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Connecting people and data, digitally

Remote project teams all connected their data to one central source

Flexibility in the workplace has become increasingly common, with more companies and employees adopting a hybrid approach to working from the office and from home. As such, the need for digital connectivity and collaboration is more important than ever. Here, Craig Johnson, Business Development Manager – Detailing & Manufacturing at Trimble, explores this need for digital coordination, from connected teams to connected dataflows.

Hybrid working has fast become the norm, driven perhaps first and foremost by the employees. This need for flexibility was, of course, further highlighted throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, with companies challenged like never before and workforces spread out across the country. This new approach to the working week looks like it’s here to stay, with over 80% of firms surveyed by the Chartered Institute of Management having now adopted hybrid working.  

People round boardroom table and video conference

For an industry that has long been challenged for its lack of digitization, remote working became the catalyst that Construction needed. Indeed, according to McKinsey, 50% of companies said that they have now increased their investment in digital technology and transformation to meet the demands of the next normal. 

Whether working from the home or the office, digital connectivity and collaboration is the primary facilitator to this more flexible approach, ensuring that projects are still being delivered efficiently, accurately and productively regardless of where teams are located. However, the theme of digital connectivity goes beyond merely connecting people, to connecting data and workflows too.

Connecting people

Perhaps the first example of collaboration within the construction industry is the collaboration between people; whether internally within a company’s project team or on a wider level, between project partners and stakeholders. Indeed, on any project, effective communication and coordination can mean the difference between a successful project delivery and one that is late and over budget. The consequences of communication breakdown can be severe, from costly errors and rework through to significant project delays. 

Digital technology has been a key facilitator of this direct and sustainable level of communication. The dramatic rise of video conferencing services throughout the pandemic lockdown and beyond is a great example. Cloud-based software and other similar file-sharing tools have also proven instrumental, providing a central hub where all project data - whether 3D, 2D, or 1D models, drawings, and schedules - can be stored and made available for teams to review, discuss, share, and edit. Essentially forming the glue that brings all data and people together, having access to such a platform can be crucial for communication and visibility.

Luton Parkway Station with 3D model of Parkway and Central Terminal Station

A great example of this in action was on the construction of the Luton DART, where Hewson Consulting Engineers made the switch to the BIM collaboration tool, Tekla Model Sharing. Richard Scantlebury, Director of Major Projects, explained: At the start of the project, we relied on dropbox to transfer and share zipped model files. However, not only was this an unnecessarily long process, it was also limiting in terms of who could work on the model. In effect, it hampered us – one person couldn’t go on and edit a drawing if, for example, someone else was already working on the model. That’s why, a few months into the project, we chose to introduce Tekla Model Sharing, which truly transformed the modeling process for us.

We found it a really powerful addition, helping to facilitate a more collaborative and coordinated way of working – not only within our own team of engineers but also the wider project. At one point, we had six people working on the same model from three different companies, all seamlessly.

O’Reilly Concrete, Ireland’s leading provider of precast solutions, is another company who has been benefitting from the use of Tekla Model Sharing and Trimble Connect, the cloud-based collaboration tool: We have been able to switch seamlessly between working in the office and working from home. We can still work on projects as a team, working together to provide the most efficient design or solution despite not all being in the same place.

Man on laptop detailing precast on Tekla Structures from home 

Collaboration and Offsite

Facilitated by digital technology, this level of collaboration and connectivity continues to be incredibly valuable, perhaps especially so when it comes to Offsite Construction. By the very nature of modular and volumetric construction, with the pre-panelized structures or pods often already containing the MEP services and spaces for windows and doors when delivered to the site, these modern methods require enhanced coordination between wider project partners. Sigmat is one example of a company operating within the light metal framing sector that has been utilizing the Trimble Connect tool. 

Climate Innovation District in Leeds, Aire Lofts under construction

Nick Milestone, Operations Director, explained: As well as using the Trimble Connect platform to share files and models internally within Sigmat project teams, we can better communicate with the client and other key project stakeholders. Everyone is a part of the same project. While collaboration is important on any construction project, it’s perhaps especially critical regarding offsite, volumetric, and modular. For example, our pre-panelized frames will often require close coordination with M&E contractors, ensuring that we know what the other party is doing.

Connecting data

As well as connecting people, connecting data and workflows is perhaps just as important – in fact, the two are perhaps so closely intertwined that it can be difficult to separate them. 

With so many different project partners, subcontractors, materials and components on any one construction project, it is important to take a step back and ensure that the structure is being considered and detailed as one; that all components and their respective data and workflows are connected, rather than being considered in isolation. To achieve this, it is important that parties can effectively coordinate with one another to ensure their work does not overlap or clash, with the enhanced visibility enabled by BIM contributing to this ideal of synchronized and connected workflows. 

Tekla Structural Designer model superimposed onto artist impression of Parliament Square development

This level of inter-disciplinary coordination is something that we have already alluded to earlier, with the conversation around offsite construction. It is also why multi-material software can bring so many advantages to the construction workflow, enabling both the steel superstructure and the concrete substructure (for example) to be considered as one, in the one central model. James Gendall, Divisional Director at Clancy Consulting, explained the benefits of this: Whereas we may have previously had different design packages for concrete and steel, Tekla Structural Designer can be used for both. This is hugely valuable, for obvious reasons. It is vital, both for the success of the project and the structure’s long-term performance, that you are able to design, consider and analyse both materials together, allowing the correct stiffness relationship between the two to be assessed.

Taking this theme of connected workflows even further brings us to parametric modeling, whereby the data is fully integrated and connected. Here, having 3D modeling software with a continuous data transfer link at its core can be significant. In practical terms, this ensures that the data thread is maintained throughout the construction sequence, with a streamlined link between the central model and all associated fabrication drawings, schedules and quantity take offs. Not only does this enable drawings and documents to be automatically generated from the data contained within the 3D model, providing assurances of accuracy, but, in the event of any last-minute design changes to the model, these will also be automatically reflected in these same documents.

Desktop with three monitors showing Tekla Structures model. The desktop has a Trimble X7 Laser Scanner on it.

Speaking on the benefits of integrated data workflows between Trimble’s Tekla software, Nugent Manufacturing’s Company Director, Stephen Nugent, said: To me, this kind of digital workflow is the only way forward – it helps to bring everything together, ensuring it is all connected and nothing is lost. Ultimately, the less manual work you have to do and the less manual data processing, the better, helping to reduce the likelihood of human error.

While the importance of staying connected was perhaps highlighted during the coronavirus pandemic and its remote working restrictions, digital technology is set to be key in helping to push this theme of effective collaboration, coordination, and communication even further as the construction industry looks toward the future.

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