Diapers, Beer & BIM

The AEC industry is at a critical juncture in history. BIM, cloud computing, and the growing sophistication of building products have created the perfect environment for a new era in AEC history. Autodesk calls this "The Era of Connection," a disruptive time when design, construction, and operational processes will be radically changed. For most, this will upend their business. For us, this is an exciting time in which we are helping our clients adapt and lead.

There is a parable from the business intelligence industry that provides a parallel for the AEC industry in 2016. This parable is about two very familiar consumer products: diapers and beer.

Here it goes:

In the early 1990s, a grocery store chain in the Midwest accumulated 1.2 million transaction records of customers checking out at their stores. Each of these records represented a "basket" of purchases, or the total of one customer's purchases made at the cashier. Imagine 1.2 million shopping carts, filled with groceries.

The accumulation of these transaction records was made possible by advances in point-of-sale systems, bar codes, and databases. Given these new tech advances, what is a grocery store chain to do with all this data?

Hire a consultant.

Enter Teradata, managed by Thom Blischok. In database operations, a "query" is a question that you ask of a set of data. Thom's team had a different approach. They didn't ask questions of the data. Instead, they looked for correlations in the data. They agnostically looked for periods when high-profit items were correlated into "baskets." The key distinction here is that they didn't ask questions – they correlated the unknown.

What did they find?

Diapers and beer. On Friday nights between 5:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m., profits spiked when the two product types were purchased together. Diapers were positively correlated to beer sales. The consumer behavior driving this phenomenon is related to the end users of diapers. If you are buying diapers, you have a kid at home. If you have a kid at home, you're probably not able to go to a bar and drink beer. You are driven to a consumer choice – buy some beer – to replace this behavior. This is all succinctly summarized by the grand understatement: "Offspring acquisition is a known carousing inhibitor."

Given this new insight, the grocery store chain could have placed the beer closer to the diapers to encourage inhibited carousers. This technique did not occur at this grocery store chain, but absolutely continues to occur with other product types.

The odds are better than average that you have a firm understanding, if not an emotional connection, to either diapers or beer (or both). The odds are very low that you have a similar connection to nascent concepts like "generative design." The purpose of telling this parable is not to point out the significant contributions to mankind that both diapers and beer have made, but to compare them to growing AEC trends. The purpose is related to connection. The parable of diapers and beer is used as an easily understood example of "data mining," where correlations are explored rather than data queried. It's a parable, because some of the facts are a little fuzzy and it's meant to be instructive.

So, how is this related to AEC?

Generative design is the use of computational tools to create designs and design models. At BuildingSP, we use generative design to create MEP layouts programmatically in 3D, without clashes, and in ways that mimic how we manually route systems. We generate lots of solutions for building infrastructure layouts by applying machine learning to the parameters that drive our algorithms. These sets of solutions can then be compared, scored, and evaluated.

Generative design creates the opportunity to apply data mining to BIM – both to new sets of designs and existing models. We've already gained insight from the application of generative design to our clients' MEP systems. The issue is that optimal solutions are reached by applying industry knowledge to unique circumstances and parameters. We hope to soon find our "diapers and beer" moment and make correlations, enabled by technology.