By Marcel Broekmaat

This year especially, we’ve seen the many ways that technology is transforming construction– from the design and build process to how structures are operated and maintained. COVID-19 accelerated the need for shared data and digital connectivity, both of which are foundational for the concept of “connected” construction that industry leaders have been pushing for years.

If you’ve worked in the construction industry long enough, you know it’s natural for construction phases to remain insular. However, it’s important to break down communication barriers and encourage enhanced project collaboration and information sharing. Being connected is the greatest defense against the prevailing inefficiencies that stem from data silos.

Truly connected construction allows stakeholders across the entire design-build-operate-maintain (DBOM) continuum to “connect” the digital and physical worlds and collaborate by sharing information, which ultimately leads to improved productivity, quality, transparency, safety and sustainability.

As early as the planning and informational gathering phase, we can begin to lay the foundation for a more efficient, collaborative and productive project. Here’s how:

Planning

For decades, this entire stage was handled manually. Today, owners and architects handling initial planning for construction projects are in an optimal position to collect and synthesize data effectively right from the start. Not only are they able to collect and organize information in one centralized location, they can lay a solid foundation on which the constructible models, which contain all the data needed to replace 2D drawings during production, will be built. Furthermore, data-rich records of previous projects can inform the planning stages of future projects so it’s no longer necessary to start from scratch each time.

Conceptual

Historically, architects developed their conceptual designs on paper. Theoretically, BIM solutions give architects the ability to become more closely integrated with the rest of the construction process than they were in the past. Today, architects can utilize 3D modeling software to generate both 2D and 3D versions of their conceptual plans. Where possible, the model can be content-enabled, allowing the architect to reuse established components repeatedly for faster development. Designs can be quickly and easily shared between the architect, owner and any other stakeholders because everyone can access the same centralized platform. And, once the concept is approved by the owner, it can serve as the launching point for structural engineering and detailing from other trade partners.

Engineering and Design

With all phases of the workflow connected via integrated hardware and software solutions, constructible models can be easily shared in both directions: from the detailer to the fabrication shop or jobsite to move ahead with fabrication or installation, or from detailer back to the engineers, estimators or architects for fast and efficient change orders, issue resolution or recommended improvements.

Visually, a 3D model does a far better job of communicating building concepts than 2D drawings simply because it presents the information in the same way humans naturally see. For instance, by visualizing BIM data within a mixed reality platform like Microsoft’s HoloLens, 3D models can be overlaid directly on the completed work to compare as-built progress to as-designed constructible models throughout the build.

Even more importantly, the ability to directly tie a virtually unlimited amount of information to every component of the 3D model both expands and simplifies its value, all of which can be passed along automatically if needed. With integrated software solutions designed to incorporate the same model into the tasks handled by fabricators, contractors, safety inspectors, and facility managers alike, the constructible 3D model becomes a living tool that’s constantly evolving with the project.

Estimate

In the past, estimators worked in their own world that consisted of reams of parts catalogs, vendor contracts, spreadsheets, and walls of filing cabinets with past project files to reference.

With the proper tools and resources in place, construction pros can begin creating and sharing content-enabled constructible models from the very start. Estimators, for example, can often correlate components on a conceptual model with up-to-date material lists to develop incredibly detailed and accurate estimates quickly. In some cases — especially in MEP — libraries of managed content provide “digital twin” level accuracy that can be accessed even before detailing is completed.

Build

As the building phase of the construction project commences, it’s vital that project and construction managers work closely to ensure that work on-site aligns with the schedule and budget. This is greatly simplified when additional software solutions designed specifically for various management tasks are seamlessly integrated into the collaboration products and other BIM-related solutions used at various phases of the project.

With project data gathered in one centralized repository and constantly updated as each additional layer enriches its value, stakeholders across the construction site can easily access the information they need to make reliable, strategic decisions. For example, the initial schedule and estimated labor needed for each phase of the on-site building project will have started with the estimator. Because that data is included with the 3D model and all other deliverables from the BIM planning and design solutions, it has likely been further updated and refined by the project manager and/or construction manager as the job progressed. In addition, project status updates can be communicated through color-coded 3D models rather than Gantt charts, which are difficult to interpret.

Likewise, high-fidelity connections also help bridge gaps between office and field. For tasks such as layout and fabrication, constructible BIM data is used to directly control field work. Field software for devices like robotic total stations can pull data directly to layout points, without the need for any duplication of effort.

The data is already there when it’s needed by a construction manager or superintendent who is responsible for making sure the right people are on-site at the right time on any given day. The same principle applies to the safety manager who needs to ensure the people on-site are properly equipped and following safety protocols; the person or team responsible for payroll and managing the flow of subcontractors; everyone involved in handling materials and supplies; and the list goes on.

If and when unexpected issues arise, workers on-site can quickly and easily confer with any stakeholder at any point in the process in formal RFIs or through more informal feedback and recommendations. The model can be updated on-the-fly and instantly made available to everyone involved on an individual element level, making it much easier to convey changes by eliminating the exchange of documents and spreadsheets. This means there are no gaps in communication, no unforeseen consequences and no bottlenecks in the schedule.

Operate

In the past, the life of the structure after construction wasn’t on the construction professional’s radar. BIM connects this stage to the rest of the construction workflow where no true connection existed before. With the wealth of data that accompanied every phase of the BIM process, the 3D model and its embedded information can be passed to the owner and facility manager for use in the maintenance and upkeep of the structure.

The BIM is a true “digital twin” with components enhanced with detailed metadata that can be invaluable to the building’s owner or facility manager under many circumstances, such as routine inspections, energy optimization efforts, planned maintenance repairs and replacements, and future upgrades, remodeling or expansion. It is also a hub for IoT data as geometry can be used to visualize actual performance of installed components. Additionally, the model and data can serve as a jumping-off point for the planning phase of new projects. Finally, when the building is sold, this valuable “digital twin” can even serve as a powerful added enticement that enhances resale value.

Bringing it All Together

Maintaining an open and agnostic space for sharing models and construction data is imperative for connected construction. Because no one vendor can be expected to have all the right capabilities, construction teams need a collaboration platform, such as Trimble Connect, as close to universal as possible— and one that can handle a broad range of potential file formats. In addition to maintaining shared storage space, cloud-based platforms also enable applications to directly access, store and edit shared construction data.

Because connected data is required throughout the construction lifecycle, smart construction teams are identifying technology partners that share their vision for digital transformation, interoperable systems and open data architectures. By aligning with a strategic technology partner that offers an open, agnostic, available and secure platform, we can connect trades and project phases, and work better together.


Marcel Broekmaat is Director of Product Management at Trimble.

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