January 31, 2018
- Design & Construction
By Raghu Ramanathan and Johnny Clemmons
When most people hear “virtual reality,” their minds likely go to things like sci-fi movies, video games, and headsets for a smartphone. While those applications are certainly starting to become more universal, most are still restricted to consumer audiences, and represent entertainment outlets. The reality is, virtual reality isn’t just for families hoping to add a new piece of tech to their living rooms. It’s younger cousin, augmented reality, is already having a very real impact in industries like construction, and is changing the way builders manage teams and projects. Virtual design and construction, in conjunction with building information models (BIM), can streamline construction projects.
Augmented reality works with the camera on a user’s mobile device to generate a digital overlay on top of the camera’s output. The overlay often incorporates useful information and graphics, such as points of interest, and can even allow users to create and manipulate 3D objects in real space. This is tremendously valuable for industries like construction.
The construction industry is growing — in fact, a recent study shows it’s predicted to reach $15 trillion by 2030. Another study predicts that 75 percent of the infrastructure that will be needed in 2050 does not exist today, and the design and expected outcomes will be transformative. This is a major opportunity for the construction industry, but will require reimagining of business models to include emerging technology in order to meet this need.
Until recently, the construction process consisted of many contractors and subcontractors immersed in paper drawings, spreadsheets, purchase orders, invoices, and phone calls — all using separate technologies and siloed data. Now, BIM and virtual design and construction allow teams to reduce the complexity of the building process, while creating a stronger, safer, better-maintained building at the same time.
Projects that embrace these tools can see reduced costs, improved worker safety, higher quality, and streamlined planning that can shave weeks, or even months, off a project timeline.
It’s not uncommon to confuse BIM and virtual design and construction, but they do have some important differences. A BIM model is a 3D visualization of a project asset, rendered using specific input data, such as manufacturer specs, size, and location. Every project that uses a 3D model is technically using BIM, and that model serves as a virtual reality prototype for the project itself. This allows design and build teams to collaborate on processes and leverage a digital twin of a project both before and during its construction lifecycle. In doing so, contractors can bring their businesses into the future, in an industry that has historically been slow to adopt new technologies.
Facility managers can think of virtual design and construction as the visual management tool for housing BIM models during the preconstruction phase of a project. However, virtual design and construction doesn’t end with BIM. It’s much more holistic than that, and goes beyond preconstruction.
Virtual design and construction is a tool that can be used to manage the overall process of a project — from preconstruction to delivery. It utilizes BIM models, along with data from other sources and project teams, in a structured way to drive better and more efficient processes throughout a project. Use of virtual design and construction also implies integration with data from additional sources such as ERP or other procurement systems. Only by combining all the relevant data can you create a digital twin of a project.
As the primary 3D representation of a project, BIM is most frequently used by design and build teams. It’s where all their individual efforts come together to form a cohesive digital version of a project.
Conversely, virtual design and construction recognizes that BIM has forever altered the old construction process, meaning teams are no longer bound to the same processes and restrictions as past projects. This enables construction management and execution teams to reimagine what the ideal process for construction should be, and create a dynamic and interactive project timeline to manage the entire construction process. The result is a greatly improved process from start to finish, and one that may look a little different for each project.
Traditionally, AEC teams have tended to work disconnected from each other, which can cause project delays and extensive rework. Removing siloed tasks helps enable the following:
• Improved communication and planning in preconstruction. At the heart of virtual design and construction comes superior communication between design and build teams, and improved project planning from the outset of a contract. By emphasizing 3D visualization of an entire project timeline through BIM, then subsequently managing it digitally through virtual design and construction, construction firms can better connect the work of build and design teams earlier in the process to provide a holistic view of work to be done. Using actual data, measurements, and locations allows 3D BIM models to be accurate scale representations of a real product.
• Higher quality, ahead of schedule. Because BIM and virtual design and construction aggregate design and build data into one central location, the project timeline is already set from an early stage. This cuts down on potential delays once construction begins, which in turn, helps reduce delivery time. Real-time data and measurements (and other resources) can also be used to update an existing BIM model of a project at any phase of construction, thereby creating a “digital twin” of how the building will look at completion. This includes things like video footage from drones used to verify progress and accuracy of installation. When used correctly, BIM and virtual design and construction help save valuable time and cut down on wasteful rework, leading to a project that’s completed ahead of schedule.
• Improved Safety: By tracking and monitoring a project in real time, BIM and virtual design and construction can help improve the health and overall safety of workers by identifying potential hazards ahead of time, and allowing managers and supervisors to plan ahead to reduce the number of high-risk tasks. Using BIM and virtual design and construction in conjunction with other advanced technologies like photogrammetry, teams can also visualize project maintenance through the use of 3D applications that match photos from drones or fixed cameras with a BIM rendering.
• Improved Maintenance Turning a project over to the operations and maintenance team can be a messy process for construction teams as well. By easing this transition of project materials through virtual design and construction, operations teams are set up for success from the moment they begin working on a project.
Developers continue to demand more advanced projects quicker than ever. What’s more, projects are getting more complex, and there are many inefficient and wasteful practices that can be reimagined with digital solutions. BIM and virtual design and construction take advantage of 3D mapping, augmented reality, and digitized project management, and can have an immediate impact on project speed, cost and quality.
The use of 3D mapping through BIM provides an unprecedented method for visualizing their work, and also allows for enhanced collaboration opportunities. Managing a project with virtual design and construction not only helps construction teams stay on track, it also eliminates waste, helps improve overall quality, and streamlines the overall construction process.
While these tools are powerful examples of ways in which construction teams can embrace a digital core, construction managers should continue to look for other ways to incorporate digital assets into the project timeline in order to better connect the trailer to the site.
Raghu Ramanathan is SAP global general manager and senior vice president of services. Johnny Clemmons is global chief engineer in the SAP industry business unit for engineering, construction, and operations.