Saturday, July 26, 2014

PDFs and BIM: A trilogy of posts investigating what the PDF format’s role may be in strategies transitioning the industry to BIM? First part: PDFs within current AEC – Important yet neglected?

PDF as a digital file-format is generally frowned upon by those in charge of creation and management of project information within the AEC industry.
It is being treated as something one puts up with until something better comes along. 
This approach is somewhat surprising considering that in most contemporary construction contracts PDF’s as the digital representations of drawings have often higher standing than model files or even DWGs.

In the still widely practised 2D information flow, where simultaneously PDF/DWG files get exchanged by project participants, the PDF’s do get used by those not CAD literate, but all further work on coordinating or assessing the data (for example creating a BOQ) is usually done on the DWG files. The technical people that are in need of using PDF’s within their CAD environments tend to turn them into DXFs (often ending up with zillions of fuzzy sub-elements), JPEGS or to lay them under their digital drawings.
In principle there is nothing wrong with these practices, what is questionable, why there are no better technical readers/managers for PDFs to make them more accessible by those less interested in going full CAD?

The non-direct originators of the information (say, main- and subcontractors) together globally handle billions of PDF’s daily, for the purpose of validating, coordinating, measuring, specialist-detailing, logistics planning etc.
One would presume a chunky market to be there for developers of PDF focused tools.

Sure, there are programs on offer with ‘advanced’ viewing facilities for PDF files, measuring, notating even a bit of layering and cross-comparing but few tends to go much beyond what Adobe’s Reader provides. Could the problem be in lack of interest from Adobe to step up its offering for the AEC or are there some other reasons behind the scenes?

Some sophisticated Cloud Document Management systems claim to have solved the issue by focusing on the even bigger issue with PDFs that is managing the quantities they tend to be coming in. Their philosophy builds on the idea that, forget viewing and analysing if you cannot locate the correct file from thousands and thousands of others in the project directories. This is a very valid point as the quantities drawings and consequently PDFs are produced at are totally out of synch with what is reasonable or manageable. Unfortunately these DocManSystems do not go far enough into the content of the PDF’s, sticking mostly to treating them as only digital representations of the PAPER drawing.

Yes, one can search and sort large numbers of files by name, author, revision, discipline or whatever on their platforms but these type of metadata and the searching engines are of limited use for, say fa├žade-subcontractors that need to quickly locate ALL relevant (but ONLY) relevant sheets from the electronic piles-of-files.
Those arguing that the common document structures DO give specialist users easy gates to locate data applicable to them may do some research on claims raised by/against parties missing out on vital project information through hasty filtering of data or indeed rebutted claims because contracts force all participants to have ‘all of the documentation read in entirety’.

In the past, I have written about ArchiCAD’s (Graphisoft) excellent ability to handle PDF’s, both in quantity and quality – the second applying to the quality of work offered to the users.
Two points to illustrate this claim (based on Version 16 – 2 years outdated ArchiCAD and used on a clunky computer):
Numbers: One can import literally hundreds of PDFs into one file with little impact on performance. These can be placed in plans/elevations/sections making them an excellent base for either 2D or 3D based work.
Spatial: by being able to place PDFs in vertical views as well as plans, instant references are at hand to check validity of drawings and cross reference between views.
Then, there is the ‘trace and reference’ command to assist with colours, opacity and the magic slider for interrogation purposes!

Even though I’m happy to be singing praises to ArchiCAD on this particular topic, the point I wish to make is not how this is the only or even best software to use to spatially assess large numbers of PDFs.
There may be many others; there could easily be much better ones out in the field handling PDFs. Also, it is only a part solution to the problem as there still is a large component of manual labour needed to sort and select the files one want to import into a ArchiCAD.

There are some important questions emerging:
Why is there no more discussion on this topic amongst experts?
Why are there no more efforts made to guide PDF users through thousands of drawings by the originators? (drawing list that themselves go over many pages are little use);
Why can’t we get the numbers of drawings significantly reduced and cut out a lot of useless padding?

