BIM for manufacturers

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Why manufacturers have a huge part to play in Building Information Modelling.

In construction the focus is placed on the importance of the main contractor, the supply chain and design team. Very little is thought of the manufacturing supply chain in comparison or what this role can bring to a development.

Rob Charlton, CEO Space Architecture

The construction industry is often criticised for its lack of innovation, but it may be that we are looking in the wrong place. Recent visits to trade exhibitions, such as Ecobuild, prove that there is an abundance of innovation — if you know where to look.

Main contracting does not allow for a great deal of innovative scope. Projects are often scrutinised for overhead and profit, which does not lend itself to investment in long term innovation. On the other hand, manufacturers focus on products rather than process, which opens up for a longer term view of research and development.

It is not unusual to see new thinking and originality from construction manufacturers. The issue becomes a matter of how we get this innovation into our buildings and specified by our designers. There is a common pattern with designers reluctant to move away from their tried and tested specification, which can limit fresh thinking.

How, then, are construction product manufacturers affected by the increase in the use of building information modelling?

The construction industry has been slow to embrace technology and has tended to lag behind many other industries. However, while construction manufacturing operates within the construction sector, it is more aligned to the manufacturing industry. This means that the majority of manufacturers are already using some sort of BIM system without knowing it.

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To manufacture all components and to interface with computerised machinery, products have to be developed in a digital format. Manufacturers use a wide range of software, which is often aligned to the machining process such as Autodesk Inventor. This information is produced for manufacture but can just as easily be used for design if the data within it is matched to a standard protocol.

Designers need access to this information but not all the detail. They need the geometry and some performance data but not everything. If the manufacturer can provide this information easily to the designer the detail can be included in the model early, preventing errors later in the workflow.

Digital components can also include intelligence to give the designer options and help avoid errors. For example, when specifying a radiator in a model, the designer can only select the radiator sizes available from that manufacturer and if a particular fixing approach is required for a certain product — such as additional feet — they can automatically be added.

In many other industries there have been experts in the development of supply chains and the benefits have been obvious to see. Henry Ford pioneered a supply chain that allowed him to continually improve the automobile. In construction our workflow is not set up in a way to allow this type of integration. Our designers are disjointed from the contractor. The main contractor does have a supply chain of sorts, but this is rarely in digital format. The designer may have specified a product and co-ordinated it into the model; but it could be removed at a later date because the main contractor has decided to use its own supply chain.

In the majority of cases the reason for change is cost. This can overlook other selection criteria such as size or performance.

The main contractor’s supply chain will refer to subcontractors, which in effect is labour-related rather than specifically in relation to components. These supply chains do not innovate and are selected on service and price. They are generally unsophisticated and do not invest in research and development or shared learning as a rule.

What does all of this have to do with the use of Building Information Modelling?

While BIM is currently best understood for its three-dimensional and geometric characteristics, its true value is in the joining up of information. BIM is not about turning a 2D design process into a 3D environment but about the complete re-thinking of how buildings are designed, procured, assembled and operated.

With a new workflow, the construction industry can develop one of the most sophisticated supply chains across any industry.

All buildings are, in effect, made up of components. These components are brought together on site to produce a building. Access to this information digitally during the design and prototype stage will allow designs to be tested virtually and errors ironed out on a computer rather than on site.

A product’s performance can be included within the digital component to allow it to be interrogated throughout its life cycle. While this provides a potential opportunity for the manufacturer to market its products and ensure that they are specified earlier and accurately to truly maximise the benefit, the entire approach to delivering buildings needs to be reconsidered.

We need the construction products industry to help improve the quality, cost and performance of our buildings. The industry is standardising its approach to content creation and is working hard to develop industry-wide protocols. This will provide huge potential in allowing information to be interchangeable throughout the project lifecycle.

Designers need to take control of specification again, and select and test each component. The designers must be the custodian of the overall building performance.

The industry has the opportunity to have a standardised range of components that can be managed into individual supply chains. These supply chains of products will allow the ongoing specification of products, and the ongoing monitoring of performance to enable continuous improvement and investment in research and development.

Manufacturers need to embrace this opportunity and offer components in digital format to let early adopters of BIM maximise the potential of re-thinking our industry.

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