BIM – the digital wave detox

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John Tebbit, Managing Director at Robust Details Ltd outlines his concerns about BIM and how the digital wave should be seen as the equivalent of a detox by getting rid of unnecessary processes…

Early in 2014, as a deputy chief executive of the Construction Products Association, I set up BIM for Manufacturers and Manufacturing (BIM4M2) and then promptly left. Despite, or possibly because of this tough love approach, BIM4M2 is thriving (see www.bim4m2.co.uk ).

Even though I’m now in the world of house building as managing director of Robust Details Limited (www.robustdetails.com ), BIM, or more accurately digital construction, still has a great deal of interest for me. Indeed by not being in the trenches of the BIM movement but in the helicopter high above, feel that some aspects have become clearer.

First let me nail the myth that somehow the manufacturers are lagging in the digital world. Most architects and contractors will contend that they are the leaders, and even the odd client will vouch for their visionary stance. Actually guys, you really are newcomers to the digital world. The simple fact is that digital controls for manufacturing started in the early 1950s and today, virtually all manufacturing processes are controlled digitally. From my own experience in timber based manufacturing in the early 1990s, we had AutoCad drawings being converted into files that were transferred to the computer controlled machinery that processed tens of tonnes of chipboard an hour. Manufacturing is now virtually all digital, from the design of the products to the manufacturing process, the QA and testing, and of course the sales order processing.

The problem is the format of the digital information. Nowadays designers and contractors want the manufacturers to provide information in specific (and not always consistent) formats. However, even within manufacturers’ own companies there are often systems that cannot talk to each other very well. So rather than “driving innovation down the supply chain” as I often hear, a far better approach would be to ask the manufacturers about their existing digital data and how it could best be shared and used.

The second area that worries me is that lawyers are increasingly interested in BIM. I have a rule of thumb that whenever lawyers and/or the city financiers are interested in something, it means we are making that thing too complex. There is the anecdote that the construction industry spends more on lawyers than it does on research and development. Whether that is true or not, it feels true. Couple that with the most powerful marketing strategy of all, FUD – or fear, uncertainty and doubt, then look at all the lawyers circling round and warning about moving to fully shared digital models and processes, and it leads me to believe that the legal industry really doesn’t want to lose a very profitable gravy train. Sure there are some big issues but letting the lawyers design the process is like asking energy companies to design and run a programme that reduces energy consumption in housing. What? You say we have done that…..ah well, I suppose there is always the first turkey that will vote for Christmas.

The third area is a fairly technical one. Virtually every CAD system relies on assembling elements together, often from a library of standard elements. When these elements are joined in the design, there are usually rules embedded in the elements that say how they join. This works quite well as most manufacturers sell elements or parts of them, so they can supply the digital models of the elements.

However, many of the problems in construction are not with the elements themselves. They are with the interfaces between elements. As we move towards zero carbon, the heat leaking through these interfaces, often called linear thermal bridges, is becoming critical.

It would be really helpful if we could have a library of standard interfaces that then had rules embedded within them about how they extended their edges to produce elements. That would also help me with robustdetails® where we have a pattern book comprising standard interfaces of walls and floors.

I have spoken with many CAD and BIM experts about this and almost without exception I have been told that this is possible now, but then when I have asked for real examples none has yet emerged. Perhaps the interface driven modelling approach rather than the element based approach is yet to arrive. I suspect it will always be a hybrid approach.

In summary, the digital wave is already well into construction. No industry hit by the wave has ever resisted it for long and construction will be no different. At the moment though, too many people are trying to digitise their existing processes rather than thinking it through properly. We don’t have bar code coordinators in every shop checking whether the bar codes are right, so eventually the construction industry will also need to accept that digital data doesn’t change in transmission.

We will always need the creative designers, the makers of the stuff and things and the people who put them together. Anything more than that is just waste and the sooner we see the digital wave as the equivalent of a detox, getting rid of unnecessary processes, the better. ■

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John Tebbit

Managing Director

Robust Details Ltd

Tel: 03300 882 141

jtebbit@robustdetails.com

www.robustdetails.com

www.twitter.com/RobustDetails

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