This blog covers Cloud Building Information Modelling (BIM) and the effect that this may have on the Architecture, Engineering and Construction (AEC) sectors. There are a number of areas asked to be investigated and these are all covered with benefits and challenges outlined and future research suggested.
What is ‘Cloud BIM’ and what are the benefits and drawbacks?
The concept of Cloud BIM related to the future Level 3 BIM maturity is discussed by the B/555 Roadmap document which uses the concept of a “fully open process and data integration enabled by Industry Foundation Class (IFC) / IFD. Managed by a collaborative model server” (BSI, 20115). This sets the challenge to the AEC industry to meet this collaborative model server concept.
Cloud BIM has been referred to by Charalambous et al. (2013, p. 58) as a way of collaboratively working that is intended to be adopted as part of a future ‘Level 3’ adoption within the AEC industry. In addition to this Charalambous et al. (2013, p. 66) state that the future of BIM lies within Cloud collaboration and this general high level view is further described by Charalambous et al. as requiring a ‘paradigm shift requiring reengineering of the process and mind-set’ in the AEC industry (2013, p. 58). However, Redmond et al. state a more pragmatic and practical view that Cloud computing is “both the application delivered as a service over the internet and the hardware and systems software in data centers that provide these services” (2012, p. 175). This provides a clearer explanation of the concept and argues particularly that the basis for this to work and for the benefits to be realised to ensure that multiple copies of data do not occur, thus streamlining the production and sharing of information. The AEC industry it appears will come under significant pressure to deliver this way of working dependant on the Level 3 strategy, defined as the Digital Built Britain strategy (BIS, 2015) that will drive the development of standards and a road map for adoption.
One of the reasons that Cloud BIM is required, argues Matthews et al. (2015, p. 38), is that the construction industry has a lack of high quality and coordinated information and this has been ‘consistently’ linked to poor productivity and work required to be completed again due to errors. Therefore, strategies are required to limit rework and the subsequent impact on the programme that this has. Matthews et al. (2015) focus mainly on the benefits that can be achieved on site through better information recording of real time information, however the whole lifecycle of a project requires attention. They go on to state that Cloud BIM “provides ubiquitous, on-demand access to a shared pool of configurable computing resources … that can be quickly accessed and discharged with minimal management or service provider interaction” (2015, p. 39). Current ways of working within the construction industry and the lack of quality coordinated information confirms the need for this, however the reason information is of a poor quality is that there are not the skills or the technology present within the AEC industry. Therefore, the ambitions of the Level 3 programme will have to address two areas; cultural and skills in the industry and also provide the technology required to support this.
To investigate why Cloud BIM may increase information accuracy and quality a general overview of the benefits include;
- An ability to review and check models/information globally which is up to date
- Use of mobile devices and team collaboration is increased
- Ability to make comments, mark ups and notes to construction documentation quickly on site
- Communication of complicated issues can be enhanced for the team
- An increase in productivity from the project team as workflows are enhanced
A further benefit to Cloud BIM integration is suggested by Matthews et al. (2015, p. 45) who found that the adoption of structured data sharing enabled a recognition that the convenience of locating all the information in one location was valuable as well as promoting greater communication from the site and the office teams. An additional benefit is highlighted by Redmond et al. who state that their results illustrated that the possibility to reduce investments levels in computer power and infrastructure were considered future benefits of Cloud BIM. These advantages will need to be communicated within the AEC industry to drive understanding and adoption with the intention of supporting Level 3 implementation.
However, there are challenges to Cloud BIM implementation as currently is that is relatively unexplored and in particular a limitation is the “bi-directional editing of a BIM” needs to be investigated as the complexities of model authoring make this difficult (Matthews et al. 2015, p. 39). This interoperability between softwares types is required so that information can be combined together, with a possible solution to this being a server that enables ‘mash-ups’ from a mixture of software types to remove this barrier. This is counter intuitive the software companies who will wish that BIM authors rely on as many of a singular vendors products as possible for integration. It has been recognised that “deliberate vendor lock-in and lack of interoperability between various instances of competing editing software are still a serious issue.” (Scully et al., 2015). This is a key consideration that requires a solution and is recognised with software providers developing interoperability solutions currently. The ability to have a model that can be adopted into a cloud environment and be live and editable is an ambition, however standards will be required to control this and how this is integrated together. Further research has revealed that this work is continuing with 3DRepo offering a service where “Various types of assets are decomposed into their constituent scene graph components and stored as individually version controlled documents in a database” (Scully et al., 2015). This appears to be a valuable first step for a platform that provides read only access currently to the contents of the repository but in the future “will add the ability to upload and process various types of 3D assets via web browsers in order to remove the need for the 3D Repo GUI desktop application which currently provides the write access.” (Scully et al., 2015).
Another key consideration which applies to the sharing and working in the Cloud has been revealed by Redmond et al. (2012, p. 177) who found that a drawback is Government projects which will have departments with secure firewalls and networks as standard which will be hard to breakdown and retain control and security over. This could limit the ability to take advantage of Cloud BIM solutions as PAS 1192:5 (BSI, 2015) begins to illustrate the complexities of security for digital information, particularly for sensitive building types. As the UK mandate for Level 2 BIM is specifically for government departments this is potentially a very significant issue and may determine how sharing structured and how this is accessed by the client, design team, contractor and sub-contractors, and asset management teams.
