When cloud computing meets the other new kid on the A/E block, Building Information Modeling or "BIM," the combination is a force to be reckoned with!
Technology is becoming both a "cost of entry" and competitive advantage for many firms.
"Our clients expect us to use certain types of technology to ensure efficiency and accuracy of our work, and an increasing number of RFPs require specific software or expertise. But while certain types of technology are becoming more standard, custom technology solutions still provide a very important way to differentiate ourselves from our competitors," says David Reinhart, senior technology developer at SWCA Environmental Consultants in Phoenix, Ariz.
It’s no secret that BIM use, software that enables 3D modeling, is becoming increasingly necessary (and often contractually obligated). But a combination of BIM with the cloud, which connects a large number of computers or devices through a real-time communication, is something that can give firms a serious competitive edge, and push the limits of the 3D technology.
While the cloud impacts data storage, sharing and networking, BIM touches model design and viewing. When BIM is coupled with the virtual and mobile features of the cloud, models can be worked on simultaneously by various professions, clashes can be identified quickly, and the project (in its current state) can be accessed by anyone in any location (even at the building site) at any time.
"BIM enables information from all disciplines to overlap and be compared in 3D and project teams to work together to come up with an integrated solution. The end result is a higher quality project with fewer requests for information and construction change orders as issues and conflicts are resolved in a digital environment, rather than in the field. Production processes for construction documentation are considerably faster, resulting in shortened delivery time, better coordination among disciplines and better product for the client," said one respondent to ZweigWhite’s 2013 Information Technology Survey.
Instant access and mobile viewing of models is something that engineering firms have seen lead to success and profitability.
"Our increased ability to allow mobile access from any device has improved our employee access to critical functions while in the field or working from home. The use of mobile technology, cloud computing, and custom databases have allowed us to improve many of our processes," Reinhart says. "We have built mobile apps for use on Android tablets that improve the accuracy and efficiency of field data collection. Data collected in the field imports directly into resource-specific databases, which automate analysis and reporting tasks. Cloud-based project web sites and web apps have helped us improve communication and collaboration between project teams, and have also been a powerful tool for public outreach."
According to Autodesk, a BIM technology provider, "BIM in the cloud helps multidiscipline design and construction teams improve project outcomes by moving computation-intensive tasks to the cloud, enabling more rapid visualization and simulation and optimized collaboration with access to intelligent, data-rich models."
Though adoption may be slow, ZweigWhite’s 2013 Information Technology Survey found that A/E/P and environmental firms are continuing to increase their investment in virtual data storage, the cloud and BIM. Firms report using BIM for an average of 26 percent of work, with about one fifth of employees using this technology. A little more than half (53 percent) of firms report they plan on increasing their use of BIM this year.
A clear shift in the use of this technology has occurred over the past few years, and one survey respondent remarked that a main disadvantage/difficulty of using BIM is that "some consultants and firms we work with don’t use BIM or are not as advanced in their use of BIM as we need."
A little more than one-third (37 percent) of firms expect spending on cloud computing to increase in 2013, the survey found.
From ZweigWhite’s IT survey
What are the advantages of using BIM?
Survey respondents said the advantages of BIM are numerous, including, "BIM enables information from all disciplines to overlap and be compared in 3D and project teams work together to come up with an integrated solution. The end result is a higher quality project with fewer requests for information and construction change orders as issues and conflicts are resolved in a digital environment rather than in the field. Production processes for construction documentation are considerably faster resulting in shortened delivery time, better coordination among disciplines and better product for client."
Reduced time, resolution of conflicts, and an easier time collaborating with professionals from other disciplines were other big advantages – all things that can be accentuated with BIM’s partnership with cloud technology.
What are the disadvantages?
The complexity and costs associated with IT upgrades such as these may seem daunting to an average engineering or architecture firm. Training time and expense are the main factors impeding the use of cloud and BIM technologies. Long lists of new technology requirements go hand-in-hand with the use of BIM and the cloud.
One survey respondent described some of the challenges: "Hardware and networking upgrades, more robust computers with more memory, RAM, high end graphics cards and multiple CPU’s. WAN devices and bandwidth usage increases due to very large file sizes generated by BIM applications and the volume of information sharing arising from the collaborative nature of BIM projects. Storage costs for data also increase due to the large 3D models and emphasis on digital rather than paper project documents and files."
Training can be a substantial endeavor (and expense). According to the survey, 42 percent of firms are providing "on the job" training relating to BIM, and an equal percentage provide in-house training. One quarter of firms even provide offsite training. It’s no surprise the survey found that the number one IT training need for firms involves CADD/BIM/technical applications.
"The industry is constantly improving from advancements in technology. Some improvements come in the form of newer, cheaper, or more accurate sensors, scanners, cameras, robots, and satellites. Other advancements are made by automating processes, improving data visualization, and enabling real-time collaboration," Reinhart says.
New BIM and cloud technologies
Autodesk BIM 360 Glue
Autodesk BIM 360 Field
BIM9 Private BIM Cloud
CSG BIM Cloud
Christina M. Zweig is a contributing editor. She can be contacted at email@example.com.