With the Internet of things, artificial intelligence and additive manufacturing, the technological revolution is in full swing and is transforming industry. The German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy is expecting Industry 4.0 alone to generate additional growth in the order of € 153 billion by 2020. In the context of construction, these developments manifest themselves primarily through the digitalization of building processes. As yet, however, Germany has made only sluggish progress on this front.
Construction as technological backmarker
The 2017 "Digitalisierungsindex Mittelstand" (SME Digitalization Index) survey, based on some 2,000 SME respondents, points to a particularly high level of digitalization among banks and insurers, e.g. in managing business models and customer relations. The construction industry, on the other hand, is among the backmarkers.
Picture: Amanda Comunale, Victaulic
One of the reasons for this is the enduring property development boom of recent years, which appears to be holding back the necessary adjustment process. An increasing number of building contractors are even struggling to cope with their workloads. This is not solely due to the shortage of skilled construction workers: it would also be possible to boost productivity through digitalization. Yet, with the construction industry widely regarded as an analog brick-and-mortar business, some contractors assume that they are largely immune to the digital revolution. This assumption is wrong. Particularly in relation to design, enabling and logistics processes, digitalization offers a host of opportunities for productivity gains.
Advent of the "digital building twin"
Quality defects and budget or deadline overruns feature in practically all construction projects, mainly as a result of inefficient processes. BIM, as the cornerstone of digitalization in the construction industry, offers the potential to deliver significant productivity gains.
The centerpiece of the BIM method is a three-dimensional, digital building model that contains all information on the built asset throughout its life-cycle. Whatever the component or attribute – whether doors, electrical outlets or cables, energy performance ratings for windows or elevator travel speeds – every single detail is recorded. The BIM digital model allows designers to fit pipes at a predetermined angle, rotate valves, zoom in on couplings or generate fabrication drawings.
The use of BIM is already mandatory for publicly financed construction projects in the United Kingdom, France and most Scandinavian countries, where the method is used intensively. In Germany too, BIM technology is due to be phased in by 2020 for public infrastructure development, the aim being to enhance efficiency on large-scale projects and precipitate a breakthrough for digitalization in the German construction industry. Even now, more and more German designers and site supervisors are embracing BIM, particularly in the field of HVAC (heating, ventilation and air-conditioning) engineering. BIM frequently makes the difference between prompt and late project completion.
Working at a virtual round table
BIM allows architects, MEP designers and engineers to work on the same building model. Site managers and supervisors have smartphone or tablet access to model-based data on the next work stages while suppliers know exactly when which materials are required. An interactive schedule tracks time interdependencies and directly forwards drawing changes to all affected persons. The often inadequate communication between project parties regularly culminates in errors or idle time at the interfaces between design, production and operation. A typical example is where architects make changes to design drawings without passing on full details of this to the site manager. BIM increases the transparency of construction processes and promotes information sharing, thereby optimizing design, production and facility management.
BIM also allows errors to be retraced. Apart from being able to inspect changes and understand the reasons for these, customers can also review problems in real time. This functionality is provided, for example, by BIM 360 Design, which taps into the Virtual Design and Construction support services of Victaulic, a manufacturer of pipe joining and union products. The open communication between customers and employees promotes reciprocal understanding. This, in turn, reduces the number of issues arising during the subsequent construction process that may adversely affect costs and deadlines. The positive impact of BIM applications may be enhanced by their combination with virtual reality (VR) technologies. These provide the project parties with a virtual environment in which they can interact with digital representations of their projects.
Streamlined processes, also for the Eiffel Tower
As digital modeling facilitates advance planning by engineers and contractors, less time is required on site for the installation of systems and equipment. This particularly applies to BIM software applications such as Victaulic Tools for Revit®, which can be tailored to the needs of specific projects. Pipes, for example, no longer need to be cut to size on site as they can be delivered just in time with exactly the right dimensions on the basis of previously supplied data.
Victaulic Tools for Revit® also include a smart-tagging function that stores any entered settings. Thanks to this function, the software can automatically indicate where and in what sequence particular components are to be fitted, thereby saving time and material, reducing waste and cutting construction costs.
BIM is also changing the way in which world-famous buildings are designed, constructed and maintained. Autodesk, for example, is applying digital working methods to the Eiffel Tower renovation project ahead of the 2024 Summer Olympics. The software company has produced a detailed 3D model of the 2.4 km² site around the Eiffel Tower, incorporating all buildings, bridges and green spaces, and even including all seats and lamps.
Enhanced fire protection
BIM software is also being increasingly applied to fire engineering. All fire-safety-relevant components – from valves, fire detectors and sprinkler pipes to insulation and sealants – can be represented in a virtual environment. Until recently, contractors tended to use their own in-house design software that was incompatible with overarching models. Today, mutually compatible applications are gradually becoming the norm. This allows digital representations of fire protection systems to be integrated in the relevant facility management model. The new approach has paved the way for more comprehensive fire safety concepts that extend beyond individual systems and devices to cover the entire building.
The combination of BIM and VR applications facilitates the identification of potential problems during virtual inspections of the building's fire protection systems. This means that errors can be rectified prior to the start of site operations, thereby eliminating the need for any expensive remedial works during the construction or post-installation phase. BIM also allows the simulation of fires as well as digital testing of fire safety system performance. The BIM method thus makes a significant contribution to human safety during fire emergencies.
To prevent the construction sector from being outstripped by other industries as the digital revolution proceeds, it is essential to capitalize on the diverse potentialities offered by BIM. In addition to maximizing process transparency, the working method also optimizes information sharing between the various construction project parties. In terms of project delivery, this results in significant gains in terms of productivity, cost and time efficiency, reliability and sustainability.
On the occasion of the Swiss BIM Congress 2018, the Gruner Group partnered the bauRUNDSCHAU journal in reporting on current developments in the construction industry's digital revolution.