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Interoperability in the AECO industry

The software vendors and government officials seem to agree. The AECO industry is finally positioned for a drastic productivity boost. Some notable examples:

  1. The “Digital Built Britain” initiative run by the UK government are aiming to save up to 33% of whole life cost. The main enabler of the boost is moving up the “BIM wedge” to level three BIM.
    Moving up the BIM Wedge to level 3 BIM

  2. Autodesk is predicting 65% reduction in project budget as a result of what they call “the era of connection”. The driver for this brave new world are BIM tools and processes connecting “teams, insights, outcomes and projects” across the lifecycle of buildings and infrastructure.

There are two commonalities for these approaches.

  1. A shared model for all project participants
  2. The lifecycle perspective

Where the two approaches diverge, however is how this shared model/ interoperability between tools and participants are achieved.

In this article we will explore the two main ways of reaching AECO interoperability and how this plays out today. We will look at strengths and weaknesses of both, give owners advice on how to play in the current landscape and finally we will give some pointers to future trends. It is our intention to explore this topic in more depth in following articles so please log comments or questions below to point us in the right direction.

Interoperability today

Today the main choices for BIM interoperability is between standardizing on a big vendor (mainly Autodesk) or going the buildingSMART openBIM way.
AEC Interoperability - proprietary BIM or openBIM - blue pill or red pill

The proprietary way

The basis for this way is standardizing on one dominating vendor with a broad product spectrum. They make sure that their products talk together and their market dominance means that other vendors are willing to integrate (if allowed). This approach seems to be the dominant one in the US, especially for the private sector.

The downside of this model is that one vendor are not able to be experts, innovators and specialists in all areas of the AECO industry. Taken to the extreme monopoly would kill competition and therefore mean poor products at high prices. Autodesk are strong overall in design and visualization but not so in operations. Autodesk also has yet to prove that they can lead the cloud era.
Then there is the long term lifetime aspect - Your assets are going to last for 60 years or longer. Should the data be kept in file-based models for that timespan and if so should that file format be a locked down one that one vendor controls?

The openBIM way

The other main option is the buildingsmart openBIM way. This option seems to be the dominant one in Europe, especially in the public sector. When you standardize on openBIM data, exchange between participants is done using an open and documented format. You own the data and every vendor can compete regardless of what tools they use. Data format is standardized so you can utilise it 20 years from now.

However, not everything is perfect in the openBIM camp either. There are current limitations in the buildingSMART data model (more often known as the IFC format). There is a lack of parametric support in geometries that are hindering real design interoperability. A proper FM model-view-definition is also missing and properties and property sets are not standardized in a way so that software tools can use the data without interpretation. Also current use and best practices are tailored for design collaboration, not lifecycle data management.

So what should owners do?

Let´s start with the needs of the owner. For owners interoperability is not an end goal. It is a tool to get them where they want to be with their asset portfolio. Simply put: owners want maximum value from their assets at minimum cost. Along the way they are willing to make smaller investments to learn and test out new approaches but at the same time they want to capitalize on previous investments, keep options open and prevent vendor lock-in.

Three lenses for interoperability for the owner

Fixing all interoperability issues for owners in one simple overview is a difficult job which should be better left to marketing departments. To simplify a bit we are proposing looking at interoperability for owners through three different “lenses”. We will then get back to how these perspectives play together.

Co-design & Co-production

Here we are talking about the ability of a project team to co-design and co-build the asset (vertical project integration). This is the area where the proprietary or openBIM discussion makes most sense today and where the “integrated BIM” vision are more likely to be relevant.
However we do see research based evidence that working on a central fully integrated model is not necessarily the most productive approach. Currently the best results are achieved from project participants utilising each other's work as “reference models” in a similar way as xrefs are used in CAD based workflows.

The project team should have flexibility. Generally the highest value, lowest bid should win the contract. The main concern of the owner should be that the project team ceptialize the benefits of using a BIM based workflow. Whether that means sharing native models and standardizing on a proprietary format or alternatively exchanging openBIM formats to give the best participants the freedom to use the best tools. Remember there is no need to go all in on either option. Architects can share native models when designing and use IFC reference MEP models when checking for collisions.

Phase handover (horizontal integration)

Here we are talking about the ability of a team at a later stage to utilise the information generated in the previous stage(s). Some of the phase changes are traditionally easier than others based on the nature of the phases and deliverables. Moving from design to construction the design documents are the main deliverable. Moving from construction to operations however the asset itself and not the documentation are the main deliverable and the handing over of documents (as builts and operations manuals) have traditionally been a challenging part
We get a similar divide when there will be major works to the asset when a combination of as-built documentation and asset history feeds into the new programming, planning and construction phases

The owner has two main concerns here. As built information and design intent information should be stored in a way that makes it accessible for later minor and major works both as a reference and as a stepping stone for later work. The owner should not expect to keep the as built information up to date during operation at the same level of detail as it was produced.
Our advice for owners is to require the project to hand over both the native models and the openBIM equivalents at multiple stages of the project. That way they will get both the intelligence and the completeness of the native models and the openness and long term story of the openBIM format. The important thing to keep in mind here is to include those requirements in the contracts from the beginning. If not you may have a hard time getting access to the models.
The other interoperability-concern the owner have for this “lense” is making sure the construction project delivers the correct data and documentation about the assets to make use, operations and maintenance of the assets efficient.

Operational interoperability (vertical operations integration)

Here we are talking about giving access to asset data to everyone that are using/ operating and maintaining the asset after handover. The data that is useful in these contexts are a combination of geometry (3d model, 2d floorplan), equipment data, operations documentation, sensor data etc etc. The asset data are used in a wide variety of systems that has been implemented during the lifetime of the asset portfolio. Some systems are specific to the FM department, like the CMMS (computerized maintenance management system), some are more general business applications like accounting and some are specific to the owner organizations business.

Asset data interoperability is now a part of an even bigger picture. There is now a portfolio of assets and there are many existing systems that want to manage, use and generate data. The data needed for each “scenario” will wary a lot. Usually just a small subset of the data is needed and it needs to be combined with data from other systems.

The options for interoperability and shared model are

  1. Put all the information into the models using design tools to maintain them. The future roadmap for this strategy is waiting for the BIM vendors to develop FM functionality.
  2. Import data from the models into FM systems and maintain links between the FM system and the model geometry to use the model to visualize FM processes in the FM system.
  3. Import a master asset database based on the buildingsmart data-model with an open API to support bi-directional integration with systems and processes that need to write to and read from the asset database.

To be continued...

In later articles we will explore further how these “lenses”/ aspects of interoperability plays together, what we think the future of AEC interoperability will be and share more specific how we at Areo are working to help owners with their interoperability challenges