How the evolution of BIM has changed structural steel fabrication forever

Why is BIM so important?

BIM is a revolutionary technology, which allows the construction industry work more efficiently and more cost-effectively. Not only does it allow people to make more informed decisions earlier, its accurate models enable designers to test solutions before building. This enables builders and fabricators to avoid unexpected costs and delays. When you learn that, incredibly, at least 20% of the $3.5 trillion spent worldwide on non-residential vertical construction is currently wasted, it becomes clear why reducing costs is so important.

In the current environment:  

  • ~10% materials are wasted
  • ~30% of construction is rework
  • ~40% of job-site work is unproductive
  • ~40% of projects are over budget
  • ~90% of projects are late

This is often due to bad communication and planning. Happily, regardless of what tools you use, the open BIM concept makes it easier to work transparently.

New technology to the rescue

The evolution of 3D modeling in the steel industry began in the 1990s. In those pioneering days, software had already been developed to automatically produce drawings and reports, extract CNC data, and process individual parts. Even then, BIM had clear benefits, with fabricators eliminating errors using 3D models. To work even more effectively, they encouraged software vendors to develop an interface with CNC machines, and the first standards, such as SDNF and DSTV-NC, emerged. DSTV-NC, however, was not a permanent solution.

Moving on – assembly life cycle management

Fast forward to the 2000s, and fabricators began using BIM to solve even bigger challenges, such as the costly and laborious assembly phase. Using proprietary interfaces, which could harness the power of CNC machines, they enabled fitters to draw information directly onto parts. This fantastic development was made even better in 2004 when automatic layout marking technology became common. From this moment onwards, the industry began to see the huge potential of using BIM to increase productivity.

Steel processing and the assembly phase become automated

The demand for productivity drove innovation. Unsatisfied with traditional CNC equipment, the market demanded an automated assembly phase. Thankfully, their dreams came true. Automation has made material handling became more productive. Robotic welding, while not always research- and cost-efficient, has become common. Fabrication-specific software is growing, streamlining processes using BIM information and allowing optimized schedules.

However, as innovation changes the industry, so the tools must change too. For example, robotic welding is more complex than simple replication, and consequently the requirements for information exchange have evolved. To meet new needs, tools like proprietary interfaces have been further developed to transfer information between model and workshop.

Using models becomes the norm

With these challenges resolved, the next step was to resolve logistic and scheduling problems using models. Schedules were added, serving as the basis for production schedule planning. Production offices used models to plan logistics before sending information to actual production planning.
Models allowed more information storage, which led to more efficient communication regarding changes. Better, faster understanding of potential changes was possible, even in the midst of on-site work.
Due to the success of these innovations, the demand for more modeled information skyrocketed. Consequently, vendors created proprietary applications with a bidirectional interface (SW or CNC) as a solution. One challenge, however, remained: these technological innovations did not openly communicate with existing tools.

Steel fabrication joins the BIM workflow

It was time for a new standard. In 2009, leading vendors worked together to create a better workflow for the entire steel fabrication industry. Their goal was to enhance the IFC file format to meet the industry’s needs, making the model a more meaningful part of project workflow. Today, IFC is the industry-standard neutral file format for exchanging BIMs between disciplines.

What the future holds

Today’s industry needs more than current standards provide. The one-way information channel of DSTV-NC-based fabrication doesn’t complement the BIM workflow, while IFC files mean there are too many files and drawings produced. The challenges of the current process, include:

  • Multiple files and settings required for MIS/Production planning
  • NC files required for individual parts
  • NC files do not contain revision control mechanisms
  • NC settings in detailing software must be adjusted according to the specific fabricator set up, equipment type and process
  • Status feedback from the shop floor/equipment to MIS and detailing systems is rare

IFC allows the transfer of digital BIM and data, but there’s still one obstacle: file-based information transfer doesn’t use model information effectively in the entire delivery chain. Therefore, IFC doesn’t resolve how models could optimize projects’ internal processes and workflows.
These days BIM tools are standard in construction and other disciplines. What’s more, productivity has increased within design disciplines. However, improvements elsewhere have yet to happen. For this reason, we believe, BIM’s full potential remains unrealized.

History has shown how building project organization changes as tools develop. The decentralization of organization is now common, and the software industry constantly develops tools to support global projects. But we can’t rest on our laurels. In order to support construction industry workflows, web technologies still need to be adapted.

How web technologies have helped

Recently, DRUM, a 3-year research project, observed a change in how BIM is now viewed: it’s no longer a process of centralizing all building-related data to a single model, but rather a linked network of models that different disciplines use together.

With web formats like RDF, we can search and retrieve single objects, combine their data, and use it elsewhere. What’s more, these days even users without programming skills can understand the format.

In addition to all these useful advances, web technologies also allow compatibility. For example, architects and structural designers can compare results, ensuring that designs and products match, without needing the entire project model. Furthermore, a single element's journey can be followed from fabrication to the construction site in real time, and data is available in one place, as well as retrievable from different systems.

Another key finding of the DRUM studies was that we should save data records on personal computers and use web technologies as routers. This way up-to-date building data is distributed by publishers, and other users can retrieve the information whenever they need it.

There’s no doubt we live in exciting times. In fact, with so much innovation ongoing, we believe BIM’s absolutely essential collaborative approach to working can only go one way: from strength to strength.  


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