BIM – Where will the product information come from?

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The potential impact of BIM on all stages of construction is undeniable. Expectations on the part of clients and other stakeholders are great and growing all the time as experience accumulates and as case studies based on successful projects emerge.

Part of the reason for this is that BIM can best be seen as belonging to a suite of related technologies and new ways of working – such as off-site manufacturing, smart buildings, data management, higher performing buildings – which collectively have been called digital engineering. The impact on how the built environment is designed, constructed, maintained, operated and dismantled or rebuilt will be profound.

Such statements are becoming commonplace and almost taken for granted. Indeed, to illustrate this, the Construction 2025 strategy launched last year is to a large extent formed around the idea that properly implemented, digital engineering will be capable of supporting the industry’s need and desire for transformation, to perform at an altogether higher level (33% lower cost, 50% faster delivery, 50% lower impact).

It is becoming clear that as an industry either we already have the necessary tools, or that tools will be developed in the foreseeable future. BIM itself will continue to evolve and we can expect the flow of innovation to continue, but it is also clear that we face a step change, or a discontinuity, initially as more of the industry gets on the first rungs of the ladder of this new way of working. It is easy to see BIM level 2, namely forming and using the digital libraries of core information, as representing these first steps. Having addressed level 2 we will need to embrace BIM level 3 and all that that might bring with it, which many observers are expecting to enable the real transformation of the industry which is ultimately sought.

However good and efficient the software tools are, it is easy to overlook the other elements which need to be in place to make the whole design and build process work to actually deliver the quality and benefits expected by stakeholders, supply chain and clients. Some of these elements, such as collaborative working and sharing of information, are touched on in the other articles in this supplement. One specific area, of interest to manufacturers and suppliers like Saint-Gobain, is to do with the data, especially that to do with products, materials and assemblies, which form one aspect of the information input into the building or construction model. A moment’s reflection enables one to realise that the library of product information being used by the BIM design tool needs to be appropriate, accurate and up to date, or errors will be hidden only to emerge at a later date in say the build or assembly process, or during operation, which will potentially be very costly to resolve.

As the use of BIM progresses from level 2 to level 3 it is clear that the depth and range of product information required by the designer will continually grow – from dimensional data, to include performance (thermal, structural properties, acoustics, embodied carbon, recyclability etc). Since BIM is not just about working in a different way but it also includes the idea that ultimately the client expects it to contribute to higher performance at a lower cost, then competitive commercial pressures will be brought to bear and will help to shape how BIM is used. To win work the designer will need to have confidence that the optimum design is being offered, in all senses, and that this design can be delivered in reality.

This means that the task is not just about the elimination of errors and uncertainty in the raw data, but that the right products are being used and those products have the precise properties (and associated data) sought and assumed by the designer in assembling the solution to be offered to the client. As additional dimensions of data start to be integrated into the BIM model this challenge will only grow.

One solution offered is to use a library of generic product data – using average or typical data taken from across the market of a number of different versions of similar products (insulation, glass, wall linings, structural components, cladding etc). At first sight this solution may appear to offer a way through: a third party takes on the task of collating, interpreting and analysing the data to form a set of typical numbers which the BIM model can then simply connect with and extract. But what are the disadvantages and is there a better way?

In any industry, manufacturers will vie with each other to develop and bring to market more competitive products and solutions. Construction is no exception. In the information-rich age of BIM, an integral part of this improvement process is the dataset associated with each product which will enable competent modelling and design optimisation. The use of generic or average data, of ill-defined ownership, would increase the risk of inaccurate data as well as resulting, in all probability, a sub-optimal design with the consequent risk of it also being less competitive commercially than one resulting from the use of better quality data relating to the actual physical solution being proposed.

Where does this higher quality, more useful, data come from? Manufacturers are in the best position to be able to offer this: they own the raw data for their particular product portfolio; they understand how to use their products in terms of design and installation; they invest in product development to bring to market solutions targeted to address specific needs; they provide technical support services on all aspects of their product or solution.

Leading manufacturers, such as Saint-Gobain, are developing the delivery of this information in an on-line format for BIM so that the data is ‘live’. In the digital engineering age – where a building is built twice, once virtually in the BIM model and once on the construction site – product characteristics need to be captured in the form of electronic datasets which can be utilised and relied on by the supply chain. If a product feature is not in such a format its value is reduced. For the supply chain as a whole, and for individual links in the chain, to operate at maximum effectiveness and competitiveness the best quality data, namely the latest live data from the manufacturer, should be used. As digital engineering evolves, and demand for richer information grows, it will become even more critical to use manufacturers’ live data.

Saint Gobain

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