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What does Level 3 BIM mean for the steel industry?

While a finalised definition of Level 3 BIM is still a way off there are trends emerging that will certainly impact on this critical part of the construction industry.

In 2011 the Government Construction Client Group published the first definition for Level 3 BIM:

Fully open process and data integration enabled by “web services” compliant with the emerging IFC / IFD standards, managed by a collaborative model server. Could be regarded as iBIM or integrated BIM potentially employing concurrent engineering processes.

The UK government published its Level 3 strategy paper, Digital Built Britain, in 2015. This year the Centre for Digital Built Britain (CDBB) was launched and the Sector Deal has digital as a Grand Challenge.

Harnessing the power of digital
Using computational design to iterate many hundreds or thousands of solutions can now be done in seconds to determine the ‘best’ answer to a specific structural problem. Software such as Rhino and Grasshopper can deliver powerful solutions that can then be checked for code compliance in Tekla Structural Designer and linked to fabrication software such as Tekla Structures. In addition 3D printing techniques directly from models will change the way that steel is fabricated.

In parallel with this, the drive for greater industry efficiency has also led to the presumption of offsite fabrication for Government projects from 2019. The structural steel industry has been a manufacturer for decades and already understands fabrication directly from models, production line methodologies, robotic assembly, traceability, efficient logistics and lean programmes which will all be part of Level 3.

The structural steelwork industry needs to be under no illusion that data will be a key requirement, however the amount of data required will probably not increase greatly, the changes will be in the way it is used.

Level 3 links the information from the digital built environment to similar data sets from the water, power, and transportation sectors. This is where Industry 4.0 and Smart Cities strategies align to construction and will be the start of the industry dipping its toes into the world of Big Data.

So Level 3 will vastly change the contextual, contractual and cultural use of data. In the Digital Built Britain strategy five key measures were identified:

  • The creation of a set of new, international ‘Open Data’ standards which would pave the way for easy sharing of data across the entire market.
  • The establishment of a new contractual framework for projects which have been procured with BIM to ensure consistency, avoid confusion and encourage, open, collaborative working.
  • The creation of a cultural environment which is co-operative, seeks to learn and share.
  • Training the public sector client in the use of BIM techniques such as data requirements, operational methods and contractual processes.
  • Driving domestic and international growth and jobs in technology and construction.

‘Open Data’ standards
The UK led the world in creating a comprehensive set of BIM process standards. These standards form the foundations of Level 1 and 2 but are also critical for Level 3. The adoption of the BuildingSMART data exchange format IFC – Industry Foundation Class – as well as the development of further sub-sets of IFC known as Model View Definitions (MVDs) will be critical. Seamless data transfers reduce waste.

Open data workflows will also see real time performance monitoring through the use of sensors. This offers the opportunity to better understand the structural behaviour of built assets but also comes with the need for greater data security of assets.

A new contractual framework
The industry will also require better collaborative contracts. IPI (Integrated Project Insurance) and project bank accounts are required for Level 3 to be successful. The recently published Sector Deal for Construction notes the need for sustainable business practices and fairer payment practices.

This will mean big changes for clients and tier 1 contractors who create and manage contracts, but should be welcome news to specialist contractors who have previously suffered with poor contractual terms. There is still much work to be done to properly embed BIM Level 2 into existing contracts as the Winfield/Rock report showed.

Contractual payment terms could also be linked to blockchain. The use of these distributed ledger technologies relies on accurate data to authorise payments so is aligned to digital construction processes.

A co-operative cultural environment
To move the industry towards delivering Level 3 there is probably the even greater hurdle of achieving cultural changes. Level 3 won’t fix the industry in this respect but working to the principles of Level 3 will force the industry to work in a very different and better way.

Training in the use of BIM techniques
No amount of new standards, contracts and cultural changes will actually make a real difference until the industry addresses the need for training. This is not software training, but learning the behavioural changes needed to deliver the processes and techniques of Level 3. This will be a big challenge when many businesses are struggling to deliver Level 2 projects due to inconsistent, or inappropriate, behaviours by individuals and teams.

Driving domestic and international growth
By driving innovation through the use of data rich technology the UK Government sees this strategy as an import way to maintain and grow trade both domestically and abroad.

So where does this leave the steelwork contractor? Well, still in a position of holding the high ground for digital adoption. Steel fabrication is already a model based, data driven operation. The industry has been manufacturing and assembling accurate structures for decades and has expertise to offer the research at the CDBB. Delivering Level 3 by 2025 could still be a serious challenge, but the steel construction industry has a great opportunity to influence this journey.

Trimble Solutions (UK) Ltd is a sponsor of the 50th Structural Steel Design Awards

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