How are tech companies helping construction on its journey to digital?

The sixth in our series of digital roundtable discussions run by the Centre for Digital Built Britain in association with Chartered Institute of Building, looked at the role of technology providers in moving the sector towards BIM as ‘business as usual’.

While there have been major advances in software solutions and their ability to support collaborative working, the tech companies felt that the industry still faces a number of challenges, not least of which is bringing the supply chain up to a good level of understanding with greater client engagement and leadership. The need to customise versus preferences for out-of-the-box solutions also provoked some lively debate, as did the question of interoperability.

These were some of the key issues emerging from a discussion between 14 technology solutions companies and consultancies plus one construction firm that develops its own technology solutions in-house, working across a range of sectors including oil and gas, retail, housing, commercial office space, infrastructure and manufacturing.

They had gathered together with two public sector clients for the sixth in our series of digital debates organised by the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) and the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB). CDBB will use these sessions, which are also covering academia and training, constructors, consultants, manufacturers, SMEs, asset and facilities management, BIM consultants and clients, to help understand how BIM is being adopted and to inform future work.

The debate was chaired by CDBB’s Terry Stocks and Fiona Moore, who began by asking the participants what changes they had seen over the past five or six years in relation to the development of BIM and the technology products and services that support it.

David Shepherd: difficult to bring supply chains together

One of the developments highlighted by John Adams, digital construction strategist at Glider Technology, was the emergence of new technology firms like his and 3D Repo. “Glider Tech was founded as a direct response to the government mandate. New companies are being created on the back of it,” he said.

In terms of how BIM itself has progressed towards business as usual, the consensus was that there is still work to be done. Stocks asked the group if their customers have a good understanding of BIM. According to Martyn Horne, director of digital practice strategy at Vectorworks, said: “Some do, but there’s still a lot of confusion, uncertainty and doubt.”

This perception was supported by an industry survey carried out with around 1,200 UK construction professionals. Stephen Hamil, innovation director at NBS, reported that when asked if they had adopted BIM, more than half of respondents said they had but when asked more detailed questions that figure dropped to around 20%.

However, there was also some acknowledgement that progress is being made. Stephen Crompton, chief product officer at GroupBC, had seen a progression from the early days when clients did not show a deep understanding of BIM to now “when there is much more of a breakdown within tenders of what is required”. He has also seen more of an emphasis on “doing the basics correctly for every single project, with clients making sure that they consistently ask for the data”.

Ian Cornwell, director at Kraken IM, shared his experiences of the oil and gas sector which has developed an industry standard – CFIHOS (Capital Facilities Information Handover Specification). Prior to CFIHOS, every oil and gas and nuclear company was using different sets of requirements. As a result, the supply chain was struggling with the levels of customisation demanded of it and the clients realised that this way of working was costing them money.

While it was agreed that CFIHOS was an attractive model, Dave Shepherd, construction technical lead at Autodesk, suggested that it is one the construction industry would find difficult to replicate. “In sectors like oil and gas or automotive, you have fairly stable supply chains which means you can mandate from the top. In construction, we know that it’s really difficult to bring all of those parties together.” 

Duncan Reed, digital construction process manager at Trimble, added: “Lots of construction clients will build a particular building once in their lifetime, whereas other sectors are repeating the same processes and can learn by their mistakes.”

Jozef Dobos: We believe in the democratisation of data

Stocks asked the group for their thoughts on “vanilla” BIM, a set of standard templates that reflects the datasets a client is likely to need to derive benefits through the build and the asset’s lifetime. There was agreement that it would be useful if versioned for different sectors. Shepherd said: “There is definitely a value in having a template for specific asset types, such as schools or hospitals.”

Moore asked the participants if they had any metrics to demonstrate the effectiveness of adopting BIM. Crompton described a project in which his company developed an information mapping module for a major infrastructure client which carried out its own return on investment analysis. “The tool is now run across hundreds of projects at a time and is saving £12m a year.”