Is the answer on these questions in the simple and sad fact that PDF’s are viewed as ’backwards parts’ of the digital AEC revolution that will disappear soon enough as we all rush towards the promised BIM Nirvana?
Or is it because few take the time to really understand what happens to the construction data in the real world, away from fancy BIM Taskforce Groups and BIM Implementation Strategies and fully appreciate the strategic place this format holds within both current and likely future workflows?

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Why is the sky blue? Why does gravity pull objects towards the centre of the Earth?

The title of this post is a direct quote from a friend DJ, a fellow aging-and somewhat disillusioned BIM-mer.
While sharing a pleasant Iftar a couple of nights ago, these were the questions he likened BIM related forums these days. ‘Tedious’ was my choice of word to describe the phenomenon.
No sooner is an interesting topic floated by someone, there are dozens of new kids on the block that will come up with the most fundamental questions to kill it off and steer the forum into the realm of ‘preschool – learn your letters’ stage.
4 days and 4 new BIM survey-requests (directed at me) later, it’s time to make a stand.

This will be short and arrogant:
I’m an expert on the subject of BIM.
I might not be the best in the world, but consider myself to be getting pretty close to being that.
(happy to share the title with a dozen others I know to be up there too and I deeply respect them for their work and knowledge).

I know BIM really well.
I’ve spent 20 years of my life learning every nuance of BIM (VC, VDC…), sacrificed almost everything material and a lot of immaterial I’ve ever owned or cherished on the altar of it.

So, please don’t send me silly little surveys to fill out on ‘questions on BIM’.
Don’t ask me to ‘tell you more’ about BIM or what my views are regarding the topic.
I’ve written over 600 blogposts and presented at many events globally.
There is a lot of whining within my writing and on the surface useless padding, but for anyone wanting to ‘really’ get to know what I’ve learned about BIM (at a pretty high price) it’s a good start.

New to the topic? Interested in it? Do your homework first!
Medical students know better than to barge into experienced surgeons with generic, entry level questions.
Want to engage me in more advanced topics related to BIM?
Sure – come forward, but only once the necessary groundwork has been done.

Sounds arrogant?
OK by me. Probably DJ too.

Friday, July 11, 2014

BIM and the ‘age’ thing: When is one too old to get into BIM?

This is a topic that most people with some investment in BIM like to avoid, yet it naughtily pops up on many official and unofficial BIM related forums.
Those faced with the question tend to fall into 3 groups.
The non-committing ‘PC part’ will mumble successful BIM studying will depend on the person and their willingness to learn new things, not their age.
The second group, of braver ones  will likely come up with examples of people well into their forties, fifties and even sixties picking up BIM tools from scratch and using them daily. Someone from this (significantly smaller than the first) group will offer themselves as the living proof of a BIM enthusiast of a mature age that had come into the field late in life.
The third group is the smallest, one that encompasses those prepared to face up to the ‘fact’ that to start learning BIM from over 30 is difficult, if not impossible for most people.

BIMmers (with vested interests) like to get the question a bit muddier by not specifying what exactly do they mean under ‘learning BIM from scratch’ – and bundle here those experts that acquired large amounts of theoretical knowledge of BIM in the later stages of their careers. Admittedly this manoeuvre had afforded many a ticket for the lately fashionable BIM band-wagon but for me, this phenomenon is a proof for exactly the opposite theory.
Namely that, because it IS so difficult to acquire a new language (and BIM is fundamentally that) later in life, the roost CAN be ruled by so many old-pretenders unchallenged.
Add to this situation the extremely sluggish development of the field of the last 2 decades and you’ll lose another generation of challengers to the fact that the ‘clever 30 somethings’ of nowadays will find even the supposed advanced tools to be ‘so yesterday’ and leave instead.

