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Explainer: what is BIM and is it the future of construction?

It is often argued that Australia’s construction sector productivity is lower than most other developed countries, such as the US. While there are many factors involved, Australia’s overall productivity…

The new Royal Adelaide Hospital, due for completion in 2016, is being built using BIM. RoboSparrow/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA

It is often argued that Australia’s construction sector productivity is lower than most other developed countries, such as the US.

While there are many factors involved, Australia’s overall productivity growth is declining, something that is not economically sustainable.

A 2010 Australian government-funded report concluded that accelerating the adoption of Building Information Modelling (BIM) in the building sector could improve productivity by between 6 to 9%. It also found that concerted government support for the use of BIM by architects, engineers, builders, contractors, owners and facility managers involved in a building’s life cycle would increase BIM adoption in 2025 by 6 to 16% and produce an economic benefit equivalent to A$5 billion added to Australia’s GDP.

More recently the Productivity Commission, in its draft report on public infrastructure, recommended government clients look to BIM to help lower bid costs, and require tender designs to be submitted using BIM to reduce overall costs.

What is BIM?

Building Information Modelling has a wide range of definitions depending on its application, but one agreed definition is:

a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility. BIM is a shared knowledge resource for information about a facility forming a reliable basis for decisions during its life-cycle; defined as existing from earliest conception to demolition.

A Building Information Model linking 3D with the project schedule leads to 4D. 5D consists of 4D together with cost modelling. More dimensions such as facility management, safety and environmental impacts can be added to create nD. Author

BIM offers a shared platform where people can collaborate with each other horizontally and vertically along the different stages of the project lifecycle. It allows all members of a construction team to generate the characteristics and functionalities of their building, plant or road network virtually, so as to pinpoint errors before they happen on the real construction site.

The construction process at some level can be regarded as an information flow process. This is especially true for mega-construction, such as hospitals, highways, and LNG facilities.

In Australia, there has been successful use of BIM for hospitals, tunnels, highways, airports, petrochemical plants, and office and residential buildings. But there is an identified industry need for BIM guidelines and case studies in the infrastructure sector in Australia, and these are currently being developed by the Australasian Joint Research Centre on BIM.

BIM has the potential to become more innovative and powerful by being integrated with other technologies such as RFID, barcode, laser scanning, augmented and virtual reality, energy and structural analysis tools, GIS/GPS, and mobile and cloud computing, Big Data analysis, and so on.

How is BIM being used in Australia?

Australia is a laggard in terms of using BIM in the building and infrastructure sector, but we are catching up quickly. For oil and gas, we are leaders, as the oil and gas sector adopted 3D engineering and modelling decades ago, and has been continually improving its understanding and use of BIM over time.

A good example is Project Echo.

Initiated by Woodside Energy, Project Echo is a collaboration between Curtin University, Woodside and about 20 other partners representing government, clients, contractors, consultants and technology providers, with the aim of enhancing technology-enabled productivity for the entire (LNG) industry.

Through the research and innovation, it is envisaged a productivity improvement of 30% is very achievable. While Project Echo is focused on the energy sector, the research will also provide flow-on benefits to mining and infrastructure construction.

Woodside Smart Tag. Author
One example of how Project Echo is making an impact right now is the Woodside Smart Tag project. The new Smart Tag is not just an ordinary RFID tag, but a tag that can be integrated with other technologies including augmented and virtual reality technologies, allowing a user to communicate with equipment for the first time. The technology displays a 3D model of the component and where it fits in the construction path.

It also allows the user to locate any item, obtain background information about that item, how to assemble it, inspect it, or if necessary order a new item on the spot. This is break-through technology, because by interacting with an intelligent tag the user can communicate with each component. Each component can speak for itself, so to speak, thereby creating a smart work site.