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Future Systems: what does 2011 hold for IT in construction?

What does 2011 hold for IT in the construction industry? Will building information modelling finally break through, or will other technologies steal the limelight? Mark Hansford asks the experts.

Late last year an industry-wide survey revealed that construction’s IT Golden Goose - building information modelling (BIM) - remains grossly underused.

The survey, carried out by National Building Specification (NBS), showed the gross ignorance of BIM across the industry and highlighted a pressing demand for improved awareness and understanding of the technology.

It’s a worry, with the survey coming just days after chief construction advisor Paul Morell released his Low Carbon Construction report emphasising the vital role that BIM must play in driving the more for less, low carbon agenda.

Morell called for BIM models to be mandatory on all central government projects worth £50M or more and a trial team is currently testing its use. It will report on its findings next month. They might be grim.

BIM aware

The NBS survey found that just 13% of those working in the industry were aware of BIM and currently using it.

More than four out of 10 had never heard of it.

Clearly, some explanation is needed. Put simply BIM is a 3D CAD model where each component in the model - door, beam, wall - knows what it is, what its properties are, and how it can interact with components adjacent to it.

So a structure designed in BIM cannot have a doorway too small for the door, a wall with a beam protruding through it, or any other kind of clash that can lead to expensive redesigns, rework and delays on site. Each component can be measured exactly, minimising waste. And because the project team is working off one single model, duplication of work is eliminated.

The most famous use of BIM to date was on Heathrow’s Terminal 5, where the entire project team worked off one BIM model and by doing so shaved 10% off project costs.

But despite this, widespread adoption remains limited in construction. Certainly, few major projects have a BIM model - Crossrail, for example, doesn’t. Even Autodesk, according to the NBS survey the clear market leader in 3D CAD software, admits that take-up of BIM remains slow in construction. It has no examples of UK use of BIM on a significant infrastructure project. Its best examples come from the United States, where the Army Corps demands a BIM model be built for all its projects, and where major highway schemes like the recently started £390M Presidio Parkway in California also uses the technology.

Bim benefits

Those who are aware of BIM are clear of its benefits - even if they are slow to adopt. In NBS’s survey, of those who were aware, two-thirds said that in five years’ time they’d be using it on most or all of their projects.
NBS head of BIM Stephen Hamil says the survey shows a clear split in the industry.

“Almost half admit they are not even aware of BIM. However, the other half of the industry is aware of BIM and is making preparations to adopt it on a majority of their projects. What this may leave us with is a two-tier construction industry, where there is a real chance of many companies being left behind.”
Morell’s Innovation and Growth Team’s Low Carbon Construction report says there are barriers to adoption.

In a world in which some small businesses still do not have an internet connection, or with businesses who have considerable sunk investment in legacy systems, which may not be appropriate to future ways of working, there are clearly barriers to the rapid adoption of BIM right across the industry.

“There is a danger of placing too much of a burden on BIM and expecting it to be a silver bullet”

Low Carbon Construction report

These are, however, barriers that can be expected to be overcome,” it says. “There is a danger of placing too large a burden on BIM and expecting it to be a silver bullet; but it does seem to be an idea whose time has come, and under the twin challenges of having to make buildings more accurately and at less cost, it is an opportunity that should not be allowed to pass by.”

More than anything else, it is clear that end user acceptance remains the biggest issue. It is one that is being tackled by industry research and development body Comit (Construction Opportunities for Mobile IT). This began in 2003 as a two-year research and development project part-funded by the Department of Trade and Industry and now continues through industry support.

Comit report

Three years ago Comit reported on the experiences of those firms it had worked with since 2003 in the adoption of mobile IT. Its report asked as many questions as it answered and it is now in the final throes of an update.
But Comit programme manager Neill Pawsey is already clear on chief problems.

“No matter what stage you are at, there are a few key things to remember,” he says. “Think process, then software, then hardware. Don’t think ‘we need to give them a PDA’.”

He also warns against “shiny shoes”. “IT salesmen might be good at selling solutions, but may not be so good at understanding the real needs of the industry. Give them the chance to learn, but if they aren’t taking on board what you say, then go and look elsewhere,” he says.

In addition to tackling user acceptance issues, Comit is also working on two new projects that could be this year’s breakthrough acts.

First, it is working with US partner FIATECH on an augmented reality demonstration and proof of concept. Key members on this project include Costain, Bentley Systems and MobiBiz. At the really sexy end, augmented reality could be used in tunnels to allow tunnellers at the cutting head to have a real-time, heads-up display of what ground conditions lie ahead, based on advanced surveys and geological information available.

Agile Costain

Costain is initially interested for the more modest reason of identifying street furniture on highways it is maintaining. But it is pioneering stuff nonetheless. “Costain is an agile organisation that encourages innovation,” says Costain group innovation and knowledge manager Tim Embley. “Going forward, mobile technology is very important to us and our customers.”

The second project called “Real-Time Field Reporting using Smart Devices” will involve the field testing of devices such as the iPad, Android tablets, smart phones, tablets and the Golden-I wearable PC device.

Here, companies are really racing in: Costain, Autodesk and Hilti are three firms all with iPad apps fresh on the market. Many more will surely follow this year as iPad ownership, in particular, soars. More than four million were sold in the last three months of 2010 and Apple expects that to accelerate.

BIM may be Morrell’s dream ticket, but it appears the industry’s focus may be elsewhere.

Future Systems: what does 2011 hold for IT in construction?

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