations team “the luxury of focusing on strategic issues”, such as future proofing the organisation, exploring the potential impacts of technological advancements, and position the company to take advantage of these.
“I sometimes have sleepless nights thinking, ‘do I know about everything I should be considering?’- but the things I do know about, and that I am considering, are quite exciting things.”
Building information modelling
Italia says without question, BIM will completely transform – and is already transforming – the construction and design industry.
“Just as databases have been a key foundational technology for the explosion of the Internet industry, BIM should be seen as a foundation for construction,” Italia says.
Four years ago, NDY made the choice in the earlier stages of BIM development that all projects should designed using BIM regardless of whether this was an actual requirement. This way the company would get the most of out of it, and give them a head start in using more progressive technologies.
“At times when there wasn’t a requirement for BIM, we did get some pushback internally, but now it’s nearly a requirement for all jobs,” he says.
The subsequent automation of many time consuming processes such as design checks and verifications meant designers have found BIM to be a far more efficient means of operating.
“Now we’re only dealing with what’s specifically wrong with a design as it tells us, not checking the whole design. We can now just check one room instead of 50 rooms, when 49 of them were fine. It’s been a great aid for the designers," he says.
Overall, the technology will allow designers to work through many more options, respond to changes faster, and more efficiently test solutions virtually, while also allowing clients to visualise projects before they are built.
The end goal of a full-blown property building simulation will also allow construction workers to practice building a project effectively before they even turn soil, as a means of increasing efficiency and safety.
Also exciting is the application of virtual and augmented reality, with BIM providing the relevant information in the context of the built environment.
“In order for all these technologies to be effective they will need access to massive amount of 2D and 3D geometry and related data. So some derivative of the BIM model will surely play a significant part in the future of these technologies.”
In summarising the prevalence of more sophisticated BIM applications, Italia prefers to quote some of his sci-fi favourites – “resistance is futile”.
Augmented reality in construction
AR will be very significant to infrastructure as a means of creating more efficient and safe construction, he says, who splits his reading time between biographical examples of digital transformation, and researching relevant AR applications.
“When I put on a pair of safety glasses at a construction site, which I have to wear anyway, the technology in those glasses could one day allow me to see which piece of equipment needs to be installed, provide instructions on how to install it, or what height ladder you might need, and so on.
“Once I can see things in the context of where I am, with all the data from the IoT sensors or BIM in that AR model, I can perhaps also locate hotspots in a room by seeing red clouds in on the design model,” he says.
Before major progress can be made, the industry needs accessible and user friendly AR hardware, which Italia predicts won’t be available for another couple of years. Then the main focus will be on gathering great and accurate datasets.
“Ultimately when the hardware and the software become better, then the focus becomes collecting information and correct data in a format that adds real value …the companies that can really master the collection of that data will have the best results.”
Though NDY doesn’t yet have AR headsets, NDY has been working to efficiently get all the data in and out of models so they can hit the ground running when that hardware arrives.
As more and more businesses start to find applications for AR and VR, Italia thinks the gaming sector will soon have a talent battle on its hands very soon.
“I’ve spent a lot of time researching the games industry, purely because they’ve solved a lot of the problems I’ve yet to solve, they just haven’t applied them to construction,” he says.
Keeping one step ahead
In addition to these developments, Italia is also busy getting NDY’s ducks in a row for new technologies that would have an impact on the property sector. This includes the likes of drones, 3D printing and manufacturing technologies, and internal positioning systems (IPS) for navigation and location services within buildings and around infrastructure.
What he’s most excited about is the advancements in cognitive sciences around artificial intelligence and machine learning, and how this will change how we operate and interact with computer technology.
The main challenge, however, is ensuring the organisation has the capability to take on the new systems and processes without disrupting the level of workflow automation needed to meet project deadlines, as the repercussions of missed deadlines in the industry can be great.
“Even if you pick the right technology and you have staff fully behind it, then you still need to gear up, train people, modify processes, and take clients and other stakeholders along for the ride, without risking project deliveries” he says.
“We need to leave enough time to fail gracefully, or revert back to traditional methods of doing things to get projects completed.”
How NDY staff respond to the changes is also crucial, and Italia's time with the company has not been short of concern around new technologies and processes.
“There’s been some fantastic debates over the years – they tell me ‘you can’t do that’ and I say ‘righto, leave it with me’. Then a week later, I show them how they can do it,” he says.
“Our work force is full of extremely competent engineers who love technology, so implementing new technologies that make sense to them isn't difficult. But working with so many people that are trained to be analytical is certainly a challenge.”
Italia says the true demonstration of his confidence in the company and the direction of technology was when the elder of his two sons began working for NDY as well, and he “didn’t talk him out of it”. Outside of work, he says his greatest accomplishment has been his happy family life.
“As corny as it sounds, being married for 27 years so far and continuing to raise our two boys continues be the accomplishment I value the most.”
In an effort to slow down and take short periods away from IT, he also dabbles in many hobbies including martial arts, archery and entertaining his “long suffering” friends and colleagues with his amateur magic tricks. He also loves the movies – “mainly action and sci-fi, because I love special effects and the technology used”.
It's his interest in learning new things that really ties him to technology and its infinite possibilities.
“I have no doubt at all that the change we have seen in technology in the last 20 years will pale into insignificance compared to the changes we will in the near future.
“As business leaders we need to ensure that we are well prepared.”
Follow Bonnie on Twitter: @Bonneth