In general, the construction industry has been reluctant to embrace the benefits of IT. However, builders are now beginning to be dragged into the 21st century by the need to collaborate more closely with their more IT-savvy colleagues, the architects and engineers responsible for the ideas behind their work.
Consequently, laptops are gradually making an incongruous appearance alongside the hard hats, mud and mayhem of the building site. So, is this just a case of keeping up with the times or are there other issues driving the industry from bricks to bytes?
One of the major factors for this change is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain profit margins on building projects. For example, housebuilders are seeing a shift to mixed-use sites with fewer family homes and more flats, so multiplying the risk factor inherent in investing in building land. Mindful of high-profile project delivery delays, many commercial or public sector clients have introduced financial penalty clauses in case deadlines are missed. And on top of that, there are skill shortages combined with increased competition for land.
Yet often, profits are eaten away by practical issues - delays in receiving drawings, use of outdated data, inaccuracies caused by human error. These are compounded by the rise of the global project - where an architect in London is liaising with contractors across Europe to build a new hotel in Dubai, for example.
As a result, the whole of the architecture, engineering and construction industry is looking for ways to reduce risk and maintain its bottom line. On a day-to-day level it is also struggling with the need to communicate and review project drawings and share proliferating number of associated documents that are usually too large to send by e-mail.
The answer is obviously a project management tool - yet with such a diverse selection of people needing to use it (from planners to plumbers) many on the market are just too enterprise-based and complex to be suitable. Therefore, many in the industry are opting for straightforward online project collaboration tools. Designed to keep projects on schedule and to budget, these tools allow project drawings and other documents to be made available online whenever they are needed, to whoever needs them, wherever they happen to be.
Communication with subcontractors is vastly improved, becoming more instantaneous, reliable and trackable. Integration with design software means builders can easily update and publish drawings and make them available to their subcontractors, resulting in a largely paperless process. The need to share with contractors who do not use Cad is addressed by the use of DWF files, which enable sharing and viewing of 2D and 3D files without their native programs.
Here to stay
Underneath these more general issues, there is a technology sub-text. The growing take up of digital 3D design and a process known as Building Information Modelling (BIM). This is the creation and use of co-ordinated, consistent, computable information about a building project in design held in a single 3D digital model.
This move towards BIM will only accelerate the need for collaborative tools. It looks like builders need to find a permanent home for computers in the site office from now on.
James Witty is EMEA collaboration solutions manager at Autodesk
This was first published in January 2008