The challenge of digitalising construction product information

Construction products
Image: Philip Openshaw |
Digitalising construction product information in a uniformly standardised way holds the key to transforming the industry. But it’s no easy task, as the Construction Product Association’s Hanna Clarke explains to Denise Chevin.

The LEXiCON project is seeking to standardise construction product information and supports manufacturers in sharing product information freely across the industry. It is being developed by the Construction Innovation Hub in partnership with the Construction Products Association (CPA).

In the summer, LEXiCON reached its first major milestone when it published broad principles for the creation and ongoing management of product data templates: LEXiCON Methodology: Creating relevant authorities and achieving consensus. By creating a consistent approach across the building industry, LEXiCON will make it easier for people to upload, categorise and compare data between products.

Hanna Clarke, digital and policy manager at the CPA, has been working on the project for the last five years. She says it is bringing product manufacturers together from across the UK to develop the system.

As the next stage of the methodology is set to be published, we speak to Clarke about the process so far and her hopes for it.

How did the project start?
Hanna Clarke of the Construction Products Association

“It raises lots of questions. What does that information look like? And who decides? That is a real challenge on multiple fronts.”

Hanna Clarke

Hanna Clarke: When it first started in around 2015, manufacturers were trying to support the whole movement towards BIM level 2 at the time. And the challenge was that we knew we needed to digitalise product information, but there was no real clarity on what that meant.

Quite often the direction of travel was to create BIM objects with graphical representations of their products. Manufacturers ended up spending enormous amounts of money on creating these BIM objects, only to find that what suited one client did not suit another. There were also questions about the usefulness of these BIM objects, and the product information that sat behind them. So the whole thing was quite chaotic.

The proposal for LEXiCON was therefore simply to communicate product information properly by making sure that you standardise what you are talking about and have everybody transmit the same information. So, you could template out what information the different products should be exchanging, and once it’s been templated, computers can exchange it.

But it raises lots of questions. What does that information look like? And who decides? That is a real challenge on multiple fronts, because you have got manufacturers who have different perspectives, even about the same construction products. Then there are designers and specifiers who might want certain information, but which will be completely redundant to a maintainer, for example, or a procurer.

What LEXiCON has been setting out to do, which is unique, is both provide a platform for the creation of product data templates, and also to have a consensus mechanism to bring different parts of industry together to agree what those product data templates look like, under the title of a relevant authority. You might have a relevant authority, for example, for fenestration, or you might have one for finishes and exteriors.

The process is akin to developing a standard, but little did we know how difficult that would be. We hugely underestimated the amount of work necessary to ensure this is a system that can really work for everyone.

What are the areas that have proved difficult?

There have been many. We have had to develop new digital frameworks – data dictionaries and interoperability standards. A data dictionary is a space where you can define terms or properties and put them together in a library. And with every property that you define, you can associate a globally unique identifier (GUID). It’s a code that you put in and then you can make it computer-exchangeable.

What you can also do in a data dictionary is group your properties into groups. Then you can group those groups together and that’s how you would make a template. It is associating codes with definitions, so that you will always know precisely what you are talking about.

And the great thing about a GUID is you can give it a synonym. So, if one part of the industry says “we will describe that as shiny” and another part of an industry says “we will describe that as brassy”, you can use a synonym and the computer still sees the same thing. But you get the two different interpretations from different parts of industry.

In the future, you will be able to give it a synonym across languages. It means you could have the French term, the English term, the German term and the computer will still see it as one code.

How will the product data templates be used?

“A data dictionary is a space where you can define terms or what we call properties and put them together in a library.”

Hanna Clarke

Manufacturers fill in the product data template relevant to their product type to create a product data sheet. And that product data sheet will be computer-exchangeable.
The idea is that relevant authorities come together, and they follow the LEXiCON processes of agreeing a product data template.

To that end, if they are creating a product data template, they will have to set up a working group. And in that group, they would have to show they’ve got the right manufacturers, or trade associations in the room. But also that they have got representation from people who might be using the product data templates, such as designers, contractors and procurers.

How will LEXiCON be rolled out across the different parts of the industry?

We are currently setting out methodology for the rules of engagement for these working groups. Then we can start the process of rolling the system out. Phase one, which we published earlier this year, laid out the broad principles of LEXiCON and how it works.

Phase two, which is where we are right now, is developing the practical details from these broad principles and how working groups can be set up. [We have to address]: who can be a relevant authority and what their registration process is. [We also need to develop] some early processes of how you actually create a product data templates.

Meanwhile, phase three will look at other processes, such as governance and training processes. How does this work with other data dictionaries for example? Clearly, we are not there yet. But I think what the reports produced for phase one and now phase two show is the quantity of work that’s been done in terms of different sectors. And how much the different industry sectors can be doing in the meantime to determine their relevant authorities. We have some trade bodies already doing that.

They have not yet gone through the registration process. But they have been following the approaches that have been set out in the previous reports for the LEXiCON methodology. They have started the work on creating product data templates.

Are all the sectors on board them with this?

We know we have strong support from, for example, CPA membership. That encompasses more than 87% of manufacturers and distributors in the UK. Some of our members are already doing this work, not all, but this is something we’re gearing them up towards.

The key selling point of LEXiCON is that it will be done through consensus. Therefore it will be far more trustworthy and more likely to have pan-industry backing. Until now, many of the construction industry initiatives and digital transformation efforts has been stunted by the fact that standardised product information has not been available. This project is essential to the construction industry and the built environment industry being properly digitalised.

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