Despatch from the Benches V – BIM is not 3D CAD

Building Informaton Modelling or BIM is a rising trend in the construction technology space now. A lot of companies are looking to BIM as a way to improve their operations as promised by the vendors of BIM authoring tools. In a lot of cases, these companies likely already have ERP systems. ERP systems also were put in place to improve operational efficiency as promised by ERP vendors, but now atleast provides central control over finance and procurement if not in improved efficiency in planning, collaboration, and execution. But if we step back, what are COO and CIO of Owner/Operators of capital projects and EPC contractors really looking for? If we take a step back and look beyond the hype, what is BIM? What are they trying to achieve?

By definition, BIM stands for “Building Information Modelling”, a term that has been around for more than 20 years. For an interesting read on the history of BIM, see here. The beginnings go back to Douglas C. Englebart, who says in his paper on Augmenting Human Intellect,

the architect next begins to enter a series of specifications and data–a six-inch slab floor, twelve-inch concrete walls eight feet high within the excavation, and so on. When he has finished, the revised scene appears on the screen. A structure is taking shape. He examines it, adjusts it… These lists grow into an evermore-detailed, interlinked structure, which represents the maturing thought behind the actual design.

A quick read on material available on BIM will give you the following as the definition of BIM:

    A Building Information Model, is a parametric digitial model of the building that has all the information put in (from various agencies) and using which meaningful decisions can be made to improve construction as well as post-construction maintenance of the facility

(AGC 2005). In short, the goal is not simply draw lines, arcs, and circles in 3D, but rather get to intelligent model elements like masonry walls, concrete beams, and steel columns etc. A building information model carries all information related to the building, including its physical and functional characteristics and project life cycle information, in a series of “smart objects”. For example, an air conditioning unit within a BIM would also contain data about its supplier, operation and maintenance procedures, flow rates and clearance requirements (CRC Construction Innovation, 2007).

If you digest the details then, BIM is not about 3D visualization, but about figuring out how to store, restore, and use information of various building objects in a smart way to improve engineering, procurement, construction. Sure, visualization is a significant component of it, but so is information flow and collaboration of the information across the various stakeholders. If one studies BIM adoption, the low hanging fruit of clash detection is more than 50% of what people do when they claim they are using BIM. And if we peel the onion a little bit, in a lot of scenarios what happens even there is that there are design consultants who are probably drawing their portion of the building system in 3D (or sometimes even in 2D) and there is a “BIM consultant” who is stitching all of these together and detecting clashes. Put another way, another agency, another coordination, another room for errors and omissions, you name it. In short, the problem just got worse and not better.

Image Courtesy: Construction IT Alliance

To realize the true potential of BIM, one needs to ensure that information is NOT recreated multiple times. And that means no duplication of information creation for engineering, procurement, financials, construction, and also post construction asset maintenance. And that means that unless BIM tools are treated as another information source that needs to interoperate with scheduling tools, procurement tools, financial tools, and all of them collaborate in a meaningful way. Until then, all we have done is moved from 2D to 3D modelling and scratched the surface on the potential of BIM.

Critiques of BIM claim that the technology can limit the potential of the experienced and can be dangerous in the hands of the inexperienced. This is probably true of a lot of technologies meant to automate and improve productivity. I remember, as a young structural designer and engineer, I was asked to analyze and design by hand so that I could develop a “feel” for the structure that I was designing before getting comfortable and relying on technology tools like ETABS etc. And while I suppose a similar argument can be made here, one thing we can safely say is that we probably a few years away from moving beyond clash detection and realizing the full potential of the BIM anyways. In the meanwhile we will have to address other concerns similar to this, also, dont we?

We’ll elaborate more on this in follow up posts.

  • 2 Jun, 2014
  • Kalyan
  • News,

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