BIM workflows are evolving

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Vendors and users alike are being challenged to adapt to new technologies and new requirements. Transactions are receiving new attention thanks to cloud-based workflow

Building Information Modelling (BIM) began as an academic construct, a way to describe what might be possible beyond stacks of 2D drawings submitted by an architecture firm, approved by a structural engineer, delivered to a construction company. The idea of a single data model, containing every fact needed to create the building (or bridge, power plant, etc), jointly created by all stakeholders, seemed like a technologist’s nirvana. The better part of a generation later, the BIM approach to construction is gaining headway, but still represents only a small portion of all AEC documentation. According to most professional organisations, barely half of all construction projects finish on time, and on or under budget.

For many years AEC software vendors pushed 3D CAD software as BIM software. Autodesk was the most successful at this, to the point where Revit (Autodesk’s 3D AEC suite) and BIM were interchangeable terms to many. But as more designers tried to swap 3D for 2D in AEC workflows, the more widespread became the realisation that it takes much more than an extra dimension to reform construction workflow. “The idea of BIM now supersedes any piece of software,” notes Phil Bernstein, FAIA, vice-president for building industry strategy and relations at Autodesk. Today the challenges for AEC are not about how to document the design and construction, but how to manage the interactions. “Project management is creating discipline over the value inherent in the exchange of data,” he says.

Cloud technology becomes important in construction project management, Bernstein says, because it “fundamentally changes the rules of access”. Anne Busson, AEC industry marketing director for Bentley Systems, says it has noticed that education is required to show the value of BIM.

“There are corporate culture challenges. Everyone understands the need to move to BIM, but as an industry we need education on the benefits of the new processes.”

She cites UK rail construction venture Crossrail as a leader in this regard. “Crossrail have taken a big step and come forward as a leader; they want everyone to see the bigger picture.”

Across the board AEC software vendors now realise the workflow that supports building information modelling must change. The processes that became standard before the arrival of computers cannot support a fully digital, fully 3D, fully collaborative construction project. Focus is shifting from supporting 3D design/engineering and project management as completely separate disciplines, to bringing true digital collaboration into the process. We recently talked to a cross-section of vendors about the challenges facing the industry, and what they are doing to improve BIM workflow.


Collaboration and neutrality

Project collaboration is the cornerstone of any effective BIM project, says Rob Philpot, senior vice-president and co-founder of Aconex, a vendor of online project management software. Yet only recently have potential clients come to regard BIM as more than 3D models.

“Two years ago all conversations started with ‘what is BIM’ and we had to explain it was about managing all the data,” he says. “Autodesk was very good at marketing Revit as BIM. I had a slide deck that had three slides explaining BIM. Now we almost never need to have that conversation. Everybody gets BIM is more than the model. Now they ask how to manage all the data and the model.”

Aconex is not alone in noticing a change in attitude and interest. All the vendors we spoke to agree there are two fundamental challenges going forward:

Design documentation is still hard to access for most project stakeholders;

All other project data (forms, reports, transmittals, etc.) are still disconnected from the design data.

One big change improving collaboration is the rise of cloud technology to host and manage construction information.

Mr Philpot says cloud technology can bring the advantage of neutrality into the workflow.

“Dozens of companies on a project, all with their own internal systems, can now use the same cloud environment. They can get rid of the inefficiency and mistrust that comes from holding things inside their firewall.”

Benefits in using cloud-based project management for BIM include:

Secure storage and seamless distribution of large files, to support project-wide collaboration and communication on models;

Workflows can be established to automate BIM processes, speeding up decisions and providing control and visibility;

The need for a secure audit trail does not go away in a BIM-based workflow; revision control maintains a full model history, for a record of when changes were made, and by whom, in one central location instead of on the private server of each subcontractor.

Aconex chose to create a new cloud-based project management system after noticing new continuing trends despite the increased use of BIM:

Design information was only visible to the design co-ordination team, while everybody else (Mr Philpot says 90% of stakeholders) were not getting access to model data.

All other project data types were disconnected from the model information.

“There were two distinct disconnections,” says Mr Philpot; “the people from the model, and the plethora of information from the model”.

Aconex decided cloud-based project management was the best way to disrupt the existing workflow patterns.

“Moving people off installed systems made sense,” notes Mr Philpot. “You can’t do collaboration across sites without cloud technology. If a ‘shared’ system is run by one party, others won’t participate.”

Working the data

“The cloud makes all data structures implicit (available) instead of explicit (‘send it to me),” says Autodesk’s Mr Bernstein. The challenge lies in how to best organise the data for total access.

“You can’t do BIM workflows with index cards and Microsoft Access; knowledge systems must provide a standard for representation. The BIM workflow is now ‘how do the disciplines exchange value to progress the work?’”

