Alongside the US and Middle East, the UK is now leading the global move towards the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) technologies and associated new work practices.
Construction companies are keen to exploit improved information sharing to achieve cost savings and operational efficiency. But is the lack of mobile technology used in the field set to constrain innovation and prevent organisations realising true 'end-to-end' value and benefit from the adoption of BIM technologies, competencies and techniques?
There is no doubt that the Government’s decision to demand suppliers involved in public sector projects use Building Information Modelling (BIM) tools and techniques by 2016 has focused the attention of the construction industry.
To date, this approach has only facilitated collaboration in the early phases of building design and construction. And while there is no doubt that early insight into potential problems of access or conflict are key to minimising delay and costs, that improved information resource has huge – it could be argued, significantly more – potential on site.
Today, far too much time is lost as a result of workers lacking the required information to do the job. Whilst the problem is manageable if the site office is only minutes away, on major construction projects for roads or other infrastructure, this is rarely the case and workers have to travel miles to attain information or carry vast quantities of paper-based information: from drawings and equipment schedules, to method statements. And there is no guarantee this information is up to date.
Given the pressure on pricing as a result of the government’s desire to cut costs by 20 percent, construction companies and building operators simply cannot afford to waste time with workers left idle due to lack of information.
Nor can they risk mistakes due to inaccurate, incomplete, out–of-date, or just incorrect information that leads to rebuilds and the cost of additional materials, getting rid of the old materials and the carbon overhead. The financial implications are huge.
The essence of BIM is information sharing: not only 3D designs but also the related documents. These could include anything from the part reference numbers or documentation, through the maintenance scheduling, to the social media conversation where decisions were made about how best to construct it.
With a consolidated information resource that includes drawings, specifications, commissioning requirements, method statements, health and safety assessments, environmental assessments, and supply chain logistical information, a company can extend BIM from the original design through on-site construction to on-site maintenance and repair.
Add in key resources such as time sheets and employee training records to ensure they have the right skills and equipment expertise, and the technology also improves site management and project control.
Providing a worker with access to the information they require at the point of activity, relevant to their role and the task they are performing, could dramatically improve their productivity and efficiency. But it is important not to overwhelm an individual with too much information or information that is non-relevant to their role.
In addition, location-based services and technologies can be used to identify the worker, their location on site, and work package being performed, making it possible to provide them with relevant information, and the ability to access more in-depth information as needed.
This information needs to be available for both online and offline use to help ensure workflows continue seamlessly. Such personalised views into information relevant to the individual user’s project and role cut down wasted time trying to find documents specific to the task-at-hand.
There are some obvious challenges associated with delivering mobile technology on a construction site, from the availability of connectivity to the durability of devices and health and safety concerns.
Many construction companies have banned the use of mobiles on site, because of the risks associated with distraction of the operative - putting them in direct danger from powered equipment and other site based obstacles and hazards.
One possible solution to this is the adoption of Real Time Location Services (RTLS) technology that leverages Wi-Fi and other systems to alert the individual to the nearby presence of vehicles or equipment.
A new approach to the procurement and management of mobile IT hardware could also reap significant cost savings.
Traditionally investment is made in ruggedised equipment that requires careful selection, testing and is often very costly to purchase and maintain.
This approach requires that the new assets be given a long period of use (say 4 – 5 years) to derive the maximum value from the investment. During this time the equipment can fast become effectively obsolete given the rapid pace at which mobile IT is evolving.
Recent new innovations in consumer targeted hardware (such as tablets and the iPad) give the opportunity for a new perspective. Tablets are cheap to buy and can be retrofitted with durable cases to provide ruggidisation.
The significantly lower costs mean that these devices can be regarded much like a consumable item and replaced more cheaply once damaged beyond economic repair.
Couple this with the fact that many companies now give their users these new devices after a period of use means that users value and look after their equipment more. In these examples companies have seen replacement levels actually fall from figures of around 20 to 30 percent per annum to around three percent: a significant saving.
One significant problem that continues to trouble organisations is that of site communications and its rapid deployment to construction sites. This is especially true given the volume of data now being transferred between core 3D building information systems and software.
With a lag between the time it takes to get comms on site – typically around 12 weeks – and the lead time available to the construction company, which is usually around two weeks, organisations must manage a mixture of satellite, 3G and microwave solutions to achieve the necessary connectivity.
The issues are manageable but require planning and awareness of connectivity restriction and the applications required at sites in order to minimise the impact on data transfer rates.
The challenges and opportunities offered by the government’s commitment to its BIM strategy are going to drive significant changes in the way our industry works and collaborates with information on construction projects.
But the 20 percent cost savings identified will not be realised simply by improving information sharing between designers and construction companies during the planning and design phases of the project lifecycle.
The big benefits will be achieved on site during construction and through more effective operations and maintenance, which will demand real-time, mobile access to in-depth and tailored asset information.
With the barriers to mobile adoption diminishing quickly, and construction companies working hard to embrace collaborative workflows and BIM to improve information sharing across the supply chain, the goal of end-to-end asset visibility is at last becoming achievable.
Those organisations that fail to respond to the mobile imperative will not only be left behind but will also struggle to achieve the effective, efficient operations required to compete in an increasingly competitive marketplace.