This month, John Lorimer, Chair of BIM Academy retires after five decades in the construction industry where he has acted as client, contractor and engineer, working in both UK and South East Asia. Here he offers his insight into the growth of digital adoption in the industry, beginning with his role as client on the Manchester Central Library project which was a significant pathfinder demonstrating the value of BIM for the government estate, from design to operation.
Ten years ago BIM was essentially the preserve of academics and the very earliest of early adopters. A small percentage of construction people had heard of it and to my knowledge no projects were using BIM technology in any meaningful holistic way. It is reasonable to say that BIM was regarded as a marginal curiosity and the status quo of decades prevailed. The game changer came in 2011 with the UK Government mandate to use BIM Level 2 by 2016 and quickly there was a need to engage clients and companies throughout the supply chain. Prior to this, organisations were able to put off investment as some did not think BIM would become mainstream, or that it was not advantageous to their business, while many were unable or unwilling to make the investment in capital and training that the move to BIM requires. After 2011 the choice was plain – digitise or keep on with the quill.
Concurrent with the BIM evolution were the seismic shifts in the entire digital world – the smartphone revolution, cashless systems, Bitcoin, big data – and yet great swathes of the construction industry still seem to struggle with implementing a coherent and consistent digital policy, which is too often seemingly dependent on the direction or whim of regional and local staff.
An essential element of BIM is supply chain collaboration in order to maximise productivity and it was hoped that BIM would be a driver of this. Supply chain inconsistencies still cause problems on projects, with a default position to produce 2D drawings, frustrating manufacturers who on their part increasingly rely on the digital environment to design, manage and sell their product. Regrettably, collaboration still remains a difficult concept for the construction industry to embrace and turn to its full advantage: progress in this area has been painfully slow over the last 10 years.
One of the principal elements in the client business case for using digital technology is managing the facility post construction. Clients and providers can appreciate the benefits, but since these may take some years to show themselves, many are unsure of how to start and are reluctant to invest. There has certainly been less progress on FM than in construction, and many existing CAFM tools have been slow to keep up with evolving technology: however, the use of hand held devices and remote control is becoming more prevalent and this push from the technology side will create another drive to use digital throughout the project life. This area is probably the most complex to address but remains the one where the efficiency savings are potentially the greatest.
The resurgence of interest and activity in offsite manufacturing is encouraging. Whether at a simple kit of parts level up to full modular manufacture, this sector of the industry utilises digital technology to produce a better and cheaper product than traditional methods allow.
Construction has not moved as quickly in joining the digital revolution of the past 10 years as it could have. It is a highly complex industry, often for historical reasons and many of the digital tools are probably still not as user friendly as they might be but some organisations have made very positive advances and are now demonstrating the benefits of investing in digital technology. For evidence of this just look at the current entries in construction awards this year in the digital and innovation categories – very encouraging.