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Sun 12 Apr 2009 04:00 AM

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Better by design

Al Futtaim Carillion needed design software which could identify problems with its Motor City development before beginning construction.

Better by design
Al Futtaim Carillion first trialled the use of Buillding Information Management software in an earlier project in Dubai Festival City.
Better by design
PIECHOWIAK: I identified the members of my team that were most willing to work with the new technology and give it a shot.

Al Futtaim Carillion needed design software which could identify problems with its Motor City development before beginning construction.

While technology has permeated virtually every facet of the modern enterprise, there are some verticals which remain resolutely low-tech. The construction industry is definitely one of the latter - but as Bob Dylan famously sang in 1964, "The Times, They Are A-Changin."

Dubai-based contractor Al Futtaim Carillion (AFC) certainly saw the writing on the wall and decided that it would do things differently during the design phase of the construction of its ambitious Motor City property development in Dubai.

Part of the process is that we try to make technology do what we always have done. What we should be doing is saying: ‘Here’s what the technology people can do and this is the way we should be doing it.

Andrew Piechowiak, principal design manager for AFC, realised this need early on - but after all, that is his job.

"I'm a little bit different from most of the people around the job. My job is all about getting the correct information to the correct people at the right time. I'm a conduit between the designers, the consultants, and the construction people," he explains.

According to Piechowiak, IT is increasingly playing a crucial role in the world of construction: "It goes from electronic information, in terms of drawings, which is fundamental to what we're doing and then queries back-and-forth to consultants. The speed of construction means that we have to use technology more and more. They [IT departments] have an influence into how the telephone system and infrastructure is deployed on the site. When we are building the cabins, they are here setting up the infrastructure."

When it came to Motor City, AFC decided that it would be worthwhile to invest in design software which would give it a better overview of the project before it began the actual construction. The company chose Autodesk as the provider and Piechowiak explains how it arrived at that decision.

"Most of our sites on traditional-type projects use Autodesk products. There's no thinking involved - it's the standard product across the industry. Obviously, there are different types of technology they have available. On this particular job, we had an issue with time and with co-ordination. Autodesk had a new emerging product that resolves these issues," he says.

"The technology is called Building Information Management (BIM). The product that Autodesk have is Revit Architecture and Revit Structure. Even with a raw drawing product, you have architecture, engineering and MEP and they have different products tailored to these aspects. When you go in the BIM technology, you are basically modelling a full building," continues Piechowiak.

AFC first began investigating the possibility of using a system three years ago and according to Piechowiak, one of his colleagues conducted the initial study: "He looked at the marketplace and mapped out where the industry would be going. He had already identified companies and technology that was what we should be moving to. I'm a bit of an implementer so I just went for it. The only way to truly know whether it would work or get an idea of its strengths and weaknesses is to try it. That's what we did."

However, he and AFC were not willing to jump into the proverbial water without dipping a metaphorical toe in first. Although many consultants use the software, to his knowledge, Piechowiak is not aware of any contractors who use it. As such, AFC decided against buying the software outright, but instead used an outsourcing company who provided it as a service. As Piechowiak explains, outsourcing elements of construction design is not unusual.

"In terms of different aspects of jobs, we tend to outsource elements of it. If you take rebar reinforcement drawings for concrete, there's many companies that will do it. What we're talking about is taking the design information which isn't ready to build and making that conversion from design information to construction information," he says.Another reason for why AFC did not purchase the software is that it would require an extensive overhaul of its existing infrastructure. Piechowiak discovered this when he first trialled the design software on a previous project during the construction of Dubai Festival City.

"I did a little exercise just to look at what the software could do. We upgraded some of our machines - fundamentally, video cards and processing power was what we had to do to the machines. That's purely just to view the model, not to work with it - if we actually bought into the technology, then we'd have to have a new breed of computers to be able to handle that. This was very much blue-sky, never-been trialled software, so it was a case of trialling it on a job that was relatively low risk for us," he elaborates.

Early tests of the Autodesk software on the project showed that the software was able to identify flaws produced by designers working for AFC. But when it came to the Motor City project, Piechowiak says that the software could still benefit from a little human touch.

The problem with the software is that it purely looks at clashes, which in the real world might not be a problem. You need someone who understands construction to look at the model and see if something’s right or wrong.

"The problem with the software is that it purely looks at elements and clashes, which in the real world might not be a problem - or might be a bigger one. You actually have to have someone who understands construction and design and can look at the model and see if something's right or wrong," he says.

"When the first model that the company did for us was given to me, the first thing I did was turn it upside down. I discovered that they had modelled exactly what was in the design drawings but they had missed the point that one of the ramps going into the building didn't have a foundation. Nobody identified that. The software couldn't tell you that, because that's not a clash - that's just something fundamental that's missing," continues Piechowiak.

One of the most crucial elements towards ensuring the success of any new implementation is ensuring people understand and want to use it. In AFC, this was an uphill task, as most of the construction professionals were comfortable with designing using paper. To facilitate the software uptake, Piechowiak sent two of the team to Chennai in India to work with the outsourcing team and build up expertise in using the software.

But even though they have returned to share their expertise with the rest of the organisation, the acceptance rate of the BIM software is still relatively low - just 15% of the team use it.

Piechowiak admits that the number is not high, but explains the circumstances: "At one stage, we had no other options, because we had a limited time scale and a limited staff. In some ways, there was no other option. What I did was identify in my team people who were most likely to buy into the technology, or at least have a go."

Now that the implementation is complete, he says that the software has provided valuable lessons about how to manage AFC's team more effectively: "Having seen the technology, there is definitely scope to train people and reduce the size of the teams and make them much more focused on what they should be doing. Very often, we get stuck in trying to deal with problems that are fairly insignificant. Whereas, if people have more time to actually look at the whole building, then issues will become easier to solve."

Piechowiak concludes by stating that Autodesk's software deserves a wider uptake from the market - but that it will only happen if people understand its usage: "Part of the process is that we try to make technology do what we always have done. What we should be doing is saying: ‘Here's what the technology people can do and this is the way we should be doing it.' What very often happens is that we try to map what we're doing just now with the technology - which is the wrong thing to be doing."

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David Wilkinson 11 years ago

We learned this valuable lesson early. Process is more critical than software. In the 300 plus 5D models we have completed we have established a rigid step by step process for placing elements into a model, documenting all issues, real or potential, at the time of placement, red flagging critical issues for specialists to review, and generating detailed documentation - this cannot wait until the model is completed and run through a collision software program - it must occur as you model. Finally, we designed the Model Progression specification (MPS) that details exactly how the model will be built, who is responsible, level of detail required, output required (only 3D - 4D - 5D etc.) DW