Thursday, October 21, 2010

My thoughts on BIM (by Stevie McCafferty)

What is BIM?  The easy answer is BIM is an acronym that stands for Building Information Modelling – simple.  But how is this translated to the real world of building and construction?  What does this actually mean?

Here, in the UK, the body responsible for providing guidance on the best practice for construction production information (CPIC) has taken steps to develop a standardised definition for BIM.  The definition proposed as the starting point for discussion between UK industry parties is as follows:

“Building Information Modelling is digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility creating a shared knowledge resource for information about it forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life cycle, from earliest conception to demolition.”

Simple?  But again, how is this relevant to the everyday construction contractor engaged in projects that are, or may soon become borne out of the BIM process?

Some key phrases from the above definition

“Digital representation”

This comes as no surprise, living in a world of high-performance technology, wi-fi, 3DHDTV, smartphones and ipads.  Digital representation almost goes without saying.  Already, most contractors are operating in a digital environment, from estimating and programming projects through to the site-based functions of survey and setting out.  We are capable of handling and processing previously incomprehensible volumes of data in a routine manner.  Digital representation would be expected and necessary to allow us to execute the required levels of detail and performance in today’s construction environments.

“Physical and functional characteristics”

The concept and practice of representing buildings and components in a tangible 3-dimensional form has been around for some time, with 3D design programs arriving some twenty or so years ago in the construction industry.  These have obviously progressed and improved with time, incorporating the latest and best parts of visualisation technologies available.  What becomes suddenly interesting, is the merging of design and function in BIM.  Now we are talking about a platform to consider the whole life of a built project – function.  Maintenance, health and safety, monitoring, energy processes, efficiency, and ultimately analysis of effective usefulness can all be incorporated or extracted from the BIM approach.  Now we’re getting somewhere!

“Shared knowledge resource”

The evolution of projects from initial concept and brief to physical construction involves a wide range of stakeholders and parties.  Often, difficulties observed in the manufacture and construction phases of a project can be traced to breakdowns or inefficiencies in the accurate and timely communication of detailed information between parties.  Imagine a seemingly inconsequential modification being requested to alter an aesthetic element of a large build resulting in a major physical clash or conflict between components already positioned because of an oversight in communication.  Build programmes are affected and budgets thrown out – would never really happen… would it?

The focus on the BIM process being a shared knowledge resource could aim to address similar issues throughout the construction stages of a build.  Collaborative working between all parties, working in a common and shared environment would provide the platform to consider and address all future obstacles that may otherwise have been faced.  Clash detection processes allow all contributors to cross-check intended designs and installations, meaning that a wiring conduit does not need to conflict with a proposed steel cross brace, because they have been visualised against each other in the design office and the problem designed out before any manufacturing has begun.  All parties involved in the build can input and work on the same set of information in real-time, together.  Ultimately, this can speed up the manufacturing process as well as reducing down-time or re-work on the building site by addressing problems before they exist.

The sharing of information is multi-directional, meaning that designers, manufacturers, contractors and so on, all relate to each other in the same way focussing on the central models.  As the construction progresses, progress can be tracked accurately, allowing for improved programming and supply chain management just for starters.  Future maintenance requirements can be planned according to the manufacturing and installation progress, and as-built information can be precise and relevant as data is collected and assigned to the model as it is generated.

“Reliable basis for decisions”

The amount of intelligent data that can be incorporated into a BIM scenario allows for up-to-date and accurate information reporting at any given stage of a projects lifetime.  With the powerful level of design and detailing possible, projects can be visualised and produced to consider and include minute levels of detail.  From precise areas of wall cladding to the exact number of a particular specification of bolt can all be instantly determined from a completed model.

Knowing the financial cost and manufacturing or installation timescales associated with each element can easily be assessed and considered.  The model would be able to update the budget and timescale estimates for the build after each proposed change scenario was considered – without needing to affect anything physically in existence.  Environmental impacts could be taken into consideration by associating the data from manufacture or transportation phases with each element, allowing decisions to be made based on all the facts.  Any changes or alterations, inclusions or exclusions could communicate the real impact on cost, time, environment and future maintenance for the build… all executed at the design stage, with no risk to the actual construction.

“From earliest conception to demolition.”

BIM does not begin and end in the design office.  The process should be considered a live model, active throughout the lifetime of the project.  The data initially incorporated into the design stage can be used in the working life of the building and ultimately at it’s decommissioning.  As routine maintenance is carried out on the building, this can be updated and fed back into the model, meaning that at any given time, an accurate model exists.  Improvements, upgrades or modifications can all have an impact on future users, and the ability to accurately record and communicate all of this data is invaluable.

So, why aren’t we doing all of this now?

There is little doubt that the uptake and adoption of this methodology and concept is happening.  To fully accept the benefits that can be realised, a wide scale and sometimes radical change in mindset and existing processes will be required.

