Working towards a joined-up approach to BIM

A working group of the UK BIM Alliance set up to help make the process of sharing product data simpler and more standardised will publish its first report at Digital Construction Week later this month. We speak to the group’s chair Su Butcher to learn more about the process.

Talk us through a bit of the background and what the group is trying to achieve?

In January UK BIM Alliance chair Anne Kemp and I facilitated a meeting between a group of clients, manufacturers and data companies to look at what was happening in the field of product data. By product data we mean the information about products – including individual products, assemblies and systems – which make up our built environment.

We were concerned that there had been a lot of individual initiatives to digitise product data as part of the BIM adoption process, and more initiatives were on their way, but that there wasn’t a joined-up approach, nor an understanding of the issues. As an industry umbrella body, the Alliance is in an ideal position to help these sort of discussions take place.

The meeting was oversubscribed, we had certainly hit on a matter of concern. It was clear then that we needed as a first step to understand what the challenge was we were facing, and to help industry to know what the “state of the nation” was, so that we could then move forward together. 

The working group was set up in April to talk to people from across industry and investigate what the key issues were, so that we can communicate that to everyone and bring people together for the next step. 

You could say that this report isn’t about blue sky thinking or setting out a vision of the future, rather it is an honest look at where we are, why we got here and how we might get to where we want to go.

What does this first report focus on?

Our report is called A Fresh Way Forward for Product Data: State of the Nation. It looks at six key areas:

  • Structured data and what it is;
  • The current situation with product data standards;
  • The data journey right through the lifecycle of our built assets;
  • Product data naming and Identification (what things are called and how we identify them);
  • Product data hosting (who stores the information and how?);
  • Product data security.

We talked to more than 100 people about these topics, and their insights have helped us identify why  these areas are important, what is holding up progress and what might be done to move things forward.

There is clearly a need for leadership, coordination and education in this area, so we also looked at how that might be provided going forward.

What are the key takeaways from the report?

You’ll have to wait until we launch the report on 18 October for the detail, but suffice to say that this exercise has identified some major areas of concern about how product data is produced and how it travels through the supply chain today.

Dealing with these issues will be essential if we are to succeed in digitalising construction, infrastructure and the built environment as a whole, which we need to do to get the benefits which are being felt in so many other industries.

Key learnings?

We spoke to people right across the industry and it has been fascinating how the different disciplines have very different perspectives on product data. It’s only by taking this broad view that we can start to see why a joined up standardised approach is essential, and how it might be implemented.

It was important to us to give key learnings for all the players in this field, so that everyone who reads the report learns something, from manufacturers to clients, designers to merchants, hosting companies to contractors, and government too. We’ve set these learnings out in the Executive Summary.

What if anything might surprise us?

On one hand I don’t think much will surprise you about your own part of the process, but on the other, these perspectives haven’t been brought together in one place before, so unless you are very widely read, I think there will be something surprising for everyone outside their own discipline.

We are a very siloed industry and I have a feeling that many of us are woefully undereducated about how other people in the chain use product data.

How far are we towards reducing the “thicket of product data” you mentioned at the launch?

We really are at the beginning of a journey with this subject. A lot of effort has gone into parts of the process, but there is a great deal more to do to join things up and make sure that that effort (including financial) isn’t wasted.

The exercise the working group has been through has been a really important first step in seeing the “thicket” for what it is. Now we can focus on sorting out these problems for everyone’s benefit.

What is the most challenging aspect of getting a coherent and seamless system that will work for all and boost efficiency?

One of the challenges for implementing any initiative in our industry is that the people who begin that process are evangelical advocates, not always the ideal people to speak to sceptical traditionalists. I don’t think it will surprise people to know that there is a lack of consensus and plenty of confusion around this topic, as those with strong views fail to convince each other, never mind those who are doing the day job.

For me this is a failure of communication more than anything else. Communication is the biggest challenge we face – making the case in plain English. We hope that by reading this report anyone in the industry can have a proper understanding of where we are.

They won’t need to have detailed knowledge of how data is managed and they won’t need to be technical specialists outside their own area. So often we forget how little we know as individuals.

Getting people to talk has not always been easy, but some have been dying to speak out about this issue, and I hope the report will encourage people to flesh out their perspective more by responding to the report.

One of the people I interviewed works in a very high-end asset management role managing a huge estate of educational buildings. He was incredibly grateful that someone had even bothered to ask him about this topic, because his feeling was that the industry is so heavily focused on constructing and creating data it isn’t thinking enough about how that data will be used, and there is a huge skills shortage on the asset management side.

If we can get such conversations going then the huge effort of the last six months will definitely have been worthwhile.

On a personal level I would say that coordinating the production of this report has been one of the most challenging things I’ve done in my career, but also the most rewarding. As an industry we need to listen to each other more.

How much buy in are you getting from software manufacturers? And what have been/are their concerns?

The software manufacturers have been extremely supportive of our work. It is important to remember that they have invested a great deal of time and resource in trying to meet industry needs, at a time when most of us would not have taken such a risk, and they should be applauded for that.

The software companies are naturally very nimble in their business models, and as the industry changes what it needs, they are keen to adapt. What some have been missing though, is a clear, well-informed way forward. I hope that our report will help with that – and those who have been involved in the peer review certainly think it will.

What are the major barriers still to be overcome?

I’m going to answer that by referring you to the report findings when it comes out.

What happens next?

We are launching the report at a special workshop at 10am on 18 October at Digital Construction Week. Hard copies will be available there and a digital download on the UK BIM Alliance website.

Do you need help – and what?

We’d like help in two areas.

First, we’d like to encourage everyone to read the report and share it with other people in the industry who work with product data – at any level. For us to get unity we need to help everyone understand where the industry as a whole is at. The report isn’t long and is deliberately easy to ready: the Executive Summary is just three pages.

Second, the Alliance is inviting responses to the report, from any individual or organisation who is willing to share their response, so as to inform what next steps are taken. You can send your responses to the working group at [email protected] and we’ll be accepting responses right up to Christmas – 21 December 2018.

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