Back in 1980, I was the systems architect/analyst and building trades consultant for DataSonix, the second digitizer-based construction estimating software package ever created. A questions that was constantly asked of me was, “When are we going to be able to port-in AutoCAD files and do estimates directly from them?” In a not-altogether-honest reply, I usually answered, “Oh, in a year or two.”
While the program faded into the inglorious graveyard of software that never achieved sufficient market presence, AutoCAD became the defacto industry standard for A&E design. However, the same question still remains today — when will it be possible to import AutoCAD files?
A push by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lead to Building Information Modeling, which creates virtual 3-D models of building components. Buildings can now be displayed on monitors instead of flat 2-D plane representations. Better models for designing, building and life-cycling a structure can be created from these matrix-based 3-D models.
It's fine to think that with better building models, contractors, architects, engineers, CPM schedulers, suppliers and construction owners will all hold hands because of all the good will, value engineering and cooperative betterments created from the perfect buildings that BIM will help us create. However, these happy thoughts are not the most realist thoughts.
If you sense that I'm a tad bit skeptical about BIM, then your intuition is right on. I'm skeptical because I've heard this all before — do you remember the promises of the first generation of design software that AutoCAD represented and never quite fulfilled?
This should bring back memories of when AutoCAD became the defacto software. Even though BIM holds some real-world benefits and promise, don't hold your breath for any specific application to come along.
Just because you're a contractor who doesn't do government work, don't think you're going to escape the affects of the BIM phenomenon. To stay competitive, you really need to do your homework and identify a third-party BIM modeling firm. Then get some ballpark figures from them about how to talk intelligently when dealing with clients who want BIM as part of their bid and construction process. You need that knowledge, so you won't loose potential work.
BIM is such a new animal when compared to AutoCAD. But don't think for a second that when a BIM-driven job comes along you'll have time to plug and play with the necessary hardware, network upgrades, software acquisition fees, training costs and learning curves that will be necessary for the project.
“Training is a greater percentage of implementation costs than all other factors combined,” explains Darren Scheller, corporate A&E BIM manager for The Benham Companies of Oklahoma City, an ENR Top 100 company. “If you don't spend the money to train effectively, then the money that you're spending on hardware and system upgrades won't give you the effective rate of return on BIM that you're expecting.”
One thing that all contractors using BIM agree on is that BIM does make its costs and aggravations worth it, at least a good part of the time, on larger jobs where there are multiple systems in potential conflict with each other at every turn. What you would normally pay someone to create coordination drawings may often be more costly than resolving those same conflicts when using BIM and an open approach to conflict resolution.
That being said about the 4G approach, I'm still not ready to say that BIM is ready for 5G software, enabling trade estimates to be effectively automated based on what's on the market or likely to become available.
“This BIM is really going to change our industry,” notes Scheller. “It's going to be the next paradigm shift, like when we went from manual drafting to CAD, and just like that, it's not going to happen overnight.”
I agree with Scheller, but it is important for contractors to understand that it's usable now, but isn't plug-and-play. It requires a long-term management commitment and capital investment in hardware, network and personnel upgrades. It's also driven predominately by customer requirements. While BIM will be in our future, it's not part of our future at the moment for most of us, so having a healthy dose of skepticism about it is OK.
Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via email at [email protected].
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