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2021 Tech Trends—CAD/3D Industry Executives Share Thoughts

2021 Tech Trends explores impacts and accelerations of both CAD/3D and larger ICT trends, with key input from CAD and 3D industry executives.

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Trend 3: Real-Time Design

Our third trend for 2021 is also pandemic context-driven. When we can’t work and design side-by-side in the office, the need for real-time communication exists. So jumping from cloud-based connectivity and collaboration leads us to the need for real-time design.

Chris Ruffo of Lenovo adds, “The need for real-time collaboration has clearly accelerated the need for real-time design workflows. This has driven real-time rendering. When I talk to Ken at Epic Games, an old colleague, they are seeing the same thing. Both Unity and Epic have really exploded in terms of their ability to support the industry with real-time workflows. It’s not just about pretty pictures and changing colors anymore, it’s about real-time design.” Ruffo says Lenovo’s customers need to make real-time design workflows happen due to remoteness during the pandemic.



The need for real-time collaboration has clearly accelerated the need for real-time design workflows. This has driven real-time rendering.

Chris Ruffo, Architecture, Engineering, and Product Development, Lenovo



Part of the real-time-ness of design demand is leading to changes in BIM workflows for AEC. It is also leading to our next trend of industrialized construction. Chris Ruffo says that Lenovo sees the pandemic context accelerating existent trends like industrialized construction and digital twins. “Convergence of manufacturing and construction will continue because of fee recovery,” Ruffo says. “How do we build components more efficiently or in parallel off-site? And how do we assemble components on-site saving transportation costs?”

Ruffo notes that the term “fee recovery” is often used by construction firms to stand for not losing money due to construction delays, waste on construction sites, and tooling and equipment issues. While architects, designers, and engineers are trying to speed up the design processes that lead to approvals via real-time design and real-time rendering workflows, folks in the BIM industry are also trying to remove entire non-efficient ways of working—like the process of sharing BIM models and comparing them for clash detection.



Architects and structural engineers work on a shared model co-designing the load-bearing structures of buildings.




Huw Roberts of GRAPHISOFT says that his company will expand on its focus on Integrated Design, a technology set and process change that enables all project stakeholders to work together on BIM models using their respective best-of-breed industry tools yet avoid clashes in the first place. “Architects and structural engineers work on a shared model co-designing the load-bearing structures of buildings,” says Roberts. “Structural analysis partners within the Nemetschek Group and sister companies such as RISA, SCIA, and FRILO provide workflow integration.”

There is substantial pressure on AECO to find the productivity gains that have eluded the building industry for far too long. Real-time design—and near-real-time Integrated Design—will emerge more strongly in 2021 and onward as one of the ways productivity gains can be obtained. Real-time rendering will also be one of its centerpiece technologies.

Trend 4: Industrialized Construction

The convergence of manufacturing and building construction was already underway prior to the pandemic, but the pandemic context presented some interesting surprises on the construction side of things. Some have reported improved efficiency on the job site due to fewer people on the job site. Fewer people also means less contact and exposure. On the flip side, pandemic restriction rules and laws have shut down factory floors while allowing construction jobs site to operate at a limited compacity.

The pandemic as a crisis has forced all industries and their firms to think of ways to increase resilience within their industries. A McKinsey study for post-pandemic construction reminds its readers that there was a skilled labor shortage prior to the pandemic. In the current and post-pandemic context, where restrictions on cross-border movement of skilled labor, and where rolling physical-distance measures will remain on construction sites, industrialized construction trends are in more demand, not less.

2021 Tech Trends in AEC

Katerra aims to transform construction by vertically integrating traditionally disparate pieces of the design-build and operate AECO industry. Although the company is a posterchild for Industrial Construction, the company has struggled to make a profit after billions in venture capital. But total vertical integration isn’t the definition of “industrial construction.” Instead, industrialized construction leadership may constitute more subtle and gradual paradigm shifts in the industry.  (Image: Katerra)

One advantage of off-site construction is the improved management of movement and interaction of the workforce, in addition to quality and speed benefits. The other reason for industrialized construction is the need to add technology and digitization to create more innovative building systems.

MORE: Viewpoint: Saving the UK Construction Industry — the Signs of Recovery

I did not have a chance to speak to a person within the industrialized construction space. However, this McKinsey report from last May offers excellent observations that align with the other trends in this story. As noted above, the stagnant productivity in ECB (engineering, construction, and building materials) companies is one of the reasons why the ECB industries have been ripe for disruption. Think Katerra. However, Katerra’s approach may not be the right approach.

A word of caution about the above-cited report. It notes that economic activity could be back on track by early 2021 if the virus is contained within the next few months. It also suggested that economics would return to 2019 levels by 2023 at the earliest. This was May when the report was written. Interestingly, the CDC recommends that construction workers get vaccines after frontline essential workers. These guidelines were issued on 20 December 2020.

Trend 5: Virtual and Augmented Reality

In a recent conversation with the folks at Varjo, the makers of the world’s most advanced VR-XR headset, Urho Konttori, co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Varjo, shared with me a story about how one of their users, an automotive manufacturer, was using the latest VR-3 and XR-3 headset to work on and present designs between colleagues spread as far as Europe to India.

In one of our earliest feature articles on Varjo, they noted that pilots could travel less far (not to Boeing) to train on simulators that consisted of Varjo VR-XR headsets, saving time and money. Both of these cases, whether pilots for simulation or car designers collaborating, pandemic context travel restrictions, and common sense drive up adoption of VR, MR, and XR solutions.

