The word inter-operability has been cropping up a lot recently - no mean feat for an unwieldy term that certainly does not appear in my dictionary.
It is all to do with doing business and the International Alliance for Interoperability defines it as the smooth exchange of electronic data. It was a recurring theme in a seminar on e-construction held last week by the Building Centre Trust and the Construction Products Association.
Construction products have a whole range of diverse properties associated with them. Much thought is going into how these can be communicated in a way that allows people to specify and buy the right widget, and even transfer a virtual model of it straight into their design.
A major new sister service to NCE Plus goes live this week.
Construction Intelligence gives a smart new method for specification and purchase of products.
You can search for, say, bricks or lintels, choose them by their key properties, then buy them online through Wolseley or, soon, Travis Perkins.
By narrowing the search to the individual product, rather than just the manufacturer, this will also open the way to use of downloadable virtual models of the objects.
Organisations such as IAI and Construction Industry Trading Electronically are developing standards that will allow data to be understood by different systems. CITE for instance has developed solutions for fields such as electronic tenders. 'We would like to see everyone able to work in a different way, but able to talk together, ' summed up community manager Tim Cole.
Laing director and IAI UK chairman Brian Zelly says IAI's task should be thought of as writing a dictionary, agreeing common object definitions that can be recognised by all the software. Known as Industry Foundation Classes, these will allow, say, a door object to carry with it both attributes such as size and finish, and intelligence such as which side the hinges should be relative to the light switch or what lintel it needs.
Last week the smooth exchange of data was tested in earnest through Teamwork 2000, a week-long experiment to explore the benefits and potential of e-business. The demonstration project shadowed a real scheme and a 30-strong team made full use of IT.
'The idea is to perform all design iterations in the virtual world, not in the expensive real world, ' said Business Round Table director Christopher Groom. One very clear benefit was in detecting clashes between different elements of a structure's design. Use of a single project model potentially allowed identification of over 7,000 potential clashes - 400 serious. Think of all the rows that will have saved.