In the first of a short podcast series, hosted by co-founder of the Hamari Agency, Fareed Patel, a roundtable of industry experts calls for trade associations to work together to standardise construction product data
Following recent conversations on the harmonisation of construction product data a consensus to meet for an online roundtable was agreed upon as the best way forward to make some much-needed progress on this issue.
An engaging discussion was had on standardisation, a single source of truth and the principle of a ‘golden thread’ of information as recommended in the Hackitt report. While centred on construction participants included those with backgrounds in digital and standards to complete a holistic view of lessons learnt and a vision for the future. What became apparent during this meeting was that collaboration needed to extend to everyone in construction including trade associations, institutions and groups who could bring real value to the process of standardisation.
The MEP industry and product data
Phil Thompson, procurement data manager of NG Bailey kicked-off the conversation with a presentation that demonstrated how product data is currently transacted in the MEP industry. While a part number can be assigned at origination its identifier can change each time it moves through each link of a supply chain. This makes a golden thread of information almost unworkable without standardisation or a way of adding unique IDs to products. Central sources of data provided by commercial third parties have gone someway to unifying product data but as Phil pointed out it can be problematic when a single source truth for product information is a competitive solution.
The standardisation of product attributes and geometric data has been helped greatly by the BIM agenda but products are still missing a unique number or identifier. Unique IDs can be seen in other industries such as retail, motor insurance and mobile payments so why the difficulty in doing the same in the MEP and construction industries? Alex Small, BIM and digital platforms manager at Tata Steel pointed out that thanks to GS1, merchants could use SKUs but at the manufacturing level there needs to be unique instances which could run into billions of identifiers. As is common in construction bespoke products are customised and whenever one product is joined to another or painted with a different colour a new identifier should be generated.
Incentivising the construction industry to change
The process by which product data is originated could be standardised with data being generated by the manufacturer establishing a single source of truth that would need to be adopted throughout the supply chain. Alex Lubbock, founder of Amedo Limited raised the issue of collaboration in an industry that may be resistant to being pushed into change and would be more receptive to developing a community open to using the best tools and practices. Incentivising the construction industry to change enough to accommodate a golden thread of product data will need to have clear short term gains. New regulations will go some way to increasing standardisation but as was pointed out during the roundtable this will need to be a global solution to work properly.
The increasing number of digital channels that require product information is creating added bottlenecks of product data that needs to be distributed and shared. BIM is one digital channel but there are also multiple eCommerce and marketing outlets including marketplaces like Amazon.
The same products being described in different ways as they travel through the supply chain may not have been much of a commercial problem in the days of printed catalogues backed by a sales team. However, the immediacy and scale that has come to be expected with digital has enabled manufacturers and distributors to get their products out far quicker and to a wider market. This in turn has increased the market size enabling some to expand overseas and sell direct. Removing product data friction from digital commerce bottlenecks will continue to increase these growth areas and provide a competitive edge which may serve as an incentive to harmonise data industry-wide.
Taking inspiration from other sectors
Gary Lynch, former CEO of GS1 spoke about similarities between retail and manufacturing when it comes to standardising product data. Like with construction, retail had to review their situation when the welfare of the public came into question. From the Horsegate scandal to allergies, issues kept arising to the point where manufacturers and retailers sat down together with standards organisation GS1 and came up with a single way food products are described. Roundtable participants were in agreement that this conversation had to continue and expand across the construction industry to trade associations, institutions and groups to have any chance of achieving the same outcome.
Another interesting example of how other sectors have overcome similar data issues was also highlighted by Gary with the example of GS1 embedding NHS patient numbers into GS1 barcodes generating a globally unique means of identification while keeping the original NHS patient number. In principle, a similar method could be used to maintain a golden thread of data without changing naming conventions currently used by organisations within the construction supply chain. This question leads to the proposition that if the investment needed for the implementation of an industry-wide single source of truth for product data wasn’t an issue then would this problem be solved? We hope to address some of the reasons companies change product numbers as they pass through their organisations as seen in Phil’s presentation so that we can offer alternative good practices that can be adopted in line with the principles of a golden thread.
In the light of those industries that have gone before when it comes to product data standardisation it is clear there is a lot of work to be done. The recommendation from the roundtable of bringing together trade associations and key stakeholders to experience some success while working together to implement a solution on a specific pain point is something that this group plans to do in the near future and is open to speaking to those who could help identify these next steps for real change.
While looking forward to another lively and enjoyable discussion next month we’d like to thank our participants for taking part in what we hope will continue to be a catalyst in creating a safer and a more efficiently run construction product supply chain.
- Phil Thomson, procurement data manager, NG Bailey 1
- Heena Vara, partner manager, BigCommerce
- Alex Lubbock, founder, Amedo Limited
- Tom Oulton, digital transformation lead, Operance
- Alex Small, BIM and digital platforms manager, Tata Steel
- Richard Silk, managing director, Userism
- Kevin Miller, managing director, Craig and Derricott
- Jim Herbert, VP & general manager, BigCommerce
- Henry Stocks-Fryer, head of customer success, Bidnamic
- Gary Lynch, former CEO, GS1
- Chris Jobse, CEO, PIMvendors.com
- Knut Jøssang, product manager digital solutions, Pipelife Norway.