Partner Profiles

Is BIM the solution to improving project controls?

Inside building with glass front

Could project controls be improved with the use of BIM, asks Clearbox Managing Director, Graeme Forbes…

Project controls is a mix of science and art that is used particularly in the process and infrastructure sectors as a standalone discipline to control what are often large and complex projects, with the aim of bringing the project to a successful conclusion from the aspect of time, cost and quality. The science is that there are recognised techniques to be applied to a project to measure the status and better predict the outcome; the art is that all the information is rarely in the right form to make all the necessary analyses while, at the same time, the shape and form of the most pertinent form of progress measurement changes across the lifecycle of the project.

Typically projects (and the sub-projects within an overall programme) start and end with a critical sequence of tasks before running through a period of volume based delivery and finally ending with a critical closeout sequence. To compound the lack of simplicity offered by a fixed set of rules (as opposed to an established set of principles) the information to base the judgement of status and recommendations for actions are affected by:

– Ambiguity in the source information. Invariably the full information is not available until the end of a project, unlike manufacturing when it is available at the outset, so judgements, allowances, etc, have to be made and these can often be found later to be inadequate;

– There are often several sources of the truth in a large fast moving project and reconciling the analysis from the various sources can be time consuming and frustrating;

– Information is fragmented, held in documents, schedules and drawings but the computation of key information such as a count of the number of doors to allow determination of how much the doors will cost or how many are currently fixed requires a detailed review and analysis of many drawings and associated information. The reality is that the analysis often doesn’t get undertaken or may get undertaken many times by many parties. Such an example represents only a small part of the overall challenge of determining the full scope of the project at a project level, or the scope of a sub-contract when one party supplies and another fixes and even a third may commission and handover;

– An inability to see information in context. A window is quite a different proposition to build when it is on the ground floor compared to being located on the 5th floor, on the east wing above an embankment overlooking the sea;

– And of course when the information is shown on drawings even experienced personnel can interpret the information differently especially when they have limited time to view and reconcile.

So the challenges to produce pertinent real time measurement and predictability in project controls are immense. It involves applying the most appropriate technique that most accurately reflects the challenge of the project at that point in time, and then having to work around all the limitations and challenges by interpreting disparate sets of information to derive the right analysis and recommendation before being challenged by the essential optimism and hunger of the construction team undoubtedly pressurises the balanced status. With margins often in the low percentage points of the overall cost and each party to the contract having their own interpretation of the information to hand it is hardly surprising that considerable time and effort expended and mistakes and claims can arise.

BIM, on the other hand, thrives on definition. When you model an object in BIM you have to position it and size it and say what it is! So while designers prefer not to add items to a drawing until the item is defined and understood, cost planners and construction teams want to better understand what is required even if it needs further definition at a later date. In essence the foundation of BIM and its interaction with delivery relies on some key principles:

– There is accuracy and definition in the content which by the very nature of the output being in 3D places many elements of the requirements in context;

– There is the ideal of a managed process around a single model, whilst perhaps harder to achieve it should nevertheless be a core aspiration, invariably wrapped in an integrated CDE;

– There is a managed process to define, add and enhance the object data to create an appropriate level of information and richness at every stage in the project leading to digital handover and operation;

– When we manage 3D object information, we are able to enhance it with the attribution of time, work packaging, cost and asset coding, etc, to allow us to aggregate and analyse the information as well as simulate and visualise the outcomes in every which way we choose.

However while the foundation of BIM is strong it is as an enabler that BIM presents the real opportunity to do new things that really accelerate it beyond its traditional space into that of integrated project controls. For example:

– Visual simulation and understanding of program changes. Being able to see the impacts of design changes on the program is traditionally quite difficult. Firstly, identifying changes can be time consuming and then finding the tasks affected in the program Gantt chart can also be difficult. When BIM is introduced with automated mapping between construction elements and tasks the process becomes much quicker, easier and more visual with the ability to run scenarios across multiple program versions (e.g. baseline vs current/actual). This yields significant benefits for the planner and allows the focus to be on value-adding work rather than handling fragmented, disconnected data;

– Short term programming and logistics planning. Projects are typically founded on structured strategic programmes with discrete local short-term programmes. The desire to better display the detailed sequences often results in the strategic programme becoming overly complex with the result that progress updates, risk analysis and other similar tasks themselves become overly burdensome. However short-term programming within the model space is quite feasible under the umbrella of the strategic programme and of course allows the richness of the information such as resources to be made available to provide greater assurance of the outcome. Short-term sequencing the permanent works and the temporary works and even simulating material movements are all opportunities for BIM driven products and will undoubtedly expose issues, reduce risks and improve the communication amongst the project team;

– Cost estimating and cost management. While a model doesn’t often reflect the complete scope early in the project, it does provide the scope from which other elements of content can invariably be attached. For example, a wall in the model might attract, plaster, paint, skirting, builders work-restraint, acoustic treatment, etc, but these elements do not need to be detailed in the model. However the size and number of each can be associated to the wall and made available to other users. Automated measurement and sophisticated association with external pricing and resource estimation allows objects to be resourced and priced paving the way for more accurate progress updates;

– Risk management can be better enabled allowing the discipline to be applied more readily to more projects. In common with resource levelling the key time consuming task with risk management is the population of the programme with cost, association with the risk register and the subsequent set up ready for the analysis to take place. BIM will be able to facilitate and even automate much of this process allowing experienced users to concentrate on the outcome and the subsequent actions rather than the non-value adding and time-consuming preparation of the necessary information;

– Combine the measurement and costing with progress measurement in the model, given that each activity knows the components associated with it, and fast, accurate progress measurement can now contribute to the reconciliation of cost and value;

– Change management. Of course if we can see what has changed and been measured from the model we can also see and measure change with the appropriate time impact and opportunity to display potential disruption, so effective change management, essentially the measured appendix to the variation notice, is a very real opportunity.

In conclusion, given the foundation and objectives of BIM, why would project controls as a function not jump at the opportunity offered by it? Is it that BIM is often still seen as pictures or videos, or is it that very few businesses and software providers have aligned their thoughts and products to the aspirations of the opportunity and the enablement of project controls through BIM? What will come first, the production of this robust information to better enable project controls, or the demand for more robust information and consistent processes to feed the opportunity for improved project controls?

Whilst the reality is that leadership on the matter is invariably critical to make it happen and lead the change, certain software solutions are now focussed on delivering the robust information to support the foundation for the more efficient and more effective production of project controls outputs. The ultimate aim is to produce the outputs in real time as the exhaust gases of the process, thereby allowing the project controls team to apply their art whilst making an experienced judgement based on current up to date information. There can hardly be a client or owner that won’t be keen to achieve this outcome.

Graeme Forbes

Managing Director


Tel: +44 (0)800 085 9872


From Adjacent Oil & Gas 4, August 2016


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