2021 Tech Trends in CAD and 3D industries.

Varjo’s new XR-3 (left) and VR-3 (right) headsets offer industry-leading capabilities for simulation and design workflows. With LiDAR as a world-first in a VR/AR/MR headset. (Image: Varjo)

For the foreseeable future, business travel will remain somewhat constrained. How long mask-wearing will remain on flights is anyone’s guess. It could be years. With air travel becoming far less glamorous—and it was getting very glamorous again in its luxury sector—people will likely limit its use. Advancements in virtual, augmented and mixed-reality headsets will only accelerate their use as a substitute for “in-person” experiences. Immersive experiences will save money, time, and offer things that in-person experiences cannot.

Long-Arc Trends: COVID’s Impact

Let’s now overlay the above trend information with other broad and narrow ICT trends. There are interesting implications.

Trend A:  Faster Bandwidth: G5 and WiFi 6

Lenovo may feel that pairing up laptop users with powerful remote GPU servers is an answer, but what is going to help that process are two other long-arc trends coming to step-change improvements. Namely, cellular data moving to G5, which offers 100x speed advantages over G4, with speeds ranging from 100Mbps to nearly 792Mbps (on Verizon’s network), and the new WiFi 6 which ups speed as high as 3.5Gbps. These speeds far exceed the average home Internet bandwidth in the United States at 50Mbps, however.

Trend A will see acceleration due to Trends 1-5 above, particularly trends 2-3. Both new standards decrease latency which are key impacts on CAD and BIM systems syncing with master models and data sets. At the LAN level, architects on BIM teams could check-out and check-in their components of BIM models benefitting from low-latency Ethernet networkers operating at up to Gigabit (1,000Mbps) speeds. So for remote teams to work extremely well software systems must utilize “delta change” technology so they continuously stream small changes through the Internet and out to other teammates.



It’s just unbelievable for us that companies still need an IT department maintaining and installing CAD systems.  

Istvan Csanady, CEO, Shapr3D



G5 is going to benefit IoT and edge device networking equipment. And WiFi 6 and G5 will help advanced Edge AI—bringing artificial intelligence out to the edge where industrial machine learning intelligence solutions will continuously monitor, diagnose, and forecast a machine’s lifecycle. A continuation of remote work arrangements is timing with the emergence of both WiFi 6 and G5, perfectly timed and needed.

Trend B: AI/ML in Construction & Operations

Artificial intelligence and machine learning will continue in AEC subsectors like construction and in architecture. This year we saw one of the biggest acquisitions in the AI in architecture space with Autodesk’s buy of Industrialized construction (Trend 4 above) may factor in accelerating AI and machine learning in construction in the year ahead. We already know that G5 and WiFi 6 are accelerating Edge AI and part of that space is IoT devices on factory floors and inside infrastructure. Octonion, a company bringing AI to the edge, has applications for Smart Industry, Smart Home, and Smart City. Its industrial sectors include industrial power and tools, energy supply systems, industrial motor controls, industrial drives, and a lot more—all bearing on AECO from construction through operations.

Trend C: The Chip Wars

A new trend has emerged in the past year and it involves Apple’s competition in chips with Intel and AMD. This trend has been visible in the lead-up to this moment for years. Apple’s ARM-based A-series processors in its mobile devices have been on a steeper improvement curve than x86 processors. Shapr3D CEO Istvan Csanady believes this is an inflection point in computing and sees Apple’s new M1 processor as the beginning of a kind of revolution.

Apple isn’t the only company ramping up to take advantage of ARM-architecture processors and their energy-efficient advantages over Intel’s x86. Nvidia recently acquired ARM from Softbank and Qualcomm and others (including Intel) may eventually produce new ARM-based chips for the general Windows PC market.

2021 Tech Trends

An image of Shapr3D’s award-winning CAD application for iPad Pro shown here running on an Apple Silicon Mac. Csanady is very bullish on Apple’s chip development and sees Apple becoming a major disruptive force with computers of all kinds in the next few years. (Image: Shapr3D)

The impact on the CAD and 3D industries could be dramatic because the disruption Apple is set to make on the industry will be dramatic. Also dramatic will be the software disruption, as both rival platforms switch over to proprietary low-overhead graphics APIs for most apps on those systems. The world of CAD and 3D apps will migrate away from OpenGL to Microsoft and Apple’s graphics APIs or possibly Vulkan.

But the larger point is computers will change. “It’s also clear that customers want to access their CAD system and data even from their personal devices,” adds Istvan Csanady, “and they demand a great experience.” Csanady’s award-winning Shapr3D for iPad Pro is not just coming to the Mac (in available beta now) but also to Windows in the near future. If Apple does to the computer what it has done to smartphones and tablets—making them vastly easier systems to manage and use—the expectations for use of software may change. “It’s just unbelievable for us that companies still need an IT department maintaining and installing CAD systems,” he adds. “Shapr3D is a company that is working extremely hard to take the CAD industry to the 21st century and to provide the best design experience in the world.” What would help to provide that level of disruption would be the kind of disruption Apple may introduce in its future Macs.

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Each issue arrives in your inbox on the first Sunday of the month. Issue #1 arrived on March 3, 2019. Full archives and easy navigation for your pleasure. Enjoy! 

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