Mr Bernstein says Autodesk’ entry into cloud-based BIM workflow, BIM 360, represents the first step in managing a cloud-based set of exchanges and relationships.

“BIM 360 is relatively agnostic in terms of data sources, and very small-c catholic in the sense of what kinds of data are necessary.” He likens BIM 360 to adding racing lanes to a swimming pool: “It creates a common environment for all swimmers.”

Steve Spark, vice-president at Viewpoint Software says it sees traditional project information exchange as a chaotic process.

“There must be a common data environment. What the industry needs is to make smarter decisions and better investments … and get the silos of data into the decision process.”

Viewpoint refers to its cloud software suite 4Projects as a collaborative BIM project management platform. “Collaborative BIM is hard because AEC has a fractured supply chain,” says Mr Spark.

“The problems are behaviour, standards, processes, and technology.” Technology has dominated the conversation, Mr Spark believes, because the other three are so chaotic. “The challenge is to get all the deliverables and all the contractual exchange points working together.”

Mr Bernstein adds: “Software does not replace project management. There must still be a brain. Project management is more than keeping track of things; it is making decisions on how things get done. The bookkeeping can be automated, but project management remains an art form.”

Mr Bernstein also teaches at the Yale University School of Architecture.

Working at the exchange points

The client wants complete data in order to understand whole life cost for the project, but in traditional workflows that data is scattered across the record systems of each contractor, the general contractor and the architect.

“We are working on the contractual exchange points,” says Viewpoint’s Mr Spark. To an architect the data looks like a building information model, but project managers want to look at a project information model, while operations wants to see an asset information model after hand-off. “Asset information modelling is a new concept for this market,” says Mr Spark. “We want to provide a toolset [for each view] from a common data environment.”

Mr Spark says the new UK BIM Level 2 standards requirement emphasises structured data. “People are running scared; Level 2 BIM is about how the supply chain comes together. The client and the contractor agree on contractual exchange points and the data required for process check.” Software like Viewpoint’s 4Projects needs to become “middleware for information pass-through”, says Mr Spark. “We want to take the conversation from ‘what tools do you use’ to ‘what must be done’.”

Putting information into motion

Bentley promotes a vision of “information mobility” as a key to success in BIM workflows. “Mobile devices now allow viewing models in the field, allowing better understanding on-site than ever before,” says Nicole Stephano, Bentley’s senior manager for project delivery. “Now you can not only view the model but associate [to the model] important information such as RFIs and correspondence.”

Crossrail is using mobile technology on-site, Ms Stephano says: “[Mobile] takes the information from the design and engineering staff directly to the contractors, the sub-contractors and the field superintendents.”

Thinking of BIM as only a technology is “completely misleading,” adds Bentley’s Ms Busson. “At the end of the day it is about people and processes and project delivery.” Says her colleague Ms Stephano: “We provide an interoperability platform and support collaboration throughout design/engineering and into construction. And we also provide an audit trail, which is very important.”

Pain points

The largest AEC/BIM vendors offer a smorgasbord approach, hoping the customer will find everything they need from them. Smaller vendors like Aconex or Viewpoint target one particular problem, hoping to attract customer interest as a specialist.

New to the BIM discussion is Trimble, a billion-dollar listed company best known for its construction site products. Recent acquisitions have made it a contender in architecture and engineering.

Trimble wants to address the BIM workflow cycle by strengthening the capabilities of software used at various points in the process. Its Tekla Structures product, for example, is designed to replace several smaller structural engineering tools with one product that can do beams as well as it does trusses or foundations.

If structural engineers can do all analysis in one product, says Stuart Broom of Trimble Buildings, it becomes easier for them to participate in the collaborative workflow BIM requires — even if contractually the engineer is required to submit 2D drawings. “The constructible model [becomes] a by-product of the engineer’s normal deliverable; 2D drawings are simply views of the model,” he says.

“General contractors and construction management firms are now using BIM to co-ordinate inputs in order to get a constructable model,” observes Marcel Broekmatt, product manager for Trimble Building’s GC/CM division. “However, too often the 2D drawing is still the basis for contracts.” So it becomes important to make sure the building model and the 2D drawings are tightly co-ordinated.

Trimble offers a product called Document Controller for this purpose. It can overlay a 2D drawing into a 3D model and see how the two may differ. “It creates a level of trust and access required for using BIM for quantification of work,” says Mr Broekmatt. “Bringing 2D and 3D BIM quantity takeoff together in one environment creates a more efficient way to quantify work.”


Author Randall S Newton is Principal Analyst at Consilia Vektor. He has been writing about AEC technology and industry trends since 1987.


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