IT helps build from the foundations up

In the 1990s the construction sector was still languishing in the dark ages of IT compared to other industry sectors, but then...

In the 1990s the construction sector was still languishing in the dark ages of IT compared to other industry sectors, but then Web portals were found to be the ideal focal point for large projects.

Construction has the lowest IT penetration of all industry sectors. But the scope for Web portals to provide convenient and effective focal points for large projects involving multiple participants means that it is fast catching up.

It is the world's largest vertical market, generating revenues of £2tn annually (£600bn in Europe), but it is highly fragmented, with the top 10 European contractors having just 8.4% of the market and the top 60 only 17.7%, according to the construction e-marketplace eu-supplycom. This contrasts starkly with sectors such as IT, automobiles, pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals, which are dominated by a handful of major players.

The deployment of IT has been slowed largely by this fragmented nature in which major construction companies have to liaise with many participants within multiple projects at any given time. The principal successes have been in control and scheduling within projects, but even here, progress has been hindered by the difficulties in dealing with the number of suppliers and partners, many of which have little capability for electronic sharing of information or workflow participation.

Although some low-tech firms, such as those providing basic labour, have little to contribute to electronic supply chains, the full benefits of business-to-business (B2B) e-commerce can only be achieved by having most participants online.

In a sector where competition has cut margins to 1.5% to 2%, construction companies have woken up to the potential to improve on these by shaving operating costs through supply chain automation, explains Naomi Thomas, managing director of But as Thomas points out, moving to online document sharing is the first step and the full benefits of B2B relationships will only follow when internal business processes have been changed to accommodate electronic working around central project repositories. "It is going to be difficult for some companies to change," says Thomas.

According to Marjan Sarshah, head of the industry association Construct IT, the biggest change construction companies need to make is in their management of the huge number of documents they deal with during the course of a project. For example, the Bluewater shopping mall project in Kent took three years and 80,000 documents were exchanged.

"People keep sending different versions of computer-aided design documents and details of legislation and they get mixed up," says Sarshah. "Companies should move towards an electronic project information repository shared by all stakeholders."

But to exploit a repository to the full, it is essential that all participants adopt a 3D model for project drawings, rather than the prevailing 2D approach, says Jim Paton, vice-president of marketing for graphical software supplier Infrasoft. As he points out, the manufacturing, automotive and aerospace sectors already use 3D models and have cut the design cycle time significantly.

Similar benefits could be gained within construction projects, because with a shared 3D model, all changes and additions to individual components will automatically be reflected on all other relevant components, speeding up the overall design process.

The main problem with 3D is that for a large infrastructure project such as roads, the resulting 3D model is massive, generating perhaps a 10Gbyte file. It is impractical to transmit this regularly between project partners, so some way of communicating just the parts of the model that have changed is needed.

Infrasoft has pioneered an approach called string modelling whereby objects, such as windows, are held as strings of data representing their spatial coordinates. These strings can then be sent in isolation and the central model can assimilate them and regenerate itself when changes are made. Users can then access the new versions of individual strings.

But, to participate effectively in shared data models, construction companies need to get their internal IT shop in order.

Given that many have a legacy of disparate incompatible systems and data sources, a flexible approach based on a middleware or information broker to insulate new Web-based processes from back-end systems is often desirable. Laing Construction, for example, has taken this line.

The new collaborative approach to IT within projects also requires common standards for transmission and representation of documents and drawings.

Sarshah's concerns
  • Establishing internal IT infrastructure capable of supporting external collaboration based on project portals and shared repositories
  • Introducing culture of collaboration conducive to sharing information with partners via project portals
  • Adopting IT blueprint based on common industry-wide standards such as XML and also key sector-specific ones, in particular the International Association for Interoperability's Industry Foundation Classes
  • Introducing 3D modelling and insist that project partners do so
  • Implementing a middleware or information broker to insulate front-end collaborative processes from back-end applications and databases.

Gartner: smart IT offers relief from low margins
Of all industry sectors the construction sector is the worst run, according to David Flint, sector analyst at Gartner Group.

It is characterised by often unrealistically low margins caused by over-competitive tendering, antagonistic attitudes among project participants and numerous inefficiencies resulting from poor co-ordination and control. Yet despite, or rather because of, these problems, Flint is optimistic about the take-up of IT within a sector that has traditionally lagged behind others.

"I think there is likely to be significant progress over the next few years," says Flint. "I see increased understanding of problems and significant efforts to get the standards right."

Such optimism is founded largely on the belief that IT is now maturing to the point that it can provide relief from tight margins through substantial project and operational cost savings. "The potential gains are huge, with estimates that one-third of the total cost of a construction job can be saved through adoption of an integrated project model supporting collaboration across industry standards," says Flint.