I subscribe to the theory of the few that liken BIM to a language and new languages are uneasy to learn passed our twenties. Professional linguists and others learned in the science of anatomy and skills of communication can probably reason why this is the case, (or not) my proof is in thirty plus years of fairly nomadic life lived amongst many languages and meeting many people of all ages forced to learn a new language for survival or at least ability to fit in.
I met the occasional exception, talented individuals able to jump from one language into another, layer dialects in single conversations like fine pancakes over one another, pick up new exotic languages with ease.
Me on the other hand, an example of a person of average linguistic abilities cannot.
While even very close to being 50 years old, I can still juggle reasonably well simultaneously 3 (very different) languages. When I earnestly set out to learn the basics of Arabic a number of years ago and Cantonese last year I struggled majorly. What I memorised one day was forgotten the next, if not within minutes.
My father, who is one of the cleverest people I’ve ever known, had the same problem when he came to live with us in New Zealand. Well into his seventies yet bright as a button he enrolled into numerous English courses and gave up after about the third try. There was no lack of motivation or will power. He just could not progress with it.

So, if truly there is an age limit to people’s ability to pick up a new language, where does that leave the promoters of BIM that have an aging industry with very low BIM fluency amongst those aged 30+?
Should it carry on with a current strategy of developing the doers (the young ones) and the thinkers (the old ones)? And take on the risk that the two fragments of the industry drift apart even further, the doers not knowing what the thinkers do (supposedly ‘know’) and vice versa?
What about eager ‘doers’ keen to jump into strategizing roles and learning  that the ones already there are theoretical thinkers with no clue of what is happening at the other end?
Will they get discouraged, leave the industry and rebel?
Stage an industrial revolution reclaiming the industry for those that innovate (think) by doing first?
I doubt it. As exciting such a prospect could be, I do not see it happening in the near future.
The stronghold of those that are ruling is tight.
Those that should (or could be) be giving the tools into the revolutionaries’ hands are weak, pampering to the current rulers. They also underwrite the theory that successful strategies can be built up on purely theoretical (and at that, mostly unproven) knowledge without ever having done the ‘doing’.
Writing BIM plans without speaking any BIM language is like creating a language immersion strategy without being fluent in it.
No, it is worse actually, but let me leave this idea for some future musings.

Picture of a recent Autodesk event I went to.
It was a sad gathering, regardless of the the story the pictures try to tell;

Friday, July 4, 2014

How long should it take to build a ‘functioning’ BIM team from scratch?

I have a good friend; she works as a senior HR recruiter for a medium size developer company operating in the GCC. She’s been with them for over 4 years.
We don’t often talk work when we see each other but recently she’s been given the portfolio to recruit an entire team of ‘BIM people’.
Following a couple of friendly chats, I asked her if she would mind me putting some of her story into my blog. Contrary to what many think – I’m extremely careful when and how I reference people in my writing that have confided in me in any way.
I also offered to just write on the topic without any of the specific data related to her included, but admittedly hoped she would not mid me use her case.
She was cool about it. As long there was no mention of the company, she thought the story was not that unique to them anyway, offhand listed half a dozen other, similar work-places she knew of that tackled the same issue in a pretty similar way. She insisted though, that I give her the credit for where it’s due, I obliged.

The company started on its BIM journey with big ambitions about 3 years ago. At the time they were advised by a particular software provider how to get into BIM and that quickly saw them part with enough cash to purchase a dozen of BIM-suites and train a matching dozen of BIM modellers by the same provider. The modellers beavered away for a while in a largely non-BIM sympathetic environment and with not a lot of strategic direction to follow, to gradually give up on swimming upstream and leave for other companies that looked a bit more BIM friendly. At least at job interview levels. Exactly 2 years after the launch of the First BIG BIM programme, the last modeller left, coinciding with their (now abandoned) BIM tools turning 1 year out of date, as nobody bothered upgrading the software.

A blissful non-BIM year was enjoyed by all – the initially over-specced computers got caught up by time and became almost obsolete used by CAD users churning out design drawings by the tonnes (this developer has its own design team);
Any 3D stuff needed, like fancy visuals and flythrough-movies got appropriately outsourced, mostly to India, some to South America and occasionally to a very eager sole-operator working from one of the backwaters of Russia.
These years of ‘BIM attempt number 1’ followed by ‘no BIM at all’, saw my friend stay oblivious to BIM, spending her time searching the globe for talented and suitable experienced, but above all keen to come to the region candidates for the rotating-vacating roles of project-, design-, planning- and occasionally construction managers.

