The AEC Lens
Sanjay Gangal is the President of IBSystems, the parent company of AECCafe.com, MCADCafe, EDACafe.Com, GISCafe.Com, and ShareCG.Com.
PLM for AEC: A Better Way to Manage Buildings
January 24th, 2012 by Sanjay Gangal
Author: Peter A. Bilello, President, CIMdata Inc.
The architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry, the designers and builders of the world’s infrastructure, arguably stand to gain even more than other industries by implementing product lifecycle management (PLM) strategies. This is because AEC has only made modest progress in the management of the intellectual assets of projects at the enterprise level.
The AEC industry designs and constructs everything from houses of all sizes to small-town apartment complexes, schools, and office buildings to big-city skyscrapers, refineries, power plants, bridges, dams, and factories; in short: any and all structures. Some of their finest work is flat on the ground, so to speak, as airports, freeways, and mass-transit rail systems. Underground, AEC deals with subway systems, water mains, gas pipeline networks, electrical conduits and associated infrastructure, sewer lines, and storm-drainage tunnels and supporting facilities.
This is the realm of architects, civil engineers and structural engineers, and a host of skilled tradesmen. PLM strategies have many obvious benefits to building owners but implementation has lagged other industries. A big reason is that every AEC project has two complex hand-overs of information. The first is turning the architects’ design into construction plans for the general contractor and subcontractors. The other hand-over is the completed building from the general contractor to the owner.
PLM began as extensions and toolkits to computer-aided design (CAD) systems and solid modelers to manage the initial explosion of engineering information in digital formats. The initial focus was the same as CAD and computer-aided manufacturing (CAM), which was discrete mechanical products made with machine tools.
The aerospace and automotive industries led the way and the “lifecycle” focus soon followed, corralling all the information—the intellectual assets—of a product from concept to disposal. From that solid foundation, PLM steadily expanded into electronics; medical, surgical and pharmaceutical; food and beverage; consumer packaged goods. From that foundation, PLM is evolving into other process industries, where the production system often is the product.
The next logical extension of PLM is into AEC, where the project itself assumes the place of products and production processes. And because AEC projects are so fundamentally different from discrete-products manufacturing and the process industries, a PLM transformation is beginning.
In many ways, PLM for AEC had a coming-out party in November 2011 at Autodesk Inc.’s annual Autodesk University (AU) conference in Las Vegas. Specifically:
Autodesk, San Rafael, Calif., is the industry leader in most AEC software segments. The impact of the two AU announcements is building support for data management and PLM strategies across many segments of the AEC software industry. This is shown by releases from Bentley Systems, Hexagon’s Intergraph, and Nemetschek AG’s Graphisoft, ArchiCAD and Vectorworks units. Also moving toward AEC are the manufacturing-oriented PLM solution suppliers such as Dassault Systèmes (ENOVIA), Siemens PLM Software (Teamcenter), Aras., PTC (Windchill), and others.
Taken together, these steps mark the beginning of the evolution of BIM into “B”LM: managing information is morphing into managing the building lifecycle. BIM’s 3D imaging offers huge potential benefits to building owners. Two examples:
PLM for AEC extends these benefits. The obvious question is why not sooner? The answer is that, compared to manufacturing and the process industries, AEC is much larger, much more complex, and more fragmented. This is why the professions and businesses that comprise AEC are taking a fresh approach to PLM.
Specifically, AEC leaders are blending traditional project-management information, a.k.a. BIM, with scheduling, simulation and analysis, and digital manufacturing. Benefits include better management of equipment and materials at the site, optimizing the pace of work, capturing best practices, maintaining document workflows, and pinpointing critical differences between the as-designed and the as-constructed.
Capturing best practices for reuse is a major PLM benefit to contractors as lessons learned. Capturing the as-designed and the as-constructed plus the as-maintained is equally vital for building owners. Unlike PLM in most other industries, PLM in AEC positively impacts the product’s owners and managers for 30 or more years. This can be seen by looking at just three key PLM benefits:
Better coordination between architects and contractors, especially the small- and medium-sized. This is the “build” phase of the project, when tens of thousands of CAD files, paper drawings, and even some blueprints are brought together at the project site. This part of the lifecycle is design-centric and is usually labeled BIM. Focused on structural and civil engineering, BIM accounts for the structure itself and all its connections to utilities (water, sewer, electric, gas, and steam). BIM also accounts for ingress, egress, foot and vehicular traffic, zoning, building-code compliance, and security, among other things.
