The Thornton Tomasetti Innovation Machine- An Interview with Rob Otani

The Thornton Tomasetti Innovation Machine

We announced earlier that Thornton Tomasetti chose The Combine as their partner to take their most interesting internal innovations to market. We have since launched the first of those concepts – Konstru – and will be announcing several more later this year. The group within Thornton-Tomasetti that brings those ideas to the forefront is called CORE Studio. Rob Otani leads CORE Studio, and recently he sat down with us for a discussion about how CORE Studio came to be, and how the organization actively pulls great ideas out of the engineers at Thornton Tomasetti.

How did the CORE studio organization get started?

We first got a taste of it at a Facebook hackathon. We decided to go, build some stuff and solve some problems if we could. Then we decided to host our own hackathon, and invited the AEC community that we were involved with at Thornton Tomasetti. Our goal used to be to just have some really high end discussions about the marketplace. What fell out of that exercise out was some incredible ideas…stuff that just didn’t exist.

At a subsequent Hackathon, we had generally same goal, but we took less time to organize. Now, as we do regular hackathons, we have one goal: learn. Everyone who attends these events shows off their coolest stuff. So we now have a baseline to compare and ask, “Is our stuff cool?”

What was the first problem you tried to solve at CORE?

In beginning, it was industry problem and a company problem: our engineers were not able to respond to our client architects’ needs early on in the design process. We worked with Grasshopper, which is really powerful, and saw what we could do. So we said, “let’s connect this to our models to get super fast feedback.”

What does it mean to “do some really innovative stuff”?

Changing the process of AEC workflows. TTX (now Konstru) is a good example of solving two massive problems in the AEC workflow area.

  1. Nobody had been able to solve interoperability among BIM tools. That was the core problem. The pain was time. To go from an analysis software platform to a BIM model software and vise versa, you had to do it manually – from a sheet of paper manually inputting the data from one software into the next. TTx (Konstru) enabled the automation of BIM data transfer. The process went from a week down to 2 minutes. No more manual data entry and fat fingering numbers.
  2. Engineers tend to make changes manually to their models, so it breaks the iterative nature of the design process. We needed a way to go back to a previous version or back to drawing board. We couldn’t do BIM model version control with any existing software. It was always a one way push; we couldn’t pull anything back to a previous version. The farther you get from early design stages (e.g., paper), the more tools you require, and each additional tool slows down the process that much more. Konstru saves every update as a new version, making it incredibly simple to look at, compare, or revert to any previous version of any model.

How did TTx/Konstru Get Pushed through the Innovation Process?

The Combine’s diligence process brought Konstru to the top. This question had to be answered: “is the product unique and useful enough that you are head & shoulders above the competition?” We took four ideas to the Combine, and Konstru was the only one that made it through that process.

Now, what is CORE studio looking at for new innovation?

Automation is the future. Not just process, but analysis automation. Konstru automates the workflow process. We believe, eventually, the software should be able to design the building.

After our conversation with Rob, we made a few notes on certain elements that can, and should help any enterprise in their desire to create an innovation culture.

  • The Big Company Advantage: Larger brands have a distinct market advantage here, in that a large brand has a large audience to call on to attend such an event. The playing field for solving more, bigger, more interesting problems is already a large field.
  • Freedom as part of the culture: Small R&D projects must be encouraged.  When someone has an idea to solve a real problem (inside or outside the company walls), create a tool, hack to see people’s reactions to the solution. If people like it, continue. Take risks, chances, to make stuff that would never otherwise get created.