Cloud-based collaboration specialist 4Projects recently added ‘BIM’ support to its range of services. The new technology delivers a suite of BIM viewing, adata management tools
Cloud-based collaboration for the construction industry used to be all about document distribution, project management, and procurement. In 2011, however, everything changed.
With the UK Government Construction Strategy suddenly putting Building Information Modelling (BIM) firmly on the agenda, getting some kind of BIM capability soon became a number one priority for many of the software developers in this space.
4Projects is one of the UK construction industry’s leading providers of cloud-based collaboration tools. Eighteen of the top twenty UK construction contractors use its service. It also has engineering consultancies and architects among its many customers.
Its service is licensed either on a project-by-project or on a multi-project enterprise basis, with project sizes ranging from small retrofit building jobs to large infrastructure projects. There is no limit placed on the number of users, so it is really inclusive for everyone involved.
4Projects is at the heart of the new Ministry Of Justice prison builds, the first UK government construction pilot projects to use Building Information Modelling. It was used to collaborate across 60,000 documents, drawings, tasks, mark-ups etc, 500 plus users and 100 plus organisations for the London Olympic Stadium.
4Projects delivers its technology using a cloud-based SaaS (Software as a Service) approach, and offers international support, making it ideal for multi-team, multi-site projects. Everything is accessed through a web browser without any plug-ins, so it is easy to get up and running on most platforms, including mobile devices. By not relying on Active X or Java it also gets around limitations imposed by some IT managers.
In addition to its existing 4Explorer and 4Outlook optional Windows applications, 4Projects is currently developing an iOS app, which has a touch screen-optimised interface to give iPhone and iPad users a much better experience. An Android equivalent is also in the pipeline.
BIM in a browser
Last year 4Projects introduced so-called ‘BIM in a browser’, adding BIM viewing, reviewing, reporting, and COBie data management tools to its cloud-based service.
The software is based on xBIM (eXtensible Building Information Modelling) an open source toolkit developed by Northumbria University, with contributions from the 4BIM TSB consortium, of which 4Projects is a lead partner, alongside Northumbria University / BIM Academy, VINCI Construction UK, AEC3, and Kingspan.
4Projects is keen to note that xBIM is also being made freely available under an open source licence providing opportunities for other software developers to both contribute and build their own commercial BIM services using the toolkit.
For its BIM offering, 4Projects has gone the open route supporting Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) BIM models instead of native BIM formats from applications like Revit and ArchiCAD. On the one hand this may limit the depth to which 4Projects can access the native data, especially as some BIM applications have poor conformance for IFC output. However, with the UK Government stipulating COBie as the deliverable, which is a subset of IFC, the BIM developers will have to work on their non-conformance issues quickly, as IFC is the cornerstone for collaborative BIM compliance
The primary aim of the BIM toolkit is to put BIM data into the hands of the extended project team, including non-technical users that simply want to know what’s in the model. 4Projects is keen to point out that it’s not necessarily advising the use of IFC models for file exchange; they’re well-suited for collaboration — getting the rich data out of the silos held inside the BIM authoring tools.
The BIM model viewer includes all the standard navigation features — pan, zoom rotate, walkthrough. Users have control over the visibility of components, which can be turned on / off or made transparent.
Users can inspect the properties of any component and add or edit attribute data as required. Views can be saved and then shared in a managed environment with other 4Projects users, together with any relevant markups and comments. Building on the existing 4Projects collaboration engine, Tasks and Discussions can be created, and associated to elements and views of the model, enabling teams to communicate collaboratively around a common model. Future releases of the software will allow multi-discipline models to be co-ordinated, clash detections carried out and quantities taken off.
Written in HTML 5 the viewer has been designed specifically to run on a range of web-enabled devices, desktop and mobile. There has been a lot of work done to optimise performance when working with large models. This is partly down to the way it compresses the geometry — a 50MB IFC model can shrink down to 2MB — but also because of the OpenGL ES graphics engine, which has been tuned to get the most out of the GPU, while putting a relatively small load on the CPU.
This does not mean you need to invest in high-end hardware, however. 4Projects says it is possible to comfortably view a 300MB to 400MB IFC model even on a laptop with a moderately specified graphics card.
The viewer is also designed for relatively low-bandwidth connections, which is ideal for mobile access. There is no need to download the entire model before it can be viewed. Instead data is streamed in as and when required, so users can get up and running very quickly if all they want to do is view a close up of the model from a saved view.
In the future, 4Projects is looking to support different levels of detail, starting off with a low-fidelity representation, which refines the more you zoom in — a bit like Google Maps. The idea behind this is you could load an overview of the entire model very quickly and then use it to navigate to specific areas of interest.
BIM model viewing does not have to be a solo experience. The system also supports real time collaboration through screen sharing. A live message board can be used for chat and comments.
One person ‘drives’ the model, while the other collaborators follow it in real time on their own screens. At the moment models can only be navigated by the leader, but in the future it should be possible for any collaborator to take control.
Performance is noticeably good in sharing mode and there is very little lag. This is because the system only shares the position of the camera, unlike more generic screen sharing technologies that continually update every pixel on the screen.
Of course, ‘BIM in a browser’ is much more than just a BIM model viewer. It also benefits from 4Projects’ standard project auditing capabilities — tracking who has opened the model, who has created a saved view, who has annotated the model. Some my find this a touch ‘big brother’ but it is a major benefit of being integrated into a much broader collaborative system.
COBie data management
Building on the foundations laid by xBIM, 4Projects has also extended its core collaboration product to provide what it describes as a full lifecycle COBie data management system.
The system is designed to enable authorised members of the supply chain to add, edit, categorise, or validate data in the COBie database to ensure its accuracy for COBie drops. As with everything in 4Projects, this is all done within a browser.
A UK COBie template can be used to extract information from the IFC model, which is then presented in a spreadsheet-like table at the bottom of the screen. Click on a component in the COBie table and it will highlight in the model, and vice versa.
Just as AEC Magazine was going to press, Viewpoint Construction Software, a developer of management software for the construction industry, announced that it has acquired 4Projects. The 4Projects product portfolio will be made available in Viewpoint’s existing markets in the US, Canada and Australia.
The table offers what 4Projects describes as ‘spreadsheet-light’ functionality where users can select ranges and put formulas in to query the data. This helps give a clear understanding of what data is missing or incorrect, while a direct link to the IFC model puts everything in context.
Changes can be made directly into the spreadsheet, en masse, by groups or cell by cell, perhaps to add phasing data, energy usage or other extended attribute information. Further downstream, this could be who fitted a specific component, what issues there where, and when it’s due for a service.
For data that really should have been in the BIM model from the very beginning, this can be added in the BIM authoring tool and re-imported. buildingSMART’s BIM Collaboration Format (BCF) is on hand to aid with this workflow.
To help manage IFC model revisions any attribute data that was added to components in 4Projects is persistent so it will not need to be re-applied when a new model is re-imported. This is important to maintain information that may have been added by those further down the supply chain.
Access to COBie data does not have to be a free-for-all. Editing rights can be assigned to different 4Projects users in a controlled way. In the future this may be extended to individual parts of the IFC model.
4Projects looks to have done a great job of adding so-called ‘BIM’ support to its cloud-based offering. Rather than just adding a BIM viewer, so non-technical users can get access to BIM models, it has embedded the technology to take advantage of the collaborative workflows already in place within the system.
This, together with the integrated COBie support, looks to be an impressive addition to what is already a well-regarded cloud-based collaboration service for construction professionals.