Reed provided another example of “a steel fabricator who by saving a second per click on opening drawings, is saving tens of thousands of hours a year because that’s how many drawings he’s opening”. Stocks added: “This is a simple example but one that increases the user experience and engagement, which is key if we want to increase the take-up of digital solutions.”

Common Data Environments (CDEs): customise or out-of-the-box?

A question from Stocks about where next for tech companies provoked plenty of discussion about CDEs and the challenge of out-of-the-box versus customisation. Participants felt that large firms will want some level of customisation so they can integrate new workflows with their existing ones to avoid the cost and disruption of major business transformations.

Toby Sortain, senior BIM manager at ISG, explained that by developing their own in-house technologies it was possible to “implement a new workflow relatively easily while allowing the company to learn from the process”.

Larger organisations also derive value from investing in and developing their own business processes which, in effect, become their unique selling point so, according to Ben Wallbank, BIM strategy and partnerships manager at Viewpoint, they would always choose a custom solution rather than adopting “a one-size-fits-all approach”.

Stocks referred back to the previous SME roundtable and their requirement for out-of-the-box solutions. When asked if this group was looking to develop products for SMEs, Wallbank’s approach was pragmatic. In a crowded marketplace already saturated with CDE providers, firms are naturally looking for customers further down the supply chain.

But this does not come without challenges “because these tend to be very small companies with not a lot of money and not always very tech savvy”. For Moore, this reinforced the need for out-the-box solutions which keep down costs for SMEs.

The interoperability challenge

Toby Sortain: In-house technologies

Stocks then asked the participants about interoperability and how to achieve it. The group was divided in its attitude to IFC (Industry Foundation Class files), depending on whether they were information management or design technology specialists.

Dr Jozef Dobos, founder and CEO of 3D Repo, for example, described IFC as “unnecessarily bloated” because of the size of the files generated whereas those with a design perspective considered IFC to be a helpful step forward.

Others in the information management community felt there is a better solution to interoperability. Data transfer between systems is already being managed point-to-point using APIs and Crompton emphasised the need to move away from “storing data in a file. You should be storing geometry separately from documents and data.

We need to get to a world where we can just exchange data at the push of a button and it doesn’t matter whether you want COBie or anything else, it will just be there.”

Summing up, Stocks said: “Overall, there has been agreement that the construction industry is moving forward, albeit slowly. In spite of some exemplar clients, the majority are yet to fully embrace BIM. Lowering the barriers to entry by using standard templates, for example, could help to accelerate uptake.

“This, in turn, could drive a wider industry call for improved interoperability, data transfer and out-of-the-box solutions, which would create a larger market for technology providers, and thus focus product development to address current points of tension.”   

What are you doing to help achieve BIM compliance with ISO 19650 and make it business as usual? 

Graeme Forbes, ClearBox Making sure people understand BIM is about ROI and not about compliance. We are taking a more holistic approach, focusing on users and the outcomes they need to achieve, and helping people understand that they may need to do something differently in order to reduce effort downstream.

Rob Stephen, Newforma We are developing our connector strategy, ensuring that whatever applications our customers want to use, we are able to work alongside them, making it easier to collaborate around relevant information.

Stephen Crompton, GroupBC Providing templates for delivering the simplest elements of BIM so people can stop fearing it. They have to be seen as easy to use, not an overhead and that’s about making them relevant to the person implementing them. Identifying a number of best of breeds and integrating them using APIs so that people don’t have to invest in a lot of new products and systems.

Helen Thompson, HM Revenue and Customs As a client we have to drive the process to implement Level 2 BIM throughout our supply chain so that our buildings are delivered in accordance with it and we get the right data in place. We have to be very clear about our data requirements.

We are facilitating collaboration within the supply chain, working with lots of different design and contractor teams and FM suppliers, encouraging them to work together and learn from each other.