Then, suddenly, about 3 months ago something happened that rattled both the company and my friend’s career a bit.

There was a conference. The GM was invited. She would not normally go to such events, but there was a government official on the speakers’ list that she was keen to catch up with.
So, she attended. A pretty average gathering it turned out to be, the government official cancelling in the last minute to top off the disappointment.
There was one thing that got my friends GM slightly anxious though.
A hell-of a lot of talk about BIM.
Everyone was doing it, everyone was praising ‘it’ and could not stop talking about what wonders it had done for the business and everyone was better at it than the one speaking before.
And it was not only the presenters that tried to outdo each other with their BIM accomplishments, she got caught in two almost totally identical, yet non-related break-out talks where a number of very-high managers laboured on outshining all others with how many ‘D’s their companies were fluent in. Unaware about anything going above 3D and scared to be put on a spot herself, she left the conference before closing and spared no time to brief the leaders of her HR team, my friend and her boss: the company was going to go BIM. Urgently, BIG and in a ‘mature’ way.
And, yes, NOW!

My friend’s boss is a good manager and while there were another 2 junior recruiters on the team too, he gave my friend the honour to take on the prestigious task given to them by the GM.
There were very few specifics accompanying the assignment and those were included in the ‘Strategy’.
The ‘Strategy’ was no more than the minutes of the quick management meeting rectifying the basics of the SECOND BIG BIM plan that the GM mastered to arrange between initially briefing the HR team and giving the full ‘go-ahead’ a week later.
This time, the ‘BIM Strategy’ was all about the ‘right’ people. A dozen BIM Engineers will be recruited quickly, to form the grass route resource; a BIM manager will head the team.

Armed with the company’s BIM strategy and supported by her boss’s further directions (get them urgently, make it cheap! Look at India maybe the Philippines, the manager can be westerner but not an expensive one. Keep the lid on at 40k/month for him – 150 or thereabouts for the lot) my friend got on with the job.

And, she performed splendidly.
She managed to source the entire team for not much over the initial budget and with only 6 weeks stagger in their starting days with the company. Between them they supposedly knew all of the 6 BIM software packages currently on the market and at least one of them had seen a construction site at least once. Half of them have boasted of a clash-detection record of ‘over a thousand per a single project’ and a third had done D’s well exceeding the mainstream 3-4-5, my friend was also very familiar (by now) with. All pronounced the American ‘Revit’ in a European way and only two of them did not know what a construction simulation was but promised to learn by the time they’d start. The manager was a really good find, a cool dude, full 3 years of experience after engineering school, knows everything there is about BIM and comes dirt cheap. Also very much into extreme sports, can’t wait to try skydiving in Dubai.

My friend has known me for a long time. She’s been aware of my struggles with trying to tame this ‘BIM thing’ for at least a decade, but more likely two. She never really understood my difficulties, the big drama of it all.
Now, that she had successfully pulled together a ‘fully functioning BIM team’ in a record time, her willingness to listen to my troubles is even lower.

I really don’t mind this at all, she may well be right.
It could really be true, that I overthink things far too much and it is really not a big deal to get a working BIM going, after all.
That in spite of what I say, there are many capable BIM people in the industry that can be ‘plucked off the shelf’ and a team built from scratch and in no time.
That talent and good looks (see newly hired BIM manager) mean more than experience and professional wisdom. That having a good understanding on what really is BIM, is overstated and a good BIM seed-group will just organically transform a large company, like theirs is.
That 2 years ago they failed with their BIM because it was ‘too early’ and not because they had no clue, strategy or real commitment.
That this time they will succeed even though they still have no clue, strategy or real commitment.

Following my friend sharing her BIM success story with me, I was going to do a serious analysis on what a recruiter should be looking for in a BIM-mer, and had a special interest in expanding on the topic of cost-and-value relationship of these resources.
Still, decided to leave that heavy topic for another time and share her story almost as is.
So, for now, all credit to my friend for a job well done!