Making the most of the BIM opportunity


Tim Brown from cable management specialist, Unitrunk, discusses the increasing importance of BIM and outlines the challenges and opportunities it brings for the cable management sector


For a long time, BIM has felt a bit like retirement; something you know is coming, but you
never get around to planning because it seems so far off. Like age, however, BIM has crept
up on us all and it’s no longer something we can put on our to do list for later. 

Nor can we brush it off and pretend it will never happen. 4 April 2016 is the date appointed by which all centrally procured public sector projects must be implemented in BIM level 2.  And is the electrical industry ready?  Broadly, the answer is no.

The question is, why not? BIM is not a new idea, nor is it a new policy.  The Government first mapped out its intention to put BIM at the heart of construction procurement in July 2011 when the department of Business Innovation & Skills (BIS) published its BIM strategy, establishing a programme focused on the adoption of BIM technology by both public and private sector organisations involved in the procurement and delivery of buildings and infrastructure. That equates to five years to research, plan and deliver the change needed to facilitate and implement BIM, and five years in which to embrace the culture change needed for the collaborative approach on which BIM relies. And yet, here we are, still unprepared, with many still cynical about whether BIM will actually happen!

The ostrich syndrome

Part of the problem with allocating a five year period in which construction related sectors and the client base they serve could ‘gear up’ for BIM was that it removed the sense of urgency from the process and instead made it into a long term objective. Some have even predicted that the BIM deadline might be extended or that the idea might even be shelved but both of those are very ill-advised misconceptions. Burying your head in the sand won’t make BIM go away.

Firstly, BIM is not a policy idea dreamed up by some Government quango; it is a global
movement that aims to deliver a more sustainable built environment with less waste,  reduced costs and a greater emphasis on collaborative working, between clients, consultants, contractors and supply chain.

While the UK is at the forefront of the drive towards BIM, we are by no means the only pioneers.  A recent NBS international BIM survey of found that 39% of UK respondents use BIM, while the figure rises to 57% in New Zealand and more than 60 per cent in Canada. Although figures for overseas markets are only directly relevant to those that supply or work in those locations they indicate a very relevant truth for any construction related business: BIM is happening and it’s here to stay.

Secondly, the Government put the BIM programme in place following substantial research about the financial implications of implementing it. Those figures are compelling.  BIS estimates that the initial savings to UK construction and its clients of implementing BIM level 2 is £2bn/annum and has therefore prioritised the widespread adoption of BIM as a tool for reaching its target of 15-20% savings on the costs of capital projects. For those who consider BIM a public sector initiative that won’t have a significant impact on private sector projects, this is food for thought.  If the Government predicts such significant projects on capital projects, it’s unlikely that the private sector will pass up the opportunity to save costs.

More programme than program

Another hurdle to early adoption of BIM amongst electrical contractors and suppliers is the
fact that many are still confused about what BIM really means, which makes it impossible for
them to assess what it means for their business. In the NBS survey, 74 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that “the industry is not clear enough yet on what BIM is”.

Part of the reason for this uncertainty is the emphasis that has been placed on 3D modelling
software, which has led many to believe that modelling programs are the essence of BIM. In
fact, while Revit and other programs are essential for effective delivery of projects in BIM, they are an enabling element rather than a complete solution.

BIM is not a software; it is a philosophy. At the heart of BIM is a culture of collaborative working and proactive project management to identify where savings can be made; in terms of costs, materials and time.  While modelling programs are an essential element of the BIM delivery process, therefore, understanding BIM and working with both upstream and downstream delivery partners is just as critical in achieving the time, money and resource saving outcomes that BIM aspires to.

Unfortunately, some of the cynicism about BIM has arisen from the fact that, clients, consultants and principal contractors can sometimes put too much emphasis on modelling the building in a 3D program without integrating that with BIM centred programme management and the improved focus on communication that demands.

BIM and cable management

So where does all this leave us when it comes to cable management?  On the face of things, cable management is just a very small cog in a gigantic wheel and a very long way down the pecking order.

However, let’s look again at the BIM philosophy: in BIM, every element of the build should be specified to aid reduction of waste (in cost and materials), buildability and programme delivery. As cable management specification and layout is fundamental to the installation of electrical, data and lighting services, it’s relevance in planning a deliverable model shouldn’t be under-estimated.

The importance of adapting to BIM working practices is certainly something that the cable management sector is taking very seriously. And, while some companies within the construction delivery chain may see BIM as an onerous responsibility, at Unitrunk we have approached it very much as an opportunity to do things better and learn from best practice.

For starters, it’s enabled all Beama member cable management suppliers to work collaboratively to agree a common format for entering product data into BIM programs. An initiative that can prompt competitors to work together and share their knowledge in this way can only be a good thing for the electrical sector and the process has worked.  A common format has been agreed and, at the time of writing, this template is with CIBSE for final sign off before the cable management sector officially adopts it.

Once the template has officially been agreed, the leg work that cable management suppliers have been doing in the background over the past five years can be inputted into modelling programs for use by consultants and contractors when planning and delivering BIM level 2 schemes.

BIM best practice

While preparing for BIM is a complex process, the focus amongst cable management suppliers has been on simplifying that process wherever possible and avoiding any unnecessary stipulations that could delay progress for suppliers and overcomplicate specification for consultants and contractors.

For suppliers, the practicalities of becoming BIM ready rely on a clear focus on product ranges that fulfil as many installation requirements as possible, without creating so many options that the specifier feels bombarded with products he’ll never need.

For Unitrunk, it’s become an opportunity to spring clean our product range, and, most importantly, to review our product data and ensure that all data provided for input into BIM is accurate and relevant.

Of course, that process is not achievable overnight and rates of progress amongst cable management manufacturers will vary due to the time and financial investment involved in revising product data and presenting it in the agreed format. Moreover, it’s vital that manufacturers take their time to ensure that their data is correct rather than simply racing to be the first supplier available in BIM.

In many parts of the construction sector, things are done the way they have always been done ‘because that’s how we do it’ but BIM provides the opportunity not only to deliver projects differently but to improve the way we deliver them. A considered approach to designing product data in a way that embraces innovation and allows specifiers to improve current industry practices is vital if we are to avoid a situation where BIM simply sees the sector translating the status quo into a 3D model.

Given the challenges involved, no-one is better placed to fulfil the need to innovate than the company that has designed, manufactured and marketed the product. And those, like Unitrunk, that work with contractors on site to troubleshoot installation issues and help provide solutions are even more equipped to embed buildability into BIM data.

Positive outlook

The recent floods in the UK have provided a stark reminder of the need to build sustainability into everything we do in the construction sector in order to minimise our use of resources and work towards lower carbon consumption.

BIM will be a primary driver for sustainability, making every element of the specification and delivery process measurable and accountable. It’s a game changer that may seem onerous to some but can benefit all partners within the delivery chain if we use it as an opportunity to learn, improve and work more effectively as a team.

Doing it right, means preparing thoroughly, however, adopting a consistent approach that makes it easier to implement, while understanding that cultures and working practices will change gradually.

From a supply chain point of view, the role of cable management manufacturers is to ensure that product data is available to enable the specifier to select the right product, confident in the knowledge that it will be available within the required timeframe, fit accurately according to the model and offer a robust, durable solution in line with sustainability goals.

Those objectives are not so much different from current best practice and, like all change, the impact of BIM will depend on how positively we embrace it.