If one technology trend in a sea of buzzwords dominated the construction landscape in 2013, it would have to be information mobility, industry experts say—and with good reason.
The foundations of major mobility growth are in place: robust 4G networks to ferry project data around a jobsite, the advance of cloud computing networks to store and process data in the field, and the ubiquity of smarter mobile devices on jobsites these days. Using web-friendly software to manage their project documents in the field, contractors are counting real productivity gains on jobsites, and it's improving their bottom lines.
But how much collaboration do these tools enable? And which contractors are achieving similar productivity gains by working with 3D or building information models on jobsites?
The answers, according to experts, practitioners and recent research, depend on the complexity of the project and the size of the firm. Mobility tools are growing, but use of 3D models in the field are still proving their worth to owners. That's creating opportunities for some contractors to specialize in BIM mobility.
"What we're hearing from project executives is that 3D model coordination on jobsites has increased accuracy and reduced risk" on projects, says Tyler Goss, director of construction solutions at consulting firm CASE, which specializes in BIM implementation in construction.
During his three-year tenure with Turner Construction as a BIM manager, Goss worked with a team of managers that established a BIM training program to help the firm's different divisions get used to tools that work with 3D models.
"We called it Milestone BIM," Goss said during a presentation at Autodesk University, the software firm's annual user conference that was held in Las Vegas in early December. Project complexity drove the adoption, such as on the World Trade Center Tower 2 project, from 2010 to 2011. Although it has no tenants, Tower 2 is essentially a 400,000-sq-ft physical plant for the rest of the World Trade Center campus. The $250-million, design-bid-build project was very complex, with five different design teams, for example. Clash detection and model accuracy were critical needs, he added.
The Turner team put together a "big room" with six different trades that four designers were coordinating 40 hours a week. They averaged twice-daily uploads of the model updates and daily clash analysis of the project, Goss said.
The project team used Autodesk's Navisworks software to create construction plans based on the building's design model. But it proved challenging every step of the way. One area alone in the building's basement had 3,100 raw clashes for the BIM manager to resolve. "It was giving him nervous fits," Goss added. Ultimately, the Turner team came up with a metric to measure its return on investment in the tools, which cost about $13,000 overall. They called it the "meeting equivalent rate," or MER. They calculated it by taking the number of clashes resolved, dividing it by the number of clashes over the number of meetings.
"So we knew that, in a given meeting, regardless of process, we were coordinating 11,121 square feet per meeting," added Goss. The team was able to do a reverse-phase schedule to figure out how long a coordination would take as they scoped out work on roughly 300,000 sq ft. "Model consolidation is labor-intensive and can take BIM engineers away from their core-value proposition," adds Goss, "You end up being a file manager and not a project manager."
4D and Beyond
"The problem with BIM is that we're trying to shove this 2D workflow that's been around for hundreds of years into this [new model]," said David Epps, director of BIM at Holder Construction, during a presentation at the Autodesk event.
"Everything we do is about the building model and dumping a lot of information in it. That's what architects do, which is why those models are not as useful to us" as contractors, Epps said. "[Architects] are not building a model to build by—they're building a model to design," he explained. Epps and the 20-plus BIM managers at Holder Construction are working with the architects' models to create 3D construction plans that inform all stakeholders in a project.
The group uses a variety of software: Autodesk's BIM 360 field tools; its Navisworks project-review software, to create construction models; and Bluebeam software that enables collaboration in real-time using 3D models in PDF format. Epps also uses Synchro Software to load scheduling data to the model and create 4D models construction plans.
"Construction simulation is a great way to communicate to everyone on the team," Epps said, especially with superintendents planning complex jobs. Using the Synchro time-line features, for example, "all they have to do is move things around and change [schedule] predecessors, successors and durations and then click play, and they see a completely different iteration" of the job plan. "We're finding that supers are loving this," Epps added.
Still Early in BIM Mobility
Although 3D and 4D simulations are gaining on jobsites, many experts say their use is still not widespread.
According to a survey by McGraw Hill Construction Analytics (which, like ENR, is owned by McGraw Hill Financial), contractors and specialty contractors are not using BIM mobility all that much. By far, the dominant use of information-mobility tools is to share project documents and improve access to documents on jobsites.
"The ability to access 3D models and to use mobile devices to conduct author-ing and analysis on these models is still quite limited both in terms of the capability of the devices to handle that amount of data and in terms of training of workers on-site to take advantage of these tools," according to the MHC survey of over 1,000 contractors.
"With the shift to cloud computing that the data suggests will occur soon, the industry will find data even more accessible," the survey noted.
No question, BIM collaboration is getting stronger as software and tools advance, noted Matt Harris, a senior vice president of strategy and corporate business development at Viewpoint Software, which recently acquired U.K.-based project-management software firm 4Projects. "What the U.S. market is most ripe for at this very moment is collaboration around documents," Harris adds.
Collaboration with the entire supply chain on a 3D model is only just beginning and has a ways to go before widespread adoption. For BIM collaboration, the ROI use cases aren't necessarily proven, Harris adds.
Although a government mandate is the market driver for BIM adoption in the U.K. (see related story about the BIM UK mandate), there is no equivalent directive in the U.S.
Many owners still ask for hard copies of project documents for hand-over, adds Leigh Jasper, CEO of Aconex, a provider of project-management software over the web. But on the flip side, the more construction teams access BIM models on jobsites and go beyond punch-listing, daily reports and commissioning with mobility tools, the more owners are expecting handover documents—and more—in 3D and digital formats. Jasper now sees about two-thirds of projects using 3D models. "A year ago, that was less than 50% of our customers."
Adds Harris, "BIM mobility is causing a fundamental convergence of these worlds, and it's gonna rock all of our boats."
This story was updated to clarify Goss's title and to put the name of the firm CASE in all caps.