PLM and BIM

Why digital transformation brings AEC and PLM together

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PLM and BIM: Oleg Shilovitsky, CEO of OpenBOM and owner of Beyond PLM, explores the role that Product Lifecycle Management, a process that’s so important for many manufacturing firms, could play in the evolving AEC industry


For years of developing Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) systems for startups and companies like Autodesk and Dassault Systèmes, I’ve always been curious about how the manufacturing and AEC industry would collide. A few years ago, I wrote the article PLM vs BIM – Common or Different in which I made some assessments of how the trajectory of PLM and BIM can be developed in the future.

Back then, I identified common elements, such as model, visualisation, project management and data sharing, as well as what makes AEC different – a single model, terminology, tools and processes.

Nevertheless, construction projects always reminded me of early PLM development. The problem of silos, discussions about standardisation of data model and the development of shared understanding between project and data stakeholders. Construction companies were afraid to implement PLM technologies, mostly because data ownership in the AEC process is not very clear when compared to how manufacturing companies operate. Every department in a manufacturing company is a separate company in construction!

Explainer: what is PLM?
Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) is used by manufacturing firms to manage the entire lifecycle of a product from concept, through engineering design and manufacture, to service and disposal. It is widely used in the automotive, aerospace, heavy machinery, white goods and other industries.

The technologies of PLM and BIM have always had different industry contexts and applications. The separation was too obvious – one was focusing on building aeroplanes, complex machinery and high-tech products, while the other was focusing on buildings and construction projects. And it was true… until recently.

For the last few years, working on OpenBOM, I started to see many projects in which the lines between construction and manufacturing started to blur. There are a few interesting trajectories on both sides. First, in manufacturing, companies have started to look more distributed, and the growing number of contractors and suppliers create similar problems of data ownership and collaboration. Second, construction companies have emerged which have started to look very similar to manufacturing companies, by developing prefabricated methods and industrialisation of processes.

Technology is the main factor that brings changes in both industries, but the construction industry is starting to resemble a type of manufacturing process. You can think about super complex construction projects for buildings, as if you were building big ships or aeroplanes.

Buildings are now smart and include a lot of technologies and equipment. Prefabricated construction projects are seriously similar to a supply chain of manufacturing companies. A variety of contractors in the building industry working on sub-systems for buildings are often using the same technologies and tools used by suppliers in manufacturing projects.
Thinking about the digital transformation in construction brought me to the point when I questioned how existing manufacturing technologies and digital tools can be used to build a unified digital workflow, mixing tools that before were considered strictly either AEC or PLM tools.

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Before jumping to the software tools, I want to discuss typical value chains in construction projects.

We can learn from the diagram top that an entire value chain in construction projects is very fragmented. There are two main reasons for this – company organisations and tools. As such, you can see how general contractors are operating with BIM models, documents and project workflow. At the same time, contractors are using mechanical, electrical, electronic CAD tools in processes managed by PLM and ERP tools. Each suite of design tools comes with their own product data management and collaboration processes. As a result, we can see not only a disconnect between organisations, but also the disconnect between the tools and technologies serving both domains.

This made me think about the opportunity to connect these digital workflows for an entire construction project value chain. What will be the essential functions of these platforms? Will construction platforms expand to manufacturing workflows or PLM tools expand into BIM and construction workflows?

None of these scenarios seems to be a realistic at this point. Each of these tools are too locked into their own bubbles and technological legacy. Existing AEC vendors are interested to expand, but they are very much busy updating and integrating with existing systems. At the same time, existing PLM companies are not rushing to jump into AEC opportunities because of technological reasons – most Product Data Management (PDM) and PLM tools are not fit to work in the environments with multiple organisations.

The status quo creates an opportunity for new types of digital tools. What can be the value of such a tool or platform and how can it be used? The two main challenges on construction projects are (1) to integrate and collaborate across an entire value chain; (2) maximize the use of digital assets and models. Let me talk about both.

Integrate and collaborate across an entire value chain

The value chain contains architects, designers, engineers, material suppliers, contractors, maintenance and operation companies. Each of these players is focusing on their own workflow and not considering how their work affects others in the entire value chain. The disconnect creates tons of inefficiencies. What is demanded is to have a better orchestration and control over a large portion of value chain, connecting all stakeholders together.

The opportunity is to create a vertically integrated value chain, similar to how manufacturing companies do it. These tools would be managing the activities based on the data and moving the process from upstream to downstream, to connect data, process and activities. The connected value chain would bring significant benefits to all players. One of the most important issues is to move from document-oriented workflow to a granular data flow – it can improve decision making, sustainability and performance of the projects.

Maximize the use of digital assets

Data is a new oil. But to take advantage of data, there is a need to build data models capable of reflecting the data needed for integrated processes across the value chain and create mechanisms to bring in the needed data. This would be from 3D models, business data, project information, operational information, sensor information and data from many other places. The important aspect of adopting digital models is to create a granular and open data framework with tools allowing the information to be shared. The data framework would include digital objects and provide access to design models, equipment information, operational parameters.

The digital platform capable of supporting integration and collaboration across the value chain of construction and manufacturing companies would enable the creation of integrated contracts, integrated product deliveries and expand from processes that are purely built on project-based function to integrated and connected activities.

Cloud technologies, SaaS applications and new multi-tenant network-based data platforms can be a new way for construction projects to connect both existing construction workflows and manufacturing workflows downstream. The important step is to create a seamless mechanism to connect data from both of these worlds together This data will become a factor to stitch processes together.

How to mix construction and manufacturing platforms?

This is a really a question that construction firms are facing. There are already a mixed set of tools used by players in the value chain, provided by software vendors. It starts from CAD tools used by architects and engineers (e.g. Autodesk Revit) and tools used by contractors and fabricators (e.g. Solidworks and Autodesk Inventor). Some of the most visionary and advanced companies in the construction industry are experimenting with the mix of construction platforms, PLM and ERP tools. How to make them mix together and what is the value proposition? Here are three steps to make it happen:

  1. Go beyond documents and traditional document workflow.
  2. Adopt granular product information objects (product relationships and
    digital assets).
  3. Use modern open and multi-tenant cloud-services capable of connecting companies involved in the value chain of construction projects.

PLM and BIM: conclusion

The construction market has a golden opportunity to adopt manufacturing technologies. Can existing digital manufacturing paradigms and PLM products be used to integrate AEC value chains? Yes, vertical integration is a very powerful process, but many existing PLM single-tenant systems are too old to be used as-is, to be powerhouses for construction projects. These PLM technologies were built for a single company (top down) paradigm.

What is needed is a new network platform capable of connecting multiple companies and team members together and, at the same time, managing product information on a granular level, connecting silos. There is an opportunity for modern cloud-based services used in manufacturing to also connect value chain data in construction projects. These tools could bridge the gap and connect construction workflows and platforms used by general contractors in their workflows with downstream processes used by trade contractors and manufacturers. Just my thoughts…

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