With every CAD software developer talking up the cloud, we asked Autodesk’s Will Nicol to explain what advantages Building Information Modelling (BIM) in the cloud offers.
Cloud computing — everybody is talking about it; many are using it, for business and in the home. The cloud is packing a punch at the way IT has traditionally been delivered. It is only a matter of time before it changes the game in the AEC world too.
But, could this be one transformation too many for an industry still grappling with building information modelling (BIM), sustainable design and trying to make a living in the midst of an economic downturn?
Rest assured. BIM and the cloud go together like bread and butter. Consequently, the cloud makes BIM easier too.
Cloud computing is the provision of computing capability, programmatic functionality, data management and associated resources and processes as a service to the end-user, who taps into these, typically through a lightweight application such as a web browser. Instead of the traditional model where these are provided within an enterprise, the cloud enables users to access them on an ‘as needed’ basis.
This offers some significant advantages. It means that information and functionality can be accessed at any time and from any location. In theory at least, the cloud is infinitely scalable, which means extra computing power is available when required, reducing the need for capital expenditure and enabling businesses to pay for this access as they would any other service.
This helps address many of the practical barriers to BIM. For instance, BIM demands even closer collaboration from an industry accustomed to working in ecosystems that develop, evolve and then disperse as a project progresses. This situation has been further complicated by globalisation, which may now be a fact of life, but can add many layers of difficulty to communicating and sharing data.
Often, work between different disciplines or between colleagues allocated different parts of the project can be less than harmonious. Inconsistent standards, mixes of file formats and firms working on separate models that need to be aggregated, all take their toll on speed and accuracy. Many project delays can be traced back to confusion over different versions of information.
The cloud provides a place where all team members can combine their designs, documents and data in a central model with one interface for quick and easy access. This not only side-steps the problems of exchanging large, data-rich models, but also provides a ‘single version of the truth’, avoiding issues of co-ordination and version control.
As use of BIM matures, intelligent 3D models are being used for far more than just spatial co-ordination, particularly during the structural and engineering project stages. Increasingly they are becoming platforms for analysis. While it is a great benefit to be able to test a design and experiment with options on screen, there is one drawback; computing power has reached its limits.
Using BIM to optimise designs, analysing models over multiple dimensions such as cost, schedule, carbon and energy performance and so on and using visualisation tools can really stretch available bandwidth and lead to slow-downs and delays. Even using a high-end workstation, complex rendering, for example, can take hours to complete. Doing the same task in the cloud may take only minutes. In other words it can help deliver more analysis, faster visualisation tasks and, therefore, quicker decisions.
This works both ways. Workloads change and demand dips. Businesses are faced with a dilemma — do they carry spare capacity just in case and accept it will not be needed at certain stages, or do they risk having insufficient power for project peaks?
Cloud computing helps minimise the mismatch between requirements and resources. Ultimately it may even enable companies to shed much of their traditional technology real-estate and instead lease on demand the latest, up-to-date capability.
This is good news for smaller firms, putting them on an equal footing with their larger counterparts. Small businesses may have put off their adoption of BIM because of the initial financial outlay. Although early adopters are now reporting good Return on Investment (ROI), there is no doubt that BIM does require investment in hardware, software plus peripherals such as training and configuration. All this requires upfront capital and expert resources. The cloud changes all this and allows businesses to pay for the power they need as they would any other service. As BIM becomes a pre-requisite of many larger projects, it enables small firms to compete on level terms.
In fact, as they can be more agile than large corporations, once small businesses have the opportunity to become BIM-enabled they can often progress at a faster pace. Decision-making is often quicker and change management not so cumbersome as it is easier to communicate and ensure everyone is aware of what is happening and is part of the story.
Taking BIM to the cloud is still an option rather than a necessity. But, as the use of BIM becomes more sophisticated and demanding, so this will change. Early adopters will be able to steam ahead, pushing the boundaries of technology and processes and smaller firms will benefit in the wake. The result will be not just better business, but better and smarter buildings and infrastructure too.