Atkins CDO Richard Cross discusses using AI and a new way of dealing with Oracle, IBM

Atkins' chief digital officer (CDO) Richard Cross believes artificial intelligence (AI) will play a big part in the engineering industry in the years to come.

In an interview with IT Pro, Cross explains that AI fits into one of the three main sections of Atkins' digital strategy, which he presented to the company's shareholders at the end of last year.

"It was important [to share the strategy] as we're beginning to position digital as part of our key business strategy going forward. For me it's about getting IT from our back office and make it much more central to the future of our organisation to drive revenue and profit for the whole company," he says.

The first part of the strategy is an area which Cross has been looking to implement into the organisation for a number of years: digital technologies.

"This is about embracing everything from cloud, everything-as-a-service, consumer devices, big data, social media, and so on," he says.

It is also the one section he suggests is relevant to his responsibilities as a CIO. He has continued with the CIO responsibilities since his promotion to CDO in April 2015.

Some of the technologies the company has chosen to implement include Microsoft Office 365, Riverbed's SD-WAN product SteelConnect, and a trial of a new Autodesk CAD 3D modelling product.

According to Cross, the two other sections of the strategy relate more specifically to his role as a CDO. One of these parts is to encourage the company to work in more of a lean, start-up way.

"We're looking at using techniques that would enable us to work at pace. It's about experimentation, learning fast, creating new products and working closely with the end users of your product," he states.

Lastly, the company has been focused on what digital is going to do for the engineering and design industry as a whole. This is more focused on emerging technology and processes such as automation, data-driven decision making and AI.

An artificial intelligence designer

Cross explains that Atkins has already started to look at how AI and machine learning can be used in the designing phase of work. It is taking learning algorithms that can read and understand 3D drawings and feeding it with designs.

With this information, the algorithm will be able to recognise all of the doors in the design, interpret what kind of door is there, how big it is and whether it comes with hinges or handles.

That's the machine learning part of the equation, but Cross suggests that the technology could go a step further.

"If you feed enough of this into the engine, it can start to work out and suggest designs; so a typical room such as this would have x amount of doors made up of these materials,' for example".

And further yet, Cross suggests that "the AI could start doing some of the design work itself".

Cross and his team have also been working on putting together models of different scenarios at an early stage of the design process. This would incorporate information about potential materials, their availability, and their costs. By combining this with the AI element, Cross believes designers will be able to know how much a similar building or part of a building actually costed, how much of the material was actually used, and feed that information back into the design process.

A strategic shift from supplier to partner

Atkins is a big customer of both Oracle, which provides it with HR and finance systems, and IBM. Cross explains that recently Atkins has taken a new approach to working with these vendors.

"We're starting to work with them and put together propositions that we can take to market together using our particular knowledge in our industry around construction management," he says.

"We've had some interesting conversations with Oracle and we're seeing a difference in the relationship because we're shifting from being a customer to being a partner," he adds.

Cross acknowledges that this isn't what many CIOs are likely to be doing, but he says given the broader responsibilities he has as CDO, he is interested in partnering with some of these suppliers and reinforcing Atkins' commitment to them by going to market together.

So does that help with many of the issues that customers constantly complain about such as licensing?

"I think it has helped; you move from just being a customer which is still important, but to a customer and strategic partner," he states.

"We've found that quite valuable and in some ways the ideal model because as a customer we want to be an ideal reference site for them when we go to sell things together. If you can blend those things together it does have an impact on the relationship," he adds.