Building Information Modelling, or BIM, is a much misunderstood medium. Illustrated by 3D visualisations and CAD drawings, it can be mistaken as just a piece of software for creating pretty illustrations.
But the visualisations and models are nothing new, they’ve been around for years. What’s new is how they are stored and used. Put simply, it’s the way in which documents, which may otherwise have only existed in paper form, are digitised and linked together.
‘To stop people bringing paper drawings in we’d fine them £2,’ said Ben Feltham, Skanska’s rail BIM manager, explaining one of the methods used while working within the Costain-Skanska Joint Venture (CSJV) on Paddington station for Crossrail to promote the benefits of BIM to a workforce anchored in more traditional methods. The money was later donated to the project’s chosen charity.
Ben arrived on Crossrail in 2013 from Thameslink, having established an information management system for that programme. He was the first BIM manager appointed by the supply chain and played a pivotal role in the development of Crossrail’s BIM world.
This BIM world, which is also referred to as the ‘common data environment’, is the place where all of the project’s designers and contractors store data and drawings relating to the project.
‘We want people to realise that we’re building not just a physical railway but a digital, virtual railway and that many of the things that we do, for example, in a physical world – such as health and safety or quality control – we do exactly the same in the digital world,’ said Malcolm Taylor, head of technical information at Crossrail.
‘Just as we produce concrete and steel, we produce information, models, documentation and we do quality control on those, we use metrics, manage performance and things like that.’
The benefits are quite straightforward. Where different agencies would traditionally build their own models and then come together, put them on top of each other and look for problems, teams can now work together from an early stage, using a single drawing.
‘In practice it’s got a bit of turbulence and bumpy rides but that’s ok because everyone wants to use their BIM systems but BIM is about information, it’s about managing, modelling.
‘A structural engineer might have his own 3D model, people would be building their own models, in their own systems, in their own ways and they would traditionally bring those people together for design checks to look at paper drawings to check they fit.
‘Instead of a two-hour meeting with lots of disciplines where you usually miss things, you can do it in a few seconds on a machine where you can then get a print out of all the clashes and you know things fit.’
In Ben’s opinion, only 20 per cent of the efficiencies derived from BIM come from the 3D models. It’s using BIM as a digital filing cabinet where most can be gained. But getting there requires some people to break career- long habits.
‘We brought in technology from schools,’ said Ben. ‘You’ve got all these smart boards but generally they’re there and they take the VGA cable out and plug it into the laptop and you lose all the benefit. So what we did is we built a BIM room, and we had a big screen and we took away tables, so we’ve got lecture chairs in there.
‘What we did was we put drawings up and we tried to get people to digitally mark up. And to stop people bringing paper drawings in, we’d fine them £2 per drawing when they turn up and we’d give that to the project charity.
He added, ‘The amount of times that an engineer will red line a drawing, give that to the CAD technician and somewhere it goes missing because they haven’t scanned it in and put it in the system as they should have done. It forces them to go down that information management process.’
Not a toy
BIM and video games share a common ancestry. Much of the technology and software overlaps and some of the same video game engines are being used to give BIM models an extra dimension.
Says Ben, ‘Games like Minecraft and, when I was younger, Sims and things like that that’s all we’re trying to do, but we’re trying to pull that together with construction information.’
However, it shouldn’t be seen as a toy but a tool for making decisions, said Malcolm. ’We can take the stuff we’re creating in terms of models and put it into some simple games technology and suddenly you’re going for a walk around the station.’
The application of gaming technology can create life-like environments that can be used for training staff. It’s even possible that it could be used by emergency services. How valuable would it be for police officers or firefighters to gain detailed knowledge of a building en route to an incident.
Says Malcolm, ‘If you can imagine, again, using those models where you’re going through a smoked-filled room where you can’t see, but you’ve got some Google specs on so you know exactly where you’re going.
‘The combination of this world of 3D modelling, and the like, that we’re trying to create, can go everywhere.’
While the concrete and steel project will eventually end, the digital side carries on. In order to ensure the BIM world stays relevant it needs to be looked after; it needs to be updated.
‘It’s a bit like the photographs, the paper photographs, I took of my kids,’ said Malcolm. ‘I scanned them a long time ago, I put them onto floppy discs, then they went onto CDs, now I put them in the cloud.
‘You just have to recognise that, when you’re talking about things like this, that the information you’ve got needs to be treated like a valuable resource like people, or plant, or machinery. But you need to keep it up to date and you need to maintain it.’
BIM worlds like the one created by Crossrail and its designers and contractors will be a mandatory part of all construction projects by 2016. In that context, rail is often thought of as having been slow to adopt this method of working, but Chris doesn’t believe that’s completely true.
‘I think rail, personally, is actually more advanced than people realise. There’s so much digital capture, the problem rail has is it sticks it in a room and it doesn’t leave that room and no one’s aware, so information awareness is where rail struggles.’
He added, ‘We’re getting better and better at it, but the Crossrail environment made it happen for us. They took the onus of managing the common data environment, they got rid of all the contractual issues by saying who owns the model… and that just allowed us within the supply chain to actually work away without a commercial issue.
‘I hope there’s a legacy from that.’
The legacy seems to be within those that have worked on Crossrail’s BIM world. Ben is now Skanska’s rail BIM manager and is taking his experience from Paddington to Crossrail 2 and onto various Network Rail projects. Ironically, the development of a part of the industry that is entrenched in software and data, is dependent on the knowledge and experience of people, not technology.