Design technology in BIM, even the newest and most disruptive, is easily handled with PLM strategies because most of the content is what information technology (IT) professionals call “structured”—CAD files and spreadsheets where information is explicit and easily found.
Ensuring that building owners and managements know in detail what constitutes the physical property. This combines the BIM as-designed with the as-constructed information that can be almost anywhere in a myriad of forms. Included is what has been done in maintenance; repairs to damage; and leaseholder build-outs plus renovations and modifications.
This as-constructed data is operations focused; knowing “when” and “by whom” is essential. Unfortunately, BIM systems managers struggle to keep these information models updated. Some as-constructed data and a lot of the as-modified information may be missing.
This information is what IT pros call “unstructured”—blueprints, photos, faxes, E-mails, documents from inspectors and regulators, claims settlements from insurers, and so on. What is important to a given owner may not be readily apparent; the information has to be dug out or inferred. PLM strategies handle implicit information well. Despite the technical challenges, as the as-constructed and as-maintained information is pulled together, BIM evolves into BLM for Building Lifecycle Management.
For building owners and managers, the questions to be answered by PLM are “What do I have?” and “What do I have to manage or change?” PLM offers strategies for dealing with the variety of complications that arise from a basic AEC reality: No two buildings are exactly alike. Size, materials, floor plans, site-specific modifications, utilities, and construction techniques vary widely. So do the needs and tastes of the building’s tenants.
Making all the pieces fit together on the construction site is AEC’s biggest challenge, as well as the greatest challenge to implementing PLM in AEC. This is where the differences between the as-designed and the as-constructed emerge. Part of the contractor-to-owner hand-over of a large structure is tracking every discrepancy in the design data and BIM information. These discrepancies are tracked with “punch lists.”
Punch lists are informal but legally binding agreements between architect, contractor, and owner to correct anything the owner finds not “up to spec.” Much of this entails workarounds and modifications made on-the-fly. Punch lists run to hundreds of pages and are not always well documented. They have always been a stumbling block to the building owners’ needs for any comprehensive information approach.
A further complication for PLM implementations is that AEC relies heavily on skilled tradesmen and craftspeople. They are bound by union contracts and regulated by a plethora of building codes and regulations. Because neither accommodates technological change easily, much of their information that is important to building owners is in scanned paper documents, at best.
Regulations multiply in the public sector such as schools, hospitals, government buildings, and infrastructure. Regulations multiply yet again in oil and gas facilities, refineries, and nuclear power plants. Despite the complexity, PLM strategies for AEC can go a long way toward placing up-to-date information at the fingertips of everyone who needs it.
Until the advent of PLM, what has been missing in AEC is a broader and deeper level of collaboration between architects, engineers, and contractors on one hand and project owners on the other. As an example, collaboration on specs and capabilities is vital if electrical systems, heating, air-conditioning, elevators, and escalators are to be economically maintained over time.
PLM for AEC, a.k.a. BLM, brings this enormous mass of info together for the benefit of building owners and managers. Their concerns span the building’s entire lifecycle; they start with the structure’s design concepts, which may be developed by architects years before a general contractor is hired and put to work. This is why BLM requires the integration of discrete product information, such as HVAC product data, with the project information, that is, what was constructed.
The theory of BIM—centrally managing all of a building’s intellectual property, i.e., all the information needed to design and maintain the building—is that every product or service has a lifecycle. This means PLM for AEC manages data objects about everything in a project’s information workflow. This is how PLM ensures that all of a building’s information is captured as it is created, transformed as required by successive owners, and delivered wherever needed no matter when.
Successfully integrating BIM and the myriad AEC applications into an all-encompassing PLM strategy pays off in many ways. Well-implemented PLM helps with everything from gaining project approvals, securing funding, tracking regulatory filings (and their convoluted workflows for signoffs), tracking design changes and their “downstream” impacts, and coordinating the work of hundreds of subcontractors that use dozens of different CAx systems.
To summarize, well-implemented PLM for AEC can help do all this, keeping owners abreast of every building change and all their technical and financial impacts over several decades. The deeper meaning of the Autodesk University of PLM and Cloud announcements is that power and adaptability of a PLM strategy is unquestioned.