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The real rise of digital connectivity

Digital connectivity between people, software and devices

Last year saw the construction industry face a unique set of challenges, with the rise of remote working, site restrictions and regional lockdowns. Yet, it could also have been the catalyst the industry needed to further adopt digital technology and BIM, with connectivity and communication more important than ever.

Here, Marian Thomasson, Marketing Manager at Trimble, explores this theme of digital connectivity further, from the importance of connecting people to connecting data, workflows and software.

It goes without saying that 2020 was a year like no other, presenting the construction industry with a unique set of challenges. From remote working to site restrictions and social distancing guidelines, it forced the industry to change, with connectivity, in its many forms, becoming more important than ever.

For many years, a conversation has existed around the need for construction to modernise and digitise its approach, with the infamous 2016 Mark Farmer report being just one example. Despite this, it’s no secret that adoption has been relatively slow, with construction criticised for its failure to adapt and advance at the same speed as other industries, such as the automotive sector. However, in many ways, the last twelve months have accelerated this process, with businesses forced to adapt, change their approach and digitise their workflows, in turn demonstrating the value that these modern methods can deliver.

Man sat at laptop working from home

With project teams spread all over the country and people forced to work from home, rather than in the office, connectivity has never been so important. However, the theme of digital connectivity goes beyond merely connecting people, from connecting data and workflows to connecting BIM software, with the benefits and uptake of such technology hopefully extending beyond the coronavirus crisis.

Connecting people

Ensuring that project teams remain connected and coordinated has perhaps been one of the biggest challenges for companies to implement. On any project, communication is vital, with potentially serious consequences should this fall apart, from costly errors and rework through to project delays.

Digital technology has been a key part of providing this direct and sustainable level of communication, with the dramatic rise of video conferencing services, such as Zoom, being a great example. With the office transitioning into the home, everything has moved online – old paper-based workflows are simply unsuited to this new way of working.

To achieve this coordinated and connected approach, digital cloud-based software has proved invaluable. In fact, at Trimble, since Covid-19 and the stronger need to collaborate remotely, we have seen a great increase in user numbers for our Trimble Connect platform. Cloud-based platforms, such as Trimble Connect, offer a single centralised hub; a place where all data – whether that be 3D, 2D or 1D models, drawings or schedules – can be stored and made available for project partners to view, discuss, share and edit. Essentially forming the glue that brings all data and people together, such a platform is crucial for communication and visibility.

Model annotation in Trimble Connect

It is perhaps this very ‘glue’ that has enabled design and engineering teams across the country to maintain their levels of communication, coordination and collaboration throughout the crisis, ensuring that neither their quality of work or productivity levels are compromised. O’Reilly Concrete, Ireland’s leading provider of precast solutions, is one such company, with Richard Kowalski, its Technical Director, stating: “Through using Trimble Connect and Tekla Model Sharing, we have been able to switch seamlessly between working in the office and working from home. We are still able to work on projects as a team, working together to provide the most efficient design or solution, despite not having seen each other in person for many weeks.”

Connecting data and workflows

As well as connecting people, it is clear that connecting data/workflows is just as integral - in fact, the two are so closely interlinked it is difficult to separate them. With any great number of trades, disciplines and suppliers involved on a project, and with so many different aspects, components and materials – from the permanent to the temporary works; steel to concrete and rebar; structural frames to MEP and building services - ensuring visibility and effective coordination between them all is key. And, as construction projects become larger and more ambitious, this is something that will only become more critical.

It is here that digital technology, BIM in particular, has proved instrumental, working to provide teams with data-rich visibility and informed communication from the very start of a project. With this very visibility forming the key to ensuring connected and coordinated workflows.

Workflow from detailing to fabrication

Consider the alternative, with all individual components and aspects detailed and modelled both entirely in 2D and in complete isolation. This poses the danger of there being numerous design and install issues once the project had reached site, with undetected clashes between wider structural components and the resulting rework leading to costly delays.

Instead, it is vital to consider the “bigger picture”, connecting the data and disciplines and considering and detailing the structure as one. In order to achieve this, it is important that parties are able to 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 synchronised and connected workflows.

Connected software

While BIM as an overarching technology has connectivity at its core, facilitating more synchronised workflows between project teams and stakeholders, what about the connectivity between and within software packages? Interoperability and integration is a crucial part of BIM. Without this, the very thing intended to facilitate digital connectivity could in fact act as somewhat of a road block.

Take the relationship between design and analysis software, such as Tekla Structural Designer, and detailing and draughting software, such as Tekla Structures, as an example. Ensuring data integration and connectivity between the two is invaluable, providing users with a more efficient and streamlined process.

Smooth transfer of accurate data from Tekla Structural Designer to Tekla Structures

James Gendall, Divisional Director at Clancy Consulting, a multi-discipline engineering firm, spoke recently about this need for integration, saying: “Software integration is perhaps one of the greatest industry advancements in recent years. In order to ensure the continuous exchange and smooth transfer of accurate data from department to department and discipline to discipline, effective integration and migration of data is essential. Without this connection, any time savings and other efficiencies achieved at one stage of a project are all but lost as you progress.

“For us as structural engineers, the integration within Tekla enables us to achieve a more streamlined process overall. Rather than drawing or modelling the building in one software and then having to effectively start from scratch with the structural analysis in another, you are provided with one, cohesive process – thanks to the efficient transfer of data.”

It also important to consider the theme of connectivity within a software package itself, again contributing to a more efficient and accurate way of working. Here, having 3D modelling software with a continuous data transfer link at its core can be invaluable. In practical terms, this ensures that all data remains connected, 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.

Data rich Tekla Structures rebar model, drawings and lists

While connectivity itself is nothing new, the last twelve months have perhaps served to highlight its importance. Personally, and professionally, the value of connecting with people has shone clear and, within the construction industry specifically, ensuring project teams are connected to one another, as well as connected to the project and its data, has been a key priority. Unsurprisingly, digital technology, including BIM, has been at the heart of this endeavour, driving the industry forward through the last twelve months. However, what are the next steps? Now that the industry has experienced first-hand the value that these modern and digital methods can deliver, it’s imperative that it maintains this level of digitisation and uses the challenges of 2020 as a catalyst for continued accelerated  modernisation.

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