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Saturday, 13 October 2012 13:49

Industry slow to adopt new construction modeling software

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WEST MICHIGAN — While a technology has promise to help speed construction projects and better control costs, it has yet to make it into widespread use at West Michigan firms.

The reason: A high cost of entry and a learning curve to using the program have many firms putting off adopting it.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) is nothing new to the construction industry, said Scott Veine, project manager and director of sustainability at Grand Rapids-based Pioneer Construction. While Pioneer started using BIM technology about three years ago, many firms are slow to embed the technology into their everyday business, he said.

BIM is a software program that enhances a project’s visualization, productivity, document coordination, speed of delivery and ultimately can lead to reduced costs. The program helps project teams before a project is built to study the spatial relationships, light analysis, geographic information, and quantities and properties of building components.

What BIM technology does is identify potential problems early in the design-and-build process and allows a lot of prefabrication to be done offsite, Veine said.

“It makes us more efficient and accurate in the field,” he said. “The biggest question from clients is: ‘How much has BIM saved you on change orders?’ The answer is I don’t know because we’re able to avoid change orders altogether. That’s been critical.”

The system also incorporates time and cost as dimensions in addition to spatial dimensions of height, width and depth. BIM enables a virtual information model to change hands easily from the design team to the main contractor, the subcontractors and the owner/developer. Each professional adds discipline-specific data to the single shared model.

At a time when construction costs are spiking, many firms are looking to be as efficient as possible with time and materials to maximize their returns, sources say. Modernizing operations will eventually become a matter of competitiveness, but in the meantime, some companies can continue to get away with performing some aspects of the business the old-fashioned way.

“Our industry doesn’t move that quick,” said Veine. “Every now and then we need that nudge.”

Veine said many firms still have to overcome a learning curve to implementing BIM, not to mention that the program’s cost remains a hurdle to it becoming part of firms’ standard practice.

“The concept is essentially what they’ve been doing in AutoCAD for 15 years now,” said Jon Laureto, vice president of business development for Grand Rapids-based Wolverine Building Group. “It’s getting more user-friendly, but not everyone is on board with it yet.”

As materials costs rise, teams are focused on driving every bit of efficiency and cost savings into a project because that means completing a project on time and on budget.

“(BIM) can increase productivity to a point right now,” Veine said. “Traditionally, you do all your layouts in the field. When interference comes up, you fix it out in the field.”

The streamlined input process is expected to guard against information loss and provide more extensive information as the project bounces from each of the teams involved.

“Team building happens right out of the gate,” Veine said. “There is a lot of professional liability when the model is changing hands so lines of communication are laid out right away.”

However, for all its power BIM isn’t seeing that much use in West Michigan, at least on many medium and smaller sized projects, sources say. For an industry that has long used tangible documentation and operation plans, the move to a fully computer-based system is a slow gallop at best.

At the same time, BIM often only makes sense and is cost-effective on large-scale projects that require a number of different teams and subcontractors.

“It saves us money when we can use it, but it needs a large complex project,” Laureto said. “Otherwise, you usually have to hire an additional technician to run the program.”

Still, both Viene and Laureto agreed that eventually BIM could become ubiquitous on all job sites as information-sharing technology pushes companies to adapt or die.

Big institutions like Western Michigan University and Spectrum Health actually require construction managers to use BIM, Veine said.

At Ferris State University, where Veine serves on the advisory board for the construction management program, he said BIM is heavily established in the curriculum and runs through the architecture technology and facilities management departments. He said construction firms’ next generation of clients will be more educated in the process and will demand BIM.

“At some point (BIM) is going to be the norm on every project in the future,” Laureto said. “BIM is like an add-on service for many contractors to offer clients. You can get away with not having or using it right now.”

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