Collaborative working platforms have been in existence for the construction industry for the past decade, in the form of cloud-based software environments, yet they remain largely untouched.  Whether this is due to a general resistance to change or a lack of trust between parties is unknown to the author.  Openness to such concepts and a more transparent approach to construction processes will be essential to allow BIM to become a reality common in UK projects.  With so many benefits, each of which has direct impact on financial efficiency of every stage of a build, maybe now is the right time to consider a new approach within the difficult economic environment we operate.

Previous analysis of BIM uptake in the US, as well as available data from Europe suggests that one of the main factors that affects the adoption of BIM is the demand for communication and reporting in a common platform by the project’s client.  It fits that the client is likely to be the party that immediately recognises the potential economic gain possible by utilising a new approach, and they want to maximise this through the whole process.  Where they lead, the rest must follow.

In October 2010, the government’s chief construction adviser (Paul Morrell) identified BIM as a key part of the government’s future procurement process for public buildings.  With this kind of initiative being driven from the top down, it is possible that BIM can become a reality for stakeholders at a variety of levels.  Wider scale uptake is likely to then follow.

Deploying and establishing BIM can be a time consuming and financially expensive initially.  Positive returns on investment are widely reported by adopters (74% of Western European users), meaning that the uptake can be seen to be economically sound.

Interoperability and compatibility between different software and hardware platforms is an essential issue that needs to be taken into full consideration for the future update of BIM.

BuildingSMART is an international organisation whose goals include the development and maintenance of open international standards for BIM.  They have developed a common data schema that makes it possible to hold and exchange relevant data between different applications thereby allowing multiple users operating in different environments to collaborate effectively across their individual software platforms.

This interoperability, combined with improved data communication pathways available and the ongoing development of aforementioned cloud bases collaborative platforms, means that increasingly large numbers of users can all work together to develop and use BIM.

Already, economic pressures have caused some localised shifts within organisations to seek external specialists and employ more outsourcing for more specialist tasks.  This could provide access to BIM for some companies who are not able to realise their own in-house investment, and have the dual effect of promoting and developing specialist BIM providers.

What about the contractor on the ground?

Many traditional ideas for complex design and detailing only go so far.  Once the building has been designed, approved and outsourced to specialists and manufacturers, the construction contractor is often re-issued hard copy 2d plans to execute and develop into a physical representation of the original design.

Technology has advanced considerably for the contractor over the years.  More and more, contractors employ technical teams to support the site operatives, interpreting and providing technical information in a format that can be related to the site conditions.  Often two dimensional plans are translated to three dimensional data sets for transfer to high-performance site instruments for setting out.

Robotic total stations are now commonplace, allowing technical engineers to work independently using state-of-the-art field controllers and computers for the management and development of construction data.

One of the difficulties and weaker areas that can be further developed is the in-field stage of the data handling for construction.  Most building information is already being produced digitally, and the increase in BIM will add to the amount of digital data that needs to be taken into the field.

A number of options could be considered in thinking about how to best handle digital data on site.  Most sites have office setups that include desktop of laptop computers, capable of transferring and managing CAD drawings and 3D models.  However, the people that often most need this information during the construction phase are engineers and surveyors working outside on the sites, often in difficult terrain or environments.

Laptops, netbooks, ipads, smartphones, etc.  Each of these has a potential further application in the holding and communication of data from the design stage to the engineer on site and vice versa.  Typically, none of these devices are physically built for tough use on a site environment.  Laptops can be unwieldy and susceptible to damage from the environment.  Netbooks often suffer limitations in processing ability or power consumption.  Apple’s ipad or rival Samsung’s Galaxy tablet PC are just not designed for the site environment, and smartphones generally aren’t up to the task of handling larger files such as CAD drawings.

The latest generation of building construction instruments from Trimble, have been developed with BIM in mind.  A new software platform is available which runs on a “ruggedised” handheld field controller capable of managing CAD data, information from BIM models, user entered data and formats transferred from a wide range of sources.  With powerful and fast calculation of relevant data and concise communication of the same to the user, the emergence of such tools signifies a new readiness for the taking of BIM all the way through the build process from the design into the field and back to the design.

Moving forward.

In 2010, the adoption of BIM by construction professionals surveyed in the UK is only 35%, with contractor uptake measured at 23%.  The trends are expected to follow those of the US, where there is the indication that BIM use is likely to surge among UK contractors and result in an increase to over 50% adoption by 2012.

As this latest emerging technological development sweeps across the UK construction industry, it is combined with a more progressive workforce, focussing on the need to maximise capital returns and develop working efficiencies through the embracing of new technologies and techniques.  In the toughest market of my generation, the construction world now finds itself ideally primed for a re-emergence as a technology centred industrial force.  Communication and collaboration, enabled by technology and harnessed by BIM could make the ideal of the fully integrated work process a reality over the coming decade.

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