Building Product manufacturers face a varied and confusing landscape of technologies for reaching their customers and project teams. In this post, we’ll examine one set of these technologies—BIM—that has gained momentum in the last five years. By centralizing construction data, BIM can streamline the design process and build trust with design professionals; however, it also introduces three key challenges for manufacturers.
First things first: what is BIM? Building Information Modeling (BIM) is a set of technologies for building and infrastructure design that is over twenty years old, but has recently risen to prominence. BIM tools and workflows centralize drawings, schedules, 3D Models and other data in a single location. By using BIM, design teams can more rapidly generate drawing sets, coordinate trades before they get to the field, and create powerful visualizations.
Just as it’s important to reflect product information accurately in drawings and specifications, it’s important for manufacturers to embed the correct information about their products in the BIM. This information takes the form of content, catalogs, content management tools, and configurators—options we’ll explore in-depth below. We’ll also take a close look at some of the challenges we’ve seen emerge for BIM strategies: meeting firm standards, keeping the information fresh, and judging whether BIM users are the right project stakeholders to influence outcomes.
We asked Benjamin Glunz of BIMSmith what results building product manufacturers can see from a well-executed BIM strategy:
“An effective BIM strategy requires a dedicated focus on meeting the needs of the user. Many well-intentioned building product manufacturers will spend considerable time and money producing assets or tools that they think are necessary but may or may not actually be what the users want. But when their focus is on target and a manufacturer gets a strategy in place that gives the users what they’ve been looking for, you get a chain reaction. By providing users with the resources they want exactly how and when they want them, you provide them with an exceptional experience with your brand. This produces a sense of trust. With any luck, that trust turns into loyalty, which turns into repeat specifications in future projects and, in the long run, a reputation of added value throughout the design community. But that can’t happen unless the basics are covered and you successfully equip the users with the tools they need for their workflow. The building product manufacturers that have gotten this right over the past few years are already seeing some tremendous results.”
What’s needed to make this happen? Let’s take a look.
For manufacturers, BIM starts with content creation, almost always in either Autodesk Revit Families or IFC. Revit dominates in the United States and is used worldwide; IFC is an open exchange format most heavily used in Europe. In both formats, pieces of content are files that contain 3D and 2D representations of your product as well as identifying information such as materials, product numbers, and performance data. Creating high-quality BIM content is labor intensive. Even manufacturers with internal engineering departments often lack the necessary expertise, as the software tools used for designing buildings differ from those used to design individual products.
Designers have specific requirements that must be considered when developing high-quality content. File sizes must be small to avoid slowing down design tools. Building products must be represented with several levels of detail and perspective. Finally, any metadata or properties must be consistently and cleanly populated. Some firms, like Andekan, specialize in creating this content. BIM catalogs also sometimes provide content creation as an additional service, and consultants such as Parallax Team supply advice and knowhow alongside implementation.
BIM catalogs and the first challenge
Most manufacturers look to make their content available online, focusing on searchable catalogs and their own websites. When these avenues work well, they reduce friction for design teams—they don’t need to create an account or fill out extra forms. When they work poorly, they return a long, undifferentiated list of products that don’t match project needs.
Some legacy catalogs, such as Arcat and Sweets, list BIM information alongside other searchable criteria such as specifications. There are also newer tools that focus on BIM content, such as BIMSmith and BIMObject. BIMObject was an early pioneer of online BIM listings and has a strong presence in Europe. BIMSmith, based out of Chicago, has paired innovative configurator tools with a library. Another innovator, the United Kingdom’s National BIM Library, standardizes many of the properties associated with BIM content, making it easier for design and construction teams to consume.
Manufacturers should ask a few key questions as they list information. Who searches for this? What level of analytics are provided? Thousands of eyeballs—and dozens of phone calls to your sales team—are only time-consuming distractions if they come from areas where your products are not sold.
Meeting firm standards is the first challenge that well-executed BIM strategies face. Firms have developed BIM standards that content must meet for two reasons: to protect the workflow efficiency of their teams, and to enable standardized processes based on data extracted from BIM. BIM tools, especially Revit, are power-hungry applications that can slow even high-performance computers to a crawl. The most critical performance predictor for a BIM tool is its file size: to rein in file sizes, firm standards streamline manufacturer content, eliminating overly detailed geometry or needless parameters.
Standardized processes may enable automation in drawing creation, labeling or collation. These often rely on firm-specific naming schemes or parameter values that may need to be inserted into manufacturer content before it is released for teams to use. Well-made manufacturer content can pass through this standardization. However, it presents a potential delay for project teams looking to incorporate manufacturer content. If manufacturer content is too unwieldy to quickly pass through these standardizing processes, teams will not use the content. This is the drawback of standardization.