Also, electronic collaboration would enable construction companies to become more competitive by improving quality and delivering to shorter time scales.

The main problems to be overcome to achieve this improved collaboration are not so much technical but relate to cultural factors within the sector. There has to be emphasis on getting the business relationships right. "You need to understand the business processes, link those across the organisations that contribute, whoever they are, and put in IT systems that support them," says Flint.

Another problem springs from the fragmented nature of the industry and lack of IT awareness, particularly among the smaller players. However, it is important not to get bogged down trying to get all the players online, and instead focus on the key partners in design, surveying, engineering and subsequent facilities management of the finished construction.

"There are some very low-tech businesses, such as labour-only contractors, and it's probably not necessary for them to be online," says Flint. On the other hand, the relationship with sub-contractors lower down the chain needs to be managed within online project-control systems.

The overriding IT issue, crucial for attaining the potential cost savings, is document management, given the huge flow of structured information within projects.

"This arises in terms of document automation, but more importantly in understanding what the documents are all about," says Flint. This is where common object standards are needed, so that project participants can contribute towards an overall design without having to grapple with low-level detail.

Setting common standards
Given the highly collaborative nature of construction, coupled with the temporary demise of public e-marketplaces that could serve as brokers for document exchange, the pressing need is for common definitions of objects such as doors, walls, road lines and also of building services such as ventilation systems.

The International Association for Interoperability (IAI) is charged with defining these objects and ensuring that they conform to the work of other standards groups such as the International Standards Organisation and promoting their use within the industry.

Brian Zelly of the IAI says, "We are developing object standards called Industry Foundation Classes (IFCs) for objects in construction used by software manufacturers and, provided that they support them, it then enables information to be properly exchanged between the various software platforms. You can then have a single project data model which contractors, architects and surveyors can take from and feed into."

Manufacturers can also define their own objects, provided that they conform with the IFC class specifications. In this way, a proprietary design for an object, such as a window unit, can be incorporated in a project with specific details of its construction and shape. "We are encouraging manufacturers to develop product-specific IFCs on their Web sites," says Zelly. "These IFCs can then be downloaded directly into a project database.

XML serves as the carrier of IFC objects, but a higher level of detail and description is needed than can be achieved by such a generic data description language alone.

A major advantage of a high-level object standard, apart from easing the document management process, lies in providing a firm foundation for three-dimensional models of construction projects. Only with proper 3D models in which objects are represented as solid shapes, rather than 2D representations, is it possible to ensure that changes to one part of a drawing are always reflected in other affected components.

The IFC standards will also help construction companies lay foundations for ongoing maintenance of constructions, such as roads or buildings, by providing a detailed model of the structure in a standard format. "We are placing great emphasis on the whole life-cycle benefits of IFCs," says Zelly.

Standards for adherence with environmental controls, such as insulation, could be embodied as IFCs and automatically incorporated in project designs. At the same time, the standard model will help in future maintenance or refurbishments by identifying all the components and features that need to be considered.

This would apply both to buildings and larger infrastructures, such as roads, where detailed maps of underlying services such as water mains should reduce the risk of accidental fracture by, for example, cable TV contractors.

What makes up the construction IT ecosystem?
Construction companies have traditionally been IT laggards. This has been characterised by low IT budgets and difficult implementation conditions given the project-based focus requiring a flexible approach conducive to rapid change and temporary infrastructures.

However, the Internet is helping the sector catch up by making it easier to configure temporary project-based networks around portals that can be accessed by members of the team. These portals will serve as focal points of collaboration between the various companies in the project, such as architects, surveyors, structural engineers and construction companies.

For this to work, however, there has to be agreed standards for the detailed representation and manipulation of drawings and documents. For this reason, the work of standards bodies such as the International Association for Interoperability is vital. With growing access by project partners to each company's internal network, security, particularly user access control, is becoming an increasingly important aspect of the ecosystem.

Standards will have to support 3D representations of objects
Enterprise resource planning packages are used, but there is a lack of construction sector-specific modules. For this reason there is more financial and report writing software than in other sectors.

There is also a lack of customer relationship management systems, partly because there are few consumer customers and the emphasis is more on collaboration between partners. Naturally, the sector is advanced in its use of project management software to orchestrate workflow and co-ordinate processes within projects.

Top five issues
Common standards - not just for documents, but also for objects within them, such as windows and doors
2. Emphasis in standards development should be on whole life cycle of a building or infrastructure, not just its construction
3. Fragmented nature of construction sector makes standardisation process harder
4. 3D models - needed for consistent change management
5. Consistent project data model - so all participants can tap into it.

Morrisons Construction case study >>

Laing Construction case study >>

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