Working groups call for single source of truth for product data

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product data,

Since the Grenfell Tower fire, there have been a number of reviews and reports on how construction product manufacturers should make their product data more detailed, accurate and available. Fareed Patel, owner of Hamari Agency, takes a look at what manufacturers need to do to organise their product data

Following the Grenfell tragedy, the government commissioned a review that outlined the requirement for information and key data relating to a building to be stored digitally and updated throughout a building’s lifecycle. The principle of a ’golden thread of building information’ described in the Hackitt Report was recently echoed by working groups formed by the UK BIM Alliance and the IET.

Collaborating with industry leaders and stakeholders, ‘A Fresh Way Forward for Product Data’ sets out a road map for manufacturers and the construction industry to navigate themselves towards a more unified approach to managing product information. What the UK BIM Alliance report reveals is that while encouraging a fragmented industry to use common standards, the first step to achieving this is for organisations to establish a single source of truth (SSOT) internally to maintain their product data.

Unified and standardised product data

Making product data machine-readable with a unified structure and a standardised naming convention is something many manufacturers are still working towards within their own organisations. This way a single product with all its variations can be more accurately identified by manufacturers and construction companies.

However, manufacturers already striving to break down their own product data silos may continue to look for incentives to continually adapt their data practices for stakeholders further down the supply chain.

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The UK BIM Alliance report recommends that a UK Governance hierarchy for interconnected dictionaries, structured data creation and approval needs to be agreed and formally documented. It states “Information should be structured by common standards not yet fully determined; focus on developing a Product Information Management System (PIM) and structure your data ready to map to the standards when they are ready. Your PIM will be the source from which you will be able to distribute information about your products.”

A golden thread of information

The considerable timescale, investment and industry-wide backing needed to harmonise product data standards leaves manufacturers and construction companies to work with what’s available to them today.

While recommendations encourage organisations to consider a product data journey that leaves a golden thread of information the number of stakeholders involved during a product’s lifecycle makes applying an auditable trail from manufacturer to installation a significant challenge.

To do this clients, designers, manufacturers and installers would need to provide product information on a platform that acts as a single source of truth and is compatible with whatever software is best for their own business. This level of integration will require a great deal of technical flexibility. An open-source PIM with configurable API connectivity can address the issue of easily changing product data conventions as industry standards and regulations change incrementally over time. As the origination of product data starts with manufacturers many are yet to decide when and how to respond to these imminent changes.

Unless motivated by incentives that can benefit manufacturers in the short term the gradual pace at which new product data rules come into force is likely to make some hesitant when it comes to making these changes.

The principles of both the Hackitt Report and the UK BIM Alliance report can find common ground with the commercial incentive of creating efficient product data systems for internal use. The practice of unifying data standards throughout a single organisation is already starting to transform manufacturing. As this becomes the norm the next steps to standardising product data across the UK and Europe becomes more realistic.

Data silos

At the heart of digital transformation is the concept of reducing data silos. This is an established best practice and should be the starting point for any manufacturer wanting to review their product data. Working with data from multiple sources can be time-consuming and error-prone. Details get lost in the ether when manually using spreadsheets to export and share data from various systems. If making product data available to all stakeholders in one place starts as an organisation-wide project, this system will be inherently more agile when it comes to adapting to industry-wide changes.

Product data can originate from many different places and this needs to be accommodated. But from origination, the next step of its journey needs to be onto a dedicated product information management platform (PIM) where auditable data enrichment can take place. It needs to be a single place where the data can be structured for all channels. BIM is one of many channels that need reliable product data. Internal teams, print catalogues and websites all need a constant flow of up to date product information.

Streamlining the flow of structured data from a single source not only lowers the risk of compliance but enhances the experience with external stakeholders who will be more likely to adopt and share these best practices. Structured product data is increasingly being seen by organisations as an asset as it speeds up time to market and improves customer experience. When data becomes machine-readable more processes can be done digitally, therefore reducing costs and human error.

The principle of an industry-wide golden thread can then become a sustainable reality. PIM platforms have auditable workflows of product data enrichment that ensures data governance within an organisation. Manufacturers can structure their data models so that their suppliers can also add their products directly in accordance.

In an API data driven economy a PIM can provide a single source of truth with an accountable live stream of accurate product data made available to any platform throughout the lifecycle of a product.

Accommodating a single source of truth

Since their report, key figures from the product data working group have in partnership with the IET initiated a project called ‘The Plain Language Guide for Manufacturers’ to better understand the issues around product information management for construction product manufacturers in the UK and Europe.

In an ongoing series of blogs and broadcast conference calls the principles of ‘data as an asset’ and de-risking compliance have been raised as potential incentives for manufacturers to structure their product data in line with their recommendations.

What has become clear is that changes at the scale suggested by these groups won’t happen overnight. New regulation will eventually push forward the golden thread principle and while manufacturers might feel the burden of compliance a readiness to adapt will streamline and consolidate their internal processes with these new efficiencies positively impacting their operations.

Unifying product data across the UK and Europe is possible with the right approach to systems that can accommodate a single source of truth while the construction industry continues to adapt to the changing landscape of digital transformation and new regulatory frameworks.

 

Fareed Patel

Product data expert and owner

Hamari Agency

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