While attending a recent technology conference to observe the latest tools of our trade, a couple of guys who referred to themselves as building information modeling (BIM) evangelists approached me. They didn’t sport long robes or shaved heads, but I did feel they wanted me to join their cult to help spread the gospel of the enlightened technology they had discovered.

They went on and on about 3D modeling design, interference checking, materials workflows, and integrated scheduling. However, after listening to their testimony, I began to wonder if they had recently read my first article on intelligent 3D design — an article I wrote 20 years ago.

With more than a quarter century of experience in this industry, I’ve seen this technology bug lead the faithful astray before. The latest fad promises to be all things to all users, but when unmasked, the basic principles of our business always prevail.

The AEC and consulting engineering world progresses and changes with technology, and our history can provide a lot of learned lessons to help us avoid some of the pain we would otherwise be running straight into. Intelligent 3D design, data-driven design, and BIM tools have been around for decades, but not all industries have utilized them. The advantage for those just now becoming “evangelists” of their favorite software company is the wealth of information from those who have been doing this for a while.

Although the software companies want you to use their brand and buzz words, you need to consider your business model above all. There are many paradigm changes that need consideration for migrating a firm to 3D data design, or BIM, especially if this is new to your sector of the design or engineering market.

New workflow paradigms
The way work is performed changes in a data-driven 3D environment. Drawings become a byproduct or report. Depending on the type of firm you represent, this can have varied impacts. Large projects will have more difficult challenges than small ones, but leaders of both large and small projects will need to contemplate how work in a 3D data-driven design world is shared or collaborated between multiple users at the same time and often across great distances, especially if your old paradigm involved drawings.

With intelligence now a part of your design, designers no longer are the only ones working with the “CAD” 3D and data that now lives in your model. Scheduling, purchasing, engineering, project management, quality control, and marketing all will need to be part of the integrated workflow process, which now becomes heavily front-end loaded. Most of the labor involved in data-driven design takes place in the first portion of the workflow process. Nevertheless, projects with driving schedules can’t wait for a few people to do all of the modeling and data input while the rest of the team sits around waiting for drawing sheets to finally be cut.

Lesson learned — There are some great 3D review and markup tools that other industries use in their 3D data design workflows to provide interactive input or data retrieval. The rest of your project team needs to be integrated with the 3D model and data-creation process. The tools and workflow of 3D intelligent models vary depending on the engineering market sector. Check with your software providers to see what experience they have with integrating the rest of your design team and how they suggest this should take place. If their software doesn’t meet the needs of your entire project team, or integrate with the software tools that do meet their needs, start looking for another software company to evangelize. With the whole team now involved, this isn’t a standalone drafting tool anymore. Interoperability is more important than ever so you can work with the best-of-breed tools from your engineers to your schedulers.

Earned value
How will your earned value be calculated when drawings can’t be produced until after modeling and data input are complete? Your firm will be forced to carry costs longer without a revised earned value model about which your clients can understand and agree to. I’ve seen firms change their billing processes in many cases.

Lesson learned — Some have adjusted the earned value for modeling by applying those values to modeling components such as quantity of pipe and steel, equipment components, or other design content. Then they have used this automatically to generate design percent-complete reports, as opposed to the old model of using drawings. Depending on which side of the business and industry sector, this process could be different, so it needs to be addressed.

How will risk be handled in your new environment? Who owns the data (your intellectual property) and, more importantly, when do they own it? I rarely have seen a design firm deliver a model without a disclaimer or associated sealed drawings. Delivering a model is delivering uncontrolled content. When a construction or design issue arises, who will be responsible? There are ways to do this with 3D PDFs to reduce the risk.

Another concern I’ve seen a few times involved an owner-operator who, in its agreement, owned the model (your intellectual property). The owner-operator pulled the project about the time the model was completed (but drawings were not delivered so earned value was very low) and then the project’s existing model was re-bid to the lowest bidder. This puts those of us on the consulting side in a commodity situation where the effort we’ve invested as engineers and designers is given to anyone who can cut drawings and polish off a model from the effort we invested. The owner-operator received the work completed at a fraction of the cost.