Karen Alford: We are looking at how we can make it easier to do the right thing

Ben Nduva, SCISYS We are working on the linkages between better information management and safer working practices.  We have been involved in bringing information out into the field so people working on assets – whether they are the customer, asset owner, or other service providers – have better information management. 

Duncan Reed, Trimble Solutions We provide a range of authoring tools that can deliver Level 2 BIM, allowing clients to discharge building regulations and geometry models that give fabrication levels of detail. We support our customers to use the software out-of-the-box or, through mature APIs, to customise it, create linkages to other places or add third-party extensions. 

Dave Shepherd, Autodesk We are simplifying our feature sets, as there can be far too much complexity that people don’t actually use. We are also trying to move to high frequency data management, communicating changes to data rather than sending entire files.

Ian Cornwell, Kraken IM We help people understand what BIM does for them, as opposed to what BIM is. We also explain that you can implement BIM one step at a time rather than trying to change the world in one go and that you need to design, build and operate a digital asset with the same care and attention you give to the real thing.

Nathan Doughty, Asite Everything we are doing is geared towards enabling collaborative BIM. All of us need to have toolkits that can be configured to fit the specific business needs of customers without losing the standards-based underpinning. And we need to focus on integration.

Martyn Horne, Vectorworks We help customers in architecture and landscape areas to produce design solutions which meet industry requirements for BIM processes. We are fully IFC certified with COBie. We’ve provided BIM Level 2 templates out of the box for those that want to use them. We collaborate with organisations such as NBS to supply generic objects and comply to their standards.

Stephen Hamil, NBS We maintain the Uniclass classification system which enables the classification of everything from an entire estate all the way down to the smallest of products and we continue to make that available for free.

Karl Thurston, Graphisoft We’ve got a UK-specific template which deals with a lot of the fundamentals of BIM Level 2 and we have some tools to help people check their data before sharing it.

We’ve been trying to make it easier and more fun to produce high-quality information: architects didn’t get into architecture for the data, they still want to do nice drawings. We spend a lot of time educating our clients and, in turn, their clients on process and workflows. 

Toby Sortain, ISG We are predominantly focusing on meeting our clients’ requirements, gaining valuable experience to understand and prove the necessary processes, determine and form best practice across the industry.  We are making our data-capture processes as intuitive and as simple as possible.

Ben Wallbank, Viewpoint It’s as much about the processes and the people involved as it is about the software that we use. As well as providing templates, we also help the client set up their systems and support them with any process and workflow management issues.

John Adams, Glider Technology We don’t just provide software, we get appointed as the information manager, mainly because people don’t love data as much as we do. We spend a lot of time talking with subcontractors, supply chains, manufacturers, to get the data over the line at the end of the project.  As the industry digitises, the line between design consultancy and software vendors will start to disappear.

Jozef Dobos, 3D Repo We believe in the democratisation of data, access to data. We want to make sure that the information is transparent and all the interested parties have access and visibility. You need to be able not only to look at 3D models but to actually do things with the information behind the models. What we do is open source, to work towards improving the industry. 

Karen Alford, Environment Agency We are embedding BIM Level 2 and gradually pushing the boundaries at the pace our supply chain can take and looking at how we can make it easier to do the right thing.

We are also getting our own house in order, so how can we be a better client, manage our own data model and maximise the use of our own data with the technology we already have?

Key takeaways

  • Software solutions have made huge advances in recent years and are now much more user-friendly and supportive of collaborative working.
  • Many clients still need to engage more fully with the BIM process.
  • The BIM mandate has accelerated the development of BIM adoption and deployment and incentivised the creation of new tech companies.
  • The disparate nature of the construction industry and its lack of repeatable processes hinders change.
  • As the market becomes more competitive, CDE solutions will become more SME-friendly.
  • The oil and gas industry is a good case of client-led change where clients were prescriptive in their data requirements and championed the specification, delivery and use of asset data across the lifecycle.
  • The creation of standard requirement (or “vanilla”) templates for different sectors would help grow client engagement.
  • Interoperability is still high on the agenda, with more work to be done.
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