Apart from the technological issues that face the AEC industry, there are cultural issues of individuals and companies that need to address their understanding of Cloud BIM requirements and plan for the future in advance of its implementation. Areas for development for Cloud BIM involve training and overcoming cultural issues within the industry particularly down the entire supply chain on a project (Redmond et al. 2012, p. 179). Further to this the Redmond et al. point out that the challenging the current way of working where “contractors are generating money from the inefficiencies that exist within the current process which promulgate a lack of incentives to use cloud computing even if it can dramatically improve the management system” is a daunting admission of a fragmented and adversarial industry.
BIM Cloud tools review
Separate to the construction industry there will need to be further research and development in software solutions in order to establish a workable BIM Cloud solution, this would need to ensure that “an integrated platform over the internet resulted in issues ranging from privacy to security and whether such a platform is technically possible” (Redmond, 2012, p. 183). There are currently solutions available for Cloud BIM adoption however these are appear to mainly focusing around the construction stage – when construction information is already completed and therefore minimal changes are required when compared to the iterative design stage. For example, Autodesk has a suite of solutions called BIM 360 which encompasses model review, work planning, on site referencing of project documents, running QA/QC, health and safety, and commissioning checklists ((Autodesk BIM 360, 2015). Similarly Causeway has a solution that will allow you view models in the Cloud such as IFC and COBie but this is a static review and will not be useful during the production or asset management stage (Causeway.com, 2015). However, more powerful tools are being developed such as BIM9 which offers a private cloud that uses “main stream computer hardware technologies along with custom configurations to allow design teams to work on large BIMs simultaneously from different physical locations” (Bim9.com, 2015). This system looks to provide a private and secure system access to the applications based on a company’s internal servers. This appears to counter some of the privacy and security issues that are concern for organisations. In contrast to this paid service, BIMserver is offering a free system provides a platform that allows and organisation to build their own “BIMserver” which is structures around IFC (Open source BIMserver, 2015). BIMCollab is further developing their own solution that allows for multiple softwares to plug into their platform by “supporting BCF file exchange with BIMcollab, or through direct links based on our powerful API” (Bimcollab.com, 2015). This linking of multiple softwares (see Figure 1) offers an opportunity to work in the cloud but may to resolve the issue of model validation and live changes.
Figure 1 (BIM Collab 2015)
When is it expected by industry to fully adopt Cloud BIM solutions?
As stated earlier the Digital Built Britain (BIS, 2015) states the ambition for what future adoption of a Cloud BIM environment may be however, Charalambous et al. (2013, p.60) states that in order to collaborate a prerequisite of this is the ability to effectively coordinate and communicate between parties to achieve the aim of collaboration as well as working to standards such as PAS 1192:2 (BSI, 2013). Further to this Charalambous et al. (2013, p.60) promote the concept of BIM as a ‘language of construction’ developed by Coates et al. (2010) whereby communication is embedded within the BIM process. The use of structured information adoption by the AEC industry as well as standards such as BS 1192:2007+A1:2015 (BSI, 2015) also ensure that this communication is promoted and a shared language is agreed upon through agreed processes. In order to support the successful adoption of Cloud BIM a summary that includes; the model being central to the communication, integration of documentation within the model and information exchanges should be central to a standardised approach. It has been proposed that the key drivers to Cloud BIM could be realised by increasing efficiency and driving down costs, and by using real time sharing and intelligent use of information to reduce waste and increase workflow quality (Redmond et al. 2012, p. 180). However, Redmond asked whether the construction industry is in a position to adopt Cloud BIM and found the following conclusions; that fragmentation in the AEC industry is preventing change, an organisations management generally misunderstand the potential benefits on offer (and how this could affect performance), and that the security and privacy of a cloud solution and the interoperability of this were considered an issue. Once some of these issues are overcome then the adoption of Cloud BIM solutions will be easier to implement.
How can Cloud BIM transform the operation, maintenance and facility management sector?
Redmond et al. investigated where the most value may come from by stage; all lifecycle project stages, the design stage, the operation, maintenance and design stages, or operation and maintenance stages (2012, p.177). Redmond found that the most favoured stage was design, however the operation and maintenance stages were viewed as areas of opportunity particularly to energy usage and monitoring. The lifecycle of a project has been identified as being of benefit to a BIM project, and Redmond et al. (2012) confirms that respondents to his survey found that “post occupancy calculations, specifications and building performance” were all areas considered as benefiting from a life cycle approach and use of a BIM Cloud solution. Additionally the use to calculate carbon and energy savings should not be underestimated. It appears that there is further work required to analyse and test the benefits post construction, in particular linking to client needs and the requirement for Government Soft Landings integration and the adoption of information management such as Construction to Operations Building information exchange (COBie).
What other solutions should be addressed to overcome cloud drawbacks – especially security issues?
A key consideration will be communication between parties and how this is managed in a shared environment is a key consideration as Charalambous et al. (2013) assert that the use of email of the wrong tool for communication and suggests that instant messenger services would support this communication further. It appears that greater solutions are needed to ensure that this is streamlined and change control, iteration development and management of communication is required. An interesting point is made by Redmond et al. who states that although security is an issue, their view is the privacy is of greater importance as changes that are made in real time are not desired to be seen across a team, therefore this needs a management system to control. This potentially means that compartmentalisation of a model in a live environment may be required, similar to the concept of a CDE for a consultant linking to a larger CDE used by the whole team posited by Miller (2015).
Cloud BIM is a developing area for the AEC industry and there are many challenges however there is a period of time before this is required by the mainstream AEC industry. BIM Level 3, once confirmed, would appear to rely heavily on the technology and concept of collaboration within a Cloud environment, however changing and challenging existing work flows and methodologies will all be issues that has to be considered and further research and development is required.
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