Embracing the potential of computational design – with Louise Wotton

What lies at the intersection of architecture, digital technologies and design?

The answer is computational design – which according to Louise Wotton (Regional Computational Design Lead at Aurecon) offers huge opportunities for the engineering and consulting sector.  

Louise spoke to us about her journey into the field, how she helps her team bring automation to their everyday tasks and how computational design can introduce innovation and deliver higher quality projects, faster. 

Louise Wotton

Tell us a little more about computational design, and how you found your way into it?   

Computational design (or CoDe) is about process automation and design optimisation. In practice, that means taking a task that is traditionally undertaken by engineers, and looking for opportunities to reduce rework and the time taken to execute that task.

For example, on Te Ahu a Turanga: Manawatū-Tararua Highway, we developed a series of workflows that were able to model data-driven 3D bridges. This enabled us to respond quickly to design changes through re-generating 3D models to send to our design team.  

If it’s a task our engineers do often, we might develop a small piece of software or plug-in for their use, putting the automation in their hands while making it faster and user-friendly.  

Like many CoDe practitioners, I come from an architecture background. CoDe really evolved out of architecture as it’s invaluable in designing and fabricating complex, one-of-a-kind architectural projects. I had always been interested in digital technology, and was able to learn more through the electives offered at university, like digital fabrication, robotics, 3D printing and generative design.   

One of my tutors was Aurecon’s first New Zealand-based computational designer. I was fortunate to secure a research scholarship in partnership with Aurecon before my final year of university and worked here part-time while doing my thesis. During my thesis I used a lot of the software that I use now in my day-to-day role, and once that was complete, it just seemed natural to join Aurecon full-time. 

What does a typical workday look like for you?  

CoDe sits within Aurecon New Zealand’s centralised digital engineering team, so my team and I work with digital leads across our service groups – transport, land and water, energy and industrial, and buildings to provide support and advice. We’ve recently grown our CoDe team, so some of my time is spent teaching our new team members how computational design works at Aurecon and helping them get their head around our engineering projects.  

A key part of my role is also about building our digital capability within Aurecon, so that means spending time with people across New Zealand to help them learn to use the tools we have built, and to identify opportunities to bring automation to their everyday tasks. This means helping our teams understand how CoDe techniques can introduce innovation. 

I’m also working on several projects with our rail team, largely on analysing rail tunnels to ensure there’s sufficient clearance for newer and more trains. As a team, we’re building an exciting tool to automate analysis and the design of rail.

Computational design could be understood as a relatively broad term – how does it apply more specifically to the engineering and consulting sector? 

Aurecon has a model-first approach to delivering projects, and this is something CoDe can really assist with. Model-first refers to the process of embedding data into 3D models to enable that data to be leveraged for further opportunities such as visualisation, machine control, or development of digital twins.  

Building complex geometry models for an industrial system or bridge for example can take a long-time using 3D model software, so there’s a lot of opportunity to get to those highly detailed models quickly using automated modelling. CoDe can also help connect modelling tools. 

By automating tasks, CoDe can free up engineers’ time to focus on high-value work – innovation and problem solving. Almost everything engineers do will eventually lead to something being built, so there’s a role for computational designers on almost every project. 

What are the opportunities it offers in terms of project delivery?  

CoDe is really about increasing speed and efficiency – it allows us to deliver projects faster, and to a higher quality. For example, if we’re working on a bridge design, and we want to send it through a certain number of iterations, automated processes allow for more iterations, and therefore more time to get the design right, without impacting the delivery time. So timing is a big thing.  

Through building highly detailed models, eventually we will be able to submit models to clients, contractors or stakeholders for construction or consent instead of traditional design documentation.  

What do you think are the biggest challenges when it comes to adopting a more digitally led approach to project delivery?   

I think there’s a significant variation in digital maturity across the industry, and there can be untapped potential on these big projects if stakeholders are at very different levels of their digital journey.   

Another thing is that it takes time to learn new software, and automated systems are no different. Sometimes it can be challenging for people to make time for new technology around the demands of their role. 

What are the biggest opportunities for digital and geospatial professionals given the way project delivery is changing?  

There’s been a huge digital revolution across the industry and many of our clients, such as KiwiRail and Waka Kotahi, are developing digital engineering frameworks and starting to expect digitally delivered projects – so the opportunity is really about responding to their needs.  

And the technology is moving so quickly. A significant amount of my time is spent upskilling just to keep up with technology and ensuring that learning is shared across our digital engineering and project teams. There are huge opportunities out there as the tech just continues to evolve. 

We also see opportunities in developing our own software. If we identify an automated process that has been applied successfully on a few projects, we’ll turn it into a product that our delivery teams can use.  

You’re also the global lead for Aurecon’s emerging professionals network Limelight, can you tell us more about that?  

Limelight is Aurecon’s international network for emerging professionals. I was Chair of our Wellington Limelight Committee, and then was selected to be Aurecon’s Group Chair in June 2021, which was really exciting. I work with regional committees across Aurecon in New Zealand, Australia and Asia to create an engaging and welcoming environment for young people joining the business (career development), run social events and deliver what we call the ‘Emerging Professional Experience’ (what sets Aurecon apart, how it operates and what opportunities are available for young professionals).  

A key event on our calendar is Limelight Week which we hosted in August, and included a range of events, such as an innovation challenge using our Aurecon design to innovate toolkit and a panel discussion with Aurecon’s CEO Bill Cox, Chief Operating Officer Louise Adams and other business leaders.  

Being Group Chair has been such an amazing opportunity for me, I’ve learnt so much about Aurecon, our business, and the opportunities within a company this size. I am part of Aurecon’s L50 (50 senior business leaders) which is a fantastic development opportunity for me, and really shows how much the organisation values emerging talent. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?  

Something that really surprised me about Aurecon (and my architecture friends) is that we do so many other things aside from engineering. There is often a perception that we are just an engineering consultancy. Digital is an important and growing part of what we do in every market, and it is exciting to see that evolve and develop.

Connect with Louise on LinkedIn 

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