Building Information Modelling: The Manufacturer’s Perspective No 1

By Chris Witte.

So BIM is the new buzz word in construction. We all think we are already doing it, but none of us really understand it. The Government thinks it will reduce public sector construction costs by 20% and lead the economy out of recession, but say “the market” will decide how. And the cynics say it is all being driven by the Treasury, who are insisting on a national asset register detailing every nut and bolt in every public building; presumably so we can get a good price when we sell these buildings to the French!

Building Information Modelling has been around for years but it really emerged on the Construction stage when Paul Morrell ( the government’s chief construction adviser) made it a central theme within his Construction Strategy, launched in May last year. It stated that the Government will require fully collaborative 3D BIM ( with all project asset information, documentation and data being electronic) as a minimum by 2016.

To make this happen we need behaviour change, process change and technology improvements. The behaviour change will be massive as it will require all stakeholders within the construction process to share information, sooner and in more detail than they are currently prepared to do. This is also part of the  process change, but will need to be formalised in a change to the RIBA design stages. This work is well underway and a BIM overlay in draft format already exists. The technology change required is particularly important to the manufacturer. Architects, engineers and main contractors use 6 main design platforms ( Revit, Bentley etc etc ). Up until now these tools have been fit for purpose: 3D design; but of limited usefulness in their ability to contain product information. But this is only one of the problems we face. The other issue is that none of these softwares are currently compatible with each other. In other words, the product supplier will need to develop a bespoke solution for each software, unless their product has a very simple geometry and information requirement.

But there is hope in the form of a common standard information set that will work across all design softwares. The IFC ( International Foundation Class ) and COBie ( Construction Operations Building information exchange ) file formats. These are the agreed formats that the design softwares promise to accept.The software vendors are making it known they are committed to an interoperable solution. Indeed they are extremely helpful when you approach them, but until now there has been little sharing and agreement amongst themselves. They are competitors so it’s understandable, if somewhat shortsighted. Let’s hope that the recently launched Open BIM Alliance of software vendors can move this forward at a pace; although I notice the market leader still does not appear to be a member!

The other good news for many of us is that IFC and COBie is part of the BuildingSmart  international standards, which means that once we have our data sets we can work with designers and contractors in most developed, and many developing countries.

But for those of us with more complex geometries, the design softwares struggle to cope. We manufacture insulated panels with different external profiles, some of them quite pronounced. We have developed a detailing system called KingCAD based on Tekla Structures, with some adaption and macro development it can cope with these geometries, and ancilliary components; but Tekla is mainly used by structural engineers rather than architects. Given an interoperable design software industry; we could just export an IFC file from Tekla into an architect’s design tool. But Revit, the market leader, doesn’t accept the file. So we have some work to do!

In order to ease the industry into the 2016 public sector vision, we only need to provide a COBie file to architects and contractors up until that date. IFC will be required post 2016. COBie is an Excel spreadsheet with predefined collumns into which we have to add all the information we have traditionally supplied in various manual formats to a project.

Main Contractors, especially those with a significant interest in the public sector, are starting to knock on the product suppliers’ door: What is your BIM capability? Have you done anything for a BIM project? This is where panic sets in because you realise that if you had a solution you’d be differentiated from your competitor and in the short to medium term this, in certain cases, will drive specification that is likely to be held.

Indeed research this month by Competitive Advantage shows that Architects, Engineers and Contractors all believe specification, whilst unlikely to be made sooner, is more likely to remain unchanged. This is the reason why it is important for product suppliers to be early adopters. BIM can both drive specification in the short term and help keep it. Carpe Diem!

Chris Witte


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