Converging on the Market: CAD, Geospatial, 3D, Visualization and BIM

3 Jun, 2007 By: Sam Bacharach

Anyone looking for growth in CAD and productivity should look closely at building information modeling.

Software experts are rapidly weaving together a diverse set of technologies, including spatial technologies, to solve a problem that costs the construction industry tens of billions of dollars each year in the United States alone. But market progress is slowed by the inability to easily share building and construction information, primarily due to entrenched legacy systems, business inertia, and, until recently, the lack of standards.

Many fields have been making strides in worker productivity over the years: Non-farm workers, according to the National Institute of Building Sciences, are on average becoming more productive each year. However, those productivity gains are not accruing in the construction industry. Although other industries are

Click for larger images The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) Facilities Information Council's buildingSMART initiative seeks to bring productivity gains to the capital facilities industry, following the path of other industries. (NIBS 2007) (Click image for larger version)
adopting more efficient business models and processes that are enabled largely by information technology, the AEC industry lags behind. Reports from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (Cost Analysis of Inadequate Interoperability in the U.S. Capital Facilities Industry) and the Construction Users Roundtable (Construction Users Roundtable Report on Collaboration, Integrated Information, and the Project Lifecycle in Building Design, Construction and Operation) highlight 30% waste in building projects. That, according to the NIST study, amounts to about $15.8 billion annually in the U.S. capital facilities industry.

Where BIM Comes In

Click for larger images BIM benefits all building stakeholder groups. (NIBS 2007) (Click image for larger version)
Many stakeholders are convinced that using building information modeling (BIM) is a key component of the productivity solution for AEC, along with policies that promote data sharing and standards. BIM is a shared knowledge resource containing many kinds of information about a building, such as site plan, CAD drawings, connections to subsurface infrastructure, building system and component specifications, tenant information and building evacuation plans.

The U.S. National BIM Standard is a product of the National BIM Standard Project Committee of the Facility Information Council of the National Institute of Building Sciences and the Building Smart Initiative of the International Alliance for Interoperability, which also is a NIBS council. OGC is providing these groups with geospatial knowledge and support for CAD-geospatial-3D integration.

BIM relies on interoperability among a range of information technologies to enable efficiencies: fewer delays, fewer mistakes and misunderstandings; fewer meetings and phone calls; and fewer physical deliveries of information media. BIM provides a reliable basis for decisions during the facility's entire lifecycle. Different stakeholders at different phases of the lifecycle of a facility insert, extract, update or modify information in the model to increase productivity in a variety of tasks.

Linking multiple kinds of building data and software services available from online servers, client software can be constructed that provides extraordinary interactive capabilities. These might include, for example, clicking on a floor level of a building to see who the tenants are, rendering a view of the urban landscape from a particular window of a building or determining which company installed a fiber-optic cable.

Companies and agencies with billions of dollars invested in capital projects are driving the BIM effort. But improved quality, greater efficiencies and higher profit are not the only drivers. Three-dimensional city models provide a framework for integrating building models within the context of their overall environment. Broad-scale city models are becoming more common through a convergence of improved methods for developing them, for structuring and exchange and for delivering, visualizing and analyzing city models. The development of city models and the infrastructure for managing and using them will be accelerated by widely accepted consensus-based standards. Standard data models for buildings and urban environments will encourage investments in data as well as the development of interoperable tools for developing, serving and using these models.

Technologies Converge for Emergency Management

Click for larger images The U.S. Coast Guard has been developing BIM capabilities for its facilities since 2001. (Click image for larger version)
In December 2006, Open Geospatial Consortium (OGC) invited key emergency and disaster managers to a meeting in Jersey City, New Jersey, to demonstrate the results of a seven-month interoperability test bed known as OGC Web Services 4 (OWS-4). Participants showed how BIM standards can play an important role in emergency services and disaster management.

The relevant converging technologies are:

  • Mapping and measuring technologies. These translate the real world into digital abstractions of the real world: terrestrial surveying; GIS; remote sensing; sensor fusion; geodesy and aerial and close-range photogrammetry; and LiDAR (light detection and ranging).