Lesson learned — One option is to host the data on a secure website for the owner, who then doesn’t have to purchase the software tools or acquire the knowledge to review or maintain the model on its own. This option can include client interaction with the model and data during the design stage without giving up ownership or allowing your intellectual property to walk out the door. ProjectWise from Bentley is a good example of a software tool for this and provides remote access with a good level of security. Utilizing 3D PDF models for preliminary design reviews without relinquishing the actual 3D model until the end of the project is another way to protect against this potential risk.

In your current process, quality control (QC) most likely involves drawings — different colored pencils and a stack of markups stored someplace. In a 3D data model, you will not see drawings until the design is well developed. Will your QC process accommodate model reviews, data checking, and electronic redlines? How will you show progress to the client?

Lesson learned — The 3D PDF method can be used very effectively here and most clients know how to use a PDF without the complexity of acquiring and installing new software. Quality control will require a new method of checking, marking, and saving the comments in a 3D and data environment.

Downstream data
There are aspects of the model and data that will be of more value to an owner-operator than to the construction contractor or design firm. From the owner’s perspective, you have to find a balance between cost and getting a model that has some long-term value for you. If you want every nut and bolt modeled and catalogued with related data, expect costs to go up. You will gain a wealth of information, but will you be able to use it? Is the design model or the construction as-built model of more value? Do you have an agreement with the design firm or construction contractor to input the as-built data or will the model be out of date when you receive it? Most of all, how is the cost of the technology going to benefit your business? Will the software company issue so many updates that your model won’t be useable in five years? Will the 3D model and associated data be used for future changes or will you benefit from it in operating your newly built asset?

From a construction point of view, the benefits are realized in better-designed projects with fewer construction errors or interferences and better scheduling. However, as a contractor you likely will rebuild the AEC model with your own staff because of liability issues and build it in 3D with data to fit your purpose. The AEC or consulting engineer typically builds the model and enters the data that best fits their needs in the design and engineering process. As a construction contractor, your needs include items such as scheduled concrete pours, construction packages, and material delivery to the site.

Where is the best value for the AEC and consulting engineers? Don’t be fooled by the fancy ads from the software companies. Your cost will go up before you see benefit. Data-driven design can produce some amazing results such as better and more efficient designs with the possibility of downstream benefit such as construction assistance and even operations and maintenance. However, the 3D model and data input still requires man-hours to build; there really isn’t any magic mouse to wave over a marked-up napkin to get a beautifully rendered model.

Lesson learned — Large or complex projects can’t be done without the 3D data software tools. The software tools are an integrated and essential part of our business. Yet, value for the investment has to be considered, and unless you are doing small repetitive modeling, there is extra cost involved in addition to the amortized cost of the software investment, training, and learning curve. If you are a large multi-business-sector firm, one software tool will not suit all of your sectors. Your software evangelist will want to use their favorite tool for everything, but the software tools no longer are drafting tools. 3D data-driven software tools are designed for engineers and designers, so you will see another paradigm shift in who should be using them.

Going forward
I have thrown out a lot of questions and some examples to stir your thinking if you have some evangelist in your firm pushing a direction or favorite software, or you’re in an engineering business sector that is just now discovering 3D data-driven design (or BIM). These are very powerful tools that will change the way you do projects, and if you think them through and plan carefully, the change can be very good.

My best advice: Never forget what your business model is or what you do as a business to be successful. In the AEC and engineering consulting world, we deliver engineering and design projects to our customers. The technology helps us do this better and gives us a market advantage depending on how we use it, but we are not in the technology business.

There are some great, well-developed software tools out there that will fit your needs. In the early days, we had to build a lot of our own tools. If a software tool will not do what you need it to do, don’t customize it to fit. Find the tool that will do what you need it to do. Customizing tools puts you in the technology business and forces you to support and re-customize every year when a new version comes out. And that leads to high overhead costs, which is deadly in the consulting world. If you don’t know your options, look at some of the major players in the BIM, 3D data-driven design arena such as Bentley Systems, Aveva, Intergraph, Autodesk, and Tekla.

Lesson learned — So if your company is new to this paradigm change that is already taking place in our industry, you’re not on the bleeding edge. Don’t go it alone. Your risk can be substantially lower if you observe others who have gone there before. Learn from their mistakes. You do need to evaluate options and plan deployment to fit the needs of your company. Don’t get distracted by the latest buzz word or technology hype that is being preached by software evangelists.
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