Overcoming the digital construction challenge

The pressure on project, commercial and design managers, among others, to deliver evermore complex projects on time and budget continues to grow. Even with the availability of enterprise resource planning (ERP) to access financial control information more quickly, the challenge to all professionals in the construction industry is increasing.

“In many cases it’s like trying to run a business using Excel spreadsheets with macros all connected to a server in an office. No one can change a sheet because they’re locked in a rigid environment that amalgamates the figures at the end of the month,” says Graeme Forbes, chief executive of Clearbox, a technology company that provides solutions with a simple integrated single source of information across an asset’s life cycle, from conception to operation.

Sharing information effectively is key to successful project management, he points out. “Our clients come to us because in some respects we’re the front-end to the ERP back-end for construction,” says Mr Forbes. “We’re taking a world dominated by information contained in model files and adapting it so that these files can be read by a common platform. We’re helping companies on their big data management journey, and their ability to harness real-time knowledge about their projects and their business.”

He describes ERP as “typically the financial plumbing of a business” and explains: “We feed the front-of-house activity to normalise or regularise the information to better enable back-of-house ERP and make it easier to integrate for downstream tasks.”

One of the major challenges for the construction industry, according to Clearbox, whose clients include Kier Group as well as overseas companies such as Witteveen+Bos, is that the most commonly used BIM tools are appropriate for authoring one particular element of a construction project.

The construction industry is undergoing a fundamental step change in how it operates

“With a complex project, you have a variety of these tools all involved in the same job. The tools are often difficult to integrate, generally complex and designed to create information. This makes them difficult to use because the information they contain is compartmentalised in different files and yet different people need access, be they the project manager, the commercial manager or the engineering team, and often for a quite simple need,” says Mr Forbes.

To overcome this, Clearbox’s technology can slice data in different ways and make it relevant for different audiences in a user-friendly format that goes beyond the capability of the visual tools currently widely used.

“Take the construction of a tunnel, for instance,” says Mr Forbes.  “I might look at every aspect of it, but then I discover that the drivers, in other words the end-customer, are forced to put their foot on the brakes half way along it because their visibility of an interchange isn’t great. That could lead to lifelong tailbacks. However, I can now take the visual technology and integrate it with other technology, such as gaming-based tools, to simulate people driving through my tunnel to check it works in practice in the way that all parties would have expected.”

With the refurbishment of London’s Chelsea River Bridge, Clearbox’s technology based on BIM processes allowed the team to ensure that each piece of steel used had gone through the various stages of survey, approval, refurbishment and inspection correctly, without having to access the various different files to check any cross-references. The client had a detailed record of the work done and alongside that nearly £900,000 was shaved off the £6-million cost, even though its technology was only put into practice by the time the third arch out of five was being repaired.

“The construction industry is undergoing a fundamental step change in how it operates,” says Mr Forbes. “We’re moving into a world of truly digitally enabled processes and we’re playing catch-up with most other sectors. Our industry needs to fully embrace this technology; there’s a lot to gain including providing a more engaging environment for young recruits.

“Companies must have the desire and feel the need to deliver to produce this major evolution,” he says. “You need a road map for your whole journey to know the sort of place you want to head to, but you can take small steps to get to your destination – most importantly you need to start the journey.”

For more information please visit www.clearboxbim.com