  • Design technologies. These help humans develop abstractions and translate them into real-world objects: architectural, civil engineering and mechanical CAD (2D, 3D and 4D). Related to these are simulators, games and 3D virtual worlds.

  • Computer technologies. These include the Internet and Web, machine vision, databases and computer graphics.

  • Building information models.

The challenge is daunting. The different technology domains and application domains have different vocabularies, geometries, computing paradigms, data formats, data schemas, 'scales' and fundamental world views. They also have different requirements for accuracy, "verisimilitude" (realism) and animation performance.

But Web technologies, notably the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), are well suited for developing systems that enable different kinds of data to be merged under human control or software control. Google proves the concept through its combination of maps and Earth images in Google Maps and also its combination of SketchUp 3D modeling and other 3D models with imagery in Google Earth.

Market Realities
The transition toward greater productivity follows this path: hardcopy drawings → digital drawings (files) → Web services. But the transition takes time. Users need to reach a certain confidence level before they will change to new software and methods, motivated by marketing, demonstrations, testing and validation.

Meanwhile, software vendors need to see user demand in order to develop these products. The vendors will develop software from users' requirements statements. But requirements for new business processes are hard for users to identify while they are caught up in their current practices and while they continue to think in terms of the capabilities of the software they routinely use. Our tools shape our thinking.

Our business relationships also shape our thinking. Most architects and builders are still in between paper and digital files. It's easiest to do business with people in the way they know how to do business. Architects usually design with CAD, but often they still communicate with paper (or drafting film), partly because the computer systems used by specifiers, component suppliers, contractors and city officials often don't interoperate very well. Increasingly, however, the systems do interoperate, at least through file transfers. But the digital files that get transferred are not as secure as paper: it's easier to trust a paper document. One can know with some certainty who created it, when it was created and when it was last updated.

Despite these obstacles, businesses that work together on big projects increasingly exchange digital information. They typically rely on some combination of industry standards and ad hoc agreements to avoid incompatibilities. This saves a lot of printing, scanning and redrafting, and it enables exchange of files via the Internet. This step toward digital communication helps designers leverage their investment in CAD and helps construction contractors realize the benefits of CAD.

Some firms and their partner companies are easing into the next step, which is to avoid exchanging whole files and instead accessing data that is made available through Web servers. Just as a traveler can get a local map from a huge map database such as Google or Mapquest, a contractor or building inspector can access a window detail or a sewer connection detail from a set of construction "drawings" that the architectural firm has put on a server. Anyone with permission can download "views" of the design database, but almost no one needs to download the discrete "files" that make up the database.

With BIM, city models and the Web, client software can be constructed that draws on multiple database servers to provide extraordinary interactive capabilities, such as clicking on a floor level of a building to see who the tenants are, rendering a view of the urban landscape from a particular window of a building or determining which company has installed fiber optic cables. Additional elements such as time (4D) and cost (5D) enhance BIM's significant capability for comprehensive lifecycle management. Increasingly, stakeholders with a wide range of business or governance goals can introduce "business process reengineering" into the planning, design, financing, construction, insuring, renting, operation, management, renovation, repurposing, decommissioning and ultimate demolition of buildings and other facilities.

Organizations working within the standards processes are well positioned to develop business relationships in this new area. Breaking down the old technology stovepipes opens new opportunities for disintermediation (cutting out the middleman). Large and small companies are creating new types of businesses, services and partnerships. These companies recognize the growing market need and the potential to meet that need using technologies that are converging in the presence of Moore's Law (the doubling of computer power/price every 18 months) and Metcalf's Law (the value of a network resource is proportional to the square of the number of users of the resource.) Anyone looking for growth in CAD should look closely at BIM.

Author's note: Sources for this article include presentations made by Diane Davis, Chair, National BIM Standards Scoping Chair; Dana K. "Deke" Smith, RA, Chair, NIBS Facility Information Council and NBIMS Project Committee; Fred Limp, Leica Geosystems Chair and University Professor and Director, Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; and Jeff Zeiss, Director of Technology, Autodesk, at the fourth Emerging Technologies Summit (ETS-4) held March 21-23, 2007, in Washington, D.C. and organized by OGC and the Geospatial Information Technologies Association (GITA).

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