Your browser is no longer supported

For the best possible experience using our website we recommend you upgrade to a newer version or another browser.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

Future Technology: BIM's evolution sees industry revolution

If anyone is looking for evidence of how far the concept of BIM has come in the last few years, it can be found in the words of HS2 Ltd technical director Andrew McNaughton, speaking at a conference organised by infrastructure software specialist Bentley Systems in November.

“What do I mean by BIM? It’s our central nervous system,” said the man in charge of route design for the UK’s £42bn High Speed 2 rail network.

“What if we don’t use BIM? Then we don’t quite build it right, and we don’t quite design it right, but we still pay all the money.”

He is right. We have been designing and building infrastructure for years without BIM, but now we know we could be doing it more efficiently. “Infrastructure gets delivered, but there is a lot of wasted time, effort and reworking, and a lot of risk that the organisations involved are exposed to,” says Bentley’s industry marketing director for rail Steve Cockerell. “What BIM seeks to do is iron out these backward steps and increase the amount of information known about the asset throughout its lifecycle.”

McNaughton sees BIM as integral to delivering an operational railway. “I want to be able to operate and maintain it virtually,” he says. “Only when we’ve done that do I know we’ve designed it right. “

“What if we don’t use BIM? Then we don’t quite build it right, and we don’t quite esign it right, but we still pay all the money”

Andrew McNaughton, HS2 Ltd

But the fact that it is so critical to Europe’s largest infrastructure project indicates that we no longer see BIM as simply a shared project model; it is a way of working.

Cockerell dispels some myths about BIM when he gives a list of the things it is not. “BIM is not a product, or piece of technology; nor is it a data format or a vendor-owned initiative; and it is not a single monolithic database,” he says. “BIM is a process that must be understood and embraced by people. Yes, it is supported by technology, but that should not be the starting point.”

At its heart, BIM is about information – collecting it, sharing it and using it to the best advantage of the project. That information can be anything from point cloud or survey data to the views of local residents recorded at a public meeting, as well as the design information that typically goes into project models. What is important is that the information is accurate, useful and goes to the people who need it.

“You’ve got to be thinking about why you’re collecting the information in the first place – that’s at the heart of BIM,” Cockerell says.

When BIM first emerged in the construction industry, it was what its name suggests – a building information model. The emphasis was firmly on a 3D project model created by the design team that might be used by the construction team. But this model existed almost in isolation, representing a period of time from the start of the design process through to handing over to the contractor.

Since then, however, the industry has realised the benefits not just of creating a 3D model of the design, but also of collecting information in a consistent way so that it can be accessed by all project stakeholders, including the construction team and fabricators, before being handed over to the owner or operator, and used throughout the operations and maintenance phase of the asset.

1-90 Washington State

Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) has used Bentley software to design a major road improvement and to create a 3D animated visualisation of its proposals.


Line of sight: A 3D animated visualisation of a key six-lane motorway was produced by the Washington State Department of Transportation

Line of sight: A 3D animated visualisation of a key six-lane motorway was produced by the Washington State Department of Transportation

The $551M (£352M) project involves improving a section of the I-90, just east of Snoqualmie Pass, to provide a safer, more efficient six-lane motorway from Hyak to Easton.

It will add a lane in each direction, replace deteriorating concrete, and add and replace bridges and culverts. As the road passes through a national forest, it will be replanted with native trees, shrubs, and grasses to improve the habitat adjacent to the highway and improve visual aesthetics for the traveling public.

WSDOT used Bentley’s MicroStation, InRoads Suite, and Descartes software to come up with a design that will increase capacity by 50% in each direction to accommodate projected traffic volumes for the next 20 years. The use of the process controller for distributed rendering in MicroStation saved 35 days in the creation of a fly-through/drivethrough animation that has proved vital in gaining public and political support for the project.


But this brings new challenges, as Bentley’s marketing director for roads Ron Gant observes. “We never used to worry about including the information that was needed to maintain the asset,” he says. “We used to see the lifetime of a project as just the three year construction period, but it might have another 40 years in operation, so we have to think about how we carry all that intelligence from the initial design.”

Gant says there is a danger that the project’s digital footprint will “explode” because of the amount of information being collected. Therefore it is important to manage data so that people involved in the project can see what they need when they want to see it.

“You have to create a lot more intelligence in your model,” he says. “You can generate a lot of information, but you have to provide it to the right person at the right time and in a form appropriate to his or her need. The constructor needs certain information, just as the operator needs something different – and there is some information created during the design phase that neither require.”

Gant uses the phrase “publishing for purpose”: making the right information available in the right format at the right time in the project lifecycle. So at the start of a project, for example, it might be important to be able to produce virtual reality visualisations aimed at local communities or politicians, whereas once you get into design and construction, engineers are comfortable with stripped back 3D design models.

“The better we make our technology, the more we are able to present the result in a medium people can understand,” says Gant, citing the example of the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), which created an animated simulation of a proposed road scheme (see box). “WSDOT did it so that it could effectively present and justify the project to the local people. It recognised that this was important, because they needed to get funding authorisation and public buy-in.”

Bentley has long provided software that can manage information in almost every form, contributing to effective BIM processes in every type infrastructure asset or project. In November it announced an extension of its strategic alliance with positioning specialist Trimble to plug what may have been seen as an information gap – linking BIM models with survey and construction information to facilitate “construction modelling”.

“The better we make our technology, that allows us to present the result in a medium people can understand”

Ron Gant, Bentley

Bentley acknowledges that until now even the most advanced BIM models have not been optimised for contractors, and they have ended up creating their own 3D models to help them visualise the construction sequence. This not only involves unnecessary duplication of effort, but also means there may be gaps in the information that the client is given.

“Within this industry, what we would do as design engineers is complete a mathematical model, and then publish what we thought was necessary to construct it,” explains Gant. “As an industry we have been narrowly focused on designing things, and contractors are not happy with that.”

The joint effort means design information created in Bentley software can be exported directly into Trimble’s products, which can be used for setting out and to direct machine control systems on construction equipment. It should help ensure that the model created in the early stages of a project – from concept through the design – continues to be used as the basis for the next stage – construction.

It is further evidence that BIM has moved a long way since its early days: the industry now wants a great deal more out of the technology than simply a 3D design model. 

Produced in association with Bentley Systems.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions. Please note comments made online may also be published in the print edition of New Civil Engineer. Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.