BIM content management and the second challenge
Several companies, such as Avail and Unifi, have emerged to solve internal issues around BIM content management at design firms. These firms give BIM managers, designers, and architects tools to manage and search their internal libraries of content. BIM Managers often act as air traffic controllers for dozens of projects at once, so tools that improve their lives quickly gain traction. Content management tools give managers a new set of analytics and controls to apply to projects, helping them check the progress and quality of BIM content in development.
Adoption of and collaboration with these tools can help address the challenge of meeting firm standards. The workflows of BIM standard creators hinge on content management tools, so there is an obvious adjacency in helping manufacturers create and users vet building product content. Additionally, the tools provide finer-grained insight into use of BIM content than a website does: in principle, the tools could provide the quantity of a product used in a project, instead of simply indicating that the file had been downloaded. Content management tools are the newest technology covered by this post, and have the potential to evolve rapidly within the next couple of years.
The second challenge arises when content enters the hands of an individual contributor on the design team, whether from a firm’s central library or directly from a manufacturer's website. How do you ensure that the information that the designer uses is up-to-date and correct? To deal with this issue with text or technical information, many manufacturers have a policy of sending links to pdfs hosted on their website to designers seeking information. This means that if an architect comes back to an email months or years later and clicks the link, they will find the most recent information on a manufacturer’s offerings via the website, instead of potentially out-of-date information in a static file.
Analogous problems face BIM. After an update, each step of content creation and distribution must be repeated to keep information current. This is further complicated by the fact that BIM objects are incorporated directly into project models which may remain in use for the lifetime of a project. Whenever a BIM object is updated with new manufacturer information, project staff must make manual updates to project files. If staff fall behind on this task, the project may proceed using out-of-date information.
Moving beyond static files, many firms have deployed BIM configurators: software that helps design teams navigate options and incorporate BIM content into their models. Configurators have existed for CAD for decades, and now for BIM these tools promise to save design teams time when locating product information and developing their designs.
Configurators may help users work with products from a single manufacturer, a few related manufacturers, or, in some cases, a large number of products. Oldcastle Building Envelope, for example, has made significant investments in first-party solutions. Structsoft, on the other hand, helps users work with several related products, aiding the design of structural stud systems in wood and steel.
BIMSmith’s Forge product is a new breed: it pools information from a large group of product manufacturers that can be assembled into system solutions (wall and roof systems, for example). This exciting development meets project teams where they are: now, they can develop solutions that span several manufacturers, using tools they can apply uniformly, rather than juggling incompatible tools from competing manufacturers.
Configurators are powerful tools, but require a large investment to adopt and maintain, even when compared to developing BIM content. Software’s hefty price tag can be reduced by leveraging the work of others, whether that means banding together with other manufacturers, as detailed above, or building a tool that can be used by internal technical services or engineering teams.
The third challenge
Once a manufacturer’s product information has been incorporated into a project BIM, either through a configurator or a BIM object, we might assume its journey is complete. But no—we live in a built environment, not a designed environment. The third and most critical challenge, in terms of impacting project outcomes, relates to BIM’s role in project delivery and the gap between design tools and eventual project outcomes. As Ben Gluntz puts it:
“It can often be a challenge for a manufacturer to point to direct project outcomes as a result of their BIM strategy. There’s a very abrupt information gap between the tools offered by the building product manufacturer, the data that gets placed in projects, and then the products that actually make it to construction. For the folks in the marketing departments who are typically spearheading these BIM initiatives and feel the constant pressure to show ROI, the lack of feedback from a complex BIM strategy can sometimes feel like throwing resources into a black hole and hoping to see something come out the other side. The ambiguity can drive [manufacturers] crazy – but once you understand that a BIM strategy isn’t for the short term, but the long term, the conversation changes. BIM becomes much more than a marketing campaign, evolving into a steady reality that the construction community sees and grows to trust will be available to them five, even ten years into the future. It’s certainly a long game, but the reward is worth the wait.”
The choices made inside of design tools are often far removed from critical decisions. As someone at SOM explained it to us, you can judge seniority by looking at computers. Low-level architects and engineers have powerful workstations that can turn the crank on Revit all day, project architects have performance laptops that can open design tools but still be carried from room to room, project managers and designers have tablets or small laptops, and partners don’t carry computers at all. BIM content is an important resource for project teams, but supports efforts remote from critical decisions.
The best project decisions balance the owner’s needs, the designer’s perspective, and cost and constructability concerns. At Join, we believe that these discussions should incorporate diverse perspectives and have the best outcomes when they occur during preconstruction. Join is building software tools to embed intelligence and streamline preconstruction, connecting stakeholders to the right information and experts as they make preconstruction decisions. BIM is an important aspect of project delivery and one way that manufacturers can support project teams. However, there’s much more to delivering excellent projects, and Join is excited to be a part of that wider journey.