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BIM: Bringing collaboration and coordination to steel construction

Man wearing Trimble Hololens inside a building under construction, MEP model is on the ceiling

When people think of BIM, they will likely be inadvertently thinking of a project’s design phase only. Yet BIM can in fact be used - and its benefits felt - at all stages of a construction project, from the initial tender through to final delivery and beyond, with the data contained within the 3D model also able to aid future building management and maintenance.

Here, Steve Insley, National Sales Manager at Trimble, explores the use of digital technology within steel construction, with a particular focus on the rise of BIM.

Going beyond the basic view of BIM as something to help improve accuracy, reduce rework and save time and money, the ultimate benefit of incorporating a digital workflow on any steel construction project is the resulting collaborative, coordinated and streamlined approach. While 2D cannot be wholly disregarded, for it very much forms a binary partnership with 3D, working entirely without digital technology can be both limiting and isolating, with the subsequent lack of communication between project parties potentially increasing the likelihood of costly errors occurring. In comparison, BIM works to provide project teams with data-rich visibility and informed communication from the very start.

As construction projects become more ambitious, this need for visibility and coordination will only increase. Already, projects have a great number of different trades involved, including structural steel, concrete, MEP and building services, the design of which all need to be considered as whole, rather than in isolation. As such, it is vital that parties are able to effectively coordinate with each other to ensure that their work does not overlap or clash. This is perhaps where digital technology is of utmost importance, contributing to a synchronised workflow from the earliest stages. 

This integrated BIM approach was particularly crucial on the South Korean Biomass Powerplant project, where TDS were tasked with designing and modelling over 66,000 steel elements that made up the external and internal fabric of the new boiler island’s filter. It is on projects of this size where digital technology really comes into its own, with teams needing a stable and efficient design tool and an information-rich 3D model. Without implementing a digital workflow on the South Korean Powerplant, the potential for design clashes would have been huge, especially considering the sheer number of interrelating parts - all of which had to be designed and considered in the wider project context. For example, while TDS were not instructed to provide manufacturing drawings for the filter system’s dampers, it was important they were able to coordinate the model around and fix to these items. With their digital, collaborative approach, TDS were able to source and import an IFC model of the dampers from another stakeholder, allowing the design team to have a full and well-rounded view of the project and model as a whole. 

3D model of balcony leading to trapezoidal-shaped hopper units with open hatch

In order to truly achieve this coordinated approach, we are seeing more projects employing digital, cloud-based platforms, such as our Trimble Connect, where all data – whether that be 3D, 2D or 1D – can be stored and made available for project partners to view, discuss and share in one centralised hub. Essentially forming the glue that brings all data, and people, together, such a platform is crucial for communication and visibility. 

In addition to this presiding cloud-based platform, there is also the potential for smaller digital platforms at each principal stage of a project. For example, from a steel fabrication perspective, having some form of information management, dedicated to a fabricator’s unique requirements, is a must. Indeed, with such a large amount of design data on a steel construction project, trying to manage stock and fabrication schedules and ensure component traceability throughout production without a digital workflow can be an incredibly time-consuming process. In comparison, employing a digital platform can help transform the whole fabrication process, ensuring accurate scheduling throughout in accordance with the activity and progress on site. 

Screenshot from Tekla EPM showing Production Control and a Trimble Connect model coloured red and green by production status

Put simply, it can be viewed as a matter of control versus chaos. Without a digital, centralised hub, a fabrication business could be working off numerous pieces of software and desktops, with limited communication and visibility – in many ways, not having progressed far from the paper-based, filing cabinet approach of the past. 

Another area of digital technology that is steadily becoming an integrated feature of the construction industry is the use of mixed and virtual reality. As well as encouraging engagement amongst all partners, including the end-client and developer, MR and VR can also aid improved visibility and project coordination. By overlaying the BIM model in the real-time physical context, the project can be brought to life before people’s eyes, allowing them to interact with and view the model in levels of detail that 2D simply wouldn’t allow.

Backs of two constructions workers inside building wearing Trimble Hololens headsets, one points to MEP model on ceiling

The potential such technology has to bring to the steel construction industry is huge, especially in terms of problem solving, clash detection and ensuring constructability. For example, steel contractors on a building refurb or extension project would be able to visit site and, using mixed reality, compare the as-built condition in conjunction with the proposed BIM model; viewing the existing steel structure alongside the proposed new steelwork and immediately identify any areas of concern. 

Mixed reality technology can also be beneficial for quality control management on a project - particularly at the fabrication and assembly stages. We are slowly seeing more fabricators realise the potential that technology offers in this regard, providing additional levels of assurance that complex structural steel components have been fabricated correctly, prior to it being delivered to site. To demonstrate, Trimble Connect for Hololens was recently taken onto the factory floor at J.Wareing & Son, where it was used to view the BIM object and its data overlaid on the fabricated steel joist, ensuring that all measurements were accurate.

The final phase of a construction project to consider is the assembly. While the relevance of digital technology here may often be omitted from discussion, it is in fact highly beneficial, used to help plan and manage the on-site assembly. From considering site access and the delivery schedules to planning crane locations and assembly logistics, digital technology can help to ensure an efficient and streamlined process on site. It proved imperative on the recent Telford Central Footbridge project, allowing SH Structures to extract accurate weights of components and the centre of gravity of complex assemblies; all information that was crucial for optimising crane locations. 

Artist impression of Telford Footbridge upon completion

It is clear that, when considering the role of digital technology on steel construction projects, BIM belongs at the forefront of this discussion. The benefits of BIM are incredibly far-reaching, stretching beyond just the initial design phase and going deeper than merely improving accuracy, reducing rework and saving time. Incorporating a BIM and digital workflow has the potential to utterly transform the approach of a construction project, encouraging collaboration, communication and coordination and creating a culture of project partners, rather than sub-contractors. 

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