Innovate UK funds research into ‘ISBN numbers’ for building components

If you have a persistent identifier you can trace everything back to its origin.– James Forbes, project manager, RIBA Enterprises

RIBA Enterprises, the British Standards Institution and the Construction Products Association (CPA) have teamed up to begin a research product into a proposed identification system that would be give every single component in a building a unique identification code.

The Persistent Digital Identifiers project begins in October and will run for two years. It has been given a budgeted of £1.2m, with £592,000 met by a grant from  Innovate UK, the government’s technology strategy organisation. The remainder will be paid by the project partners.

Similar “persistent identifier” systems already exist in other industries. For example, every book has a unique ISBN (International Standards Book Number) and the entertainment industry has an Entertainment Identifier Registry, or EIDR, which uses a 27-digit code to list every variant of a given film, including different edits, subtitles and languages.

This then allows bodies in the industry to specify exactly which versions of a film they wish to refer to when making contract, or for other reasons, such as supply chain management.

James Forbes, project manager at RIBA Enterprises, said the system would do the same for a building product.

He said: “A product is manufactured, it goes to a distribution centre, then it goes to a trade company or builder’s merchant, and at each step it’s pushed into a different system and classified in a different way. If you have a persistent identifier you can trace everything back to its origin.”

The research team believes the ability to identify components over time may have multiple benefits for the construction industry.

RIBA Enterprises and BSI would establish a joint venture to manage the scheme, if the research is successful.

One example would be when carrying out refurbishments or facilities management. Forbes said: “If you have a building that’s 30-odd years old and on each floor you need to replace some doors, you could look at the reference code for that door, you could see that it was made by a company in Germany that no longer trades – but the code would tell you what alternative you could use. So, if it was a fire door it would have the same properties and dimensions, and so on.” 

Other advantages would flow from having a more accurate way to refer to particular assets in the built environment, which in turn may help in the process that is presently under way to digitise aspects of the construction process – supporting BIM, for example. 

Forbes said the researchers would be looking to analyse the potential benefits of persistent identifiers by holding discussions with companies in the construction industry – a process that will be facilitated by the CPA.

The programme envisages several months of research about the best way to set up the scheme, the type of information to include and the pitfalls to avoid before it moves to the proof of concept stage.

Forbes explained that at present it is not decided what form the identifier would take – whether a barcode or a radio transmitter or some other form of physical marker.

It remains to be seen whether the identifier would act as a form of meta-data, referring to information that is already contained in manufacturers’ catalogues or other digital libraries, or whether it would have its own standardised data fields.

It is also unclear whether every class of items would have a unique identifier, or whether it would denote a particular batch produced at a particular time. In principle, the identifier system can be attached to any object that is identifiable enough to count as a thing in its own right.

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