Features - Business

Exclusive interview with Raj Chawla from BIM4SME

UK Construction Online’s Matt Brown talks to Raj Chawla, Vice Chair of BIM4SME, to discuss the approaching BIM Level 2 mandate and SMEs’ state of readiness, the digital2all initiative, and looking to BIM Level 3 and beyond. 

With Building Information Modelling (BIM), the lead tends to come from the larger companies within the industry so providing support to SMEs regarding BIM Level 2 is extremely important. Could you give us a brief outline in how BIM4SME goes about this?

There are two aspects to the SME: One, the SME is it is never going to do end to end Level 2. That will reside with the client and the tier 1 and tier 2 contractors. What the SME has to do is learn to interact with tier 1 and the client. It needs to understand when to enter a particular stage and when to exit a particular stage of the process.

The most important is that the SME needs to understand its obligations when it enters the process. Fully understand what they have to supply in terms of information for their goods or services and when they exit the process, they insure that the information they are supplying is complete, accurate and in the correct format.

As far as the PAS documents are concerned, yes of course they need to know how these framework standards work. These are framework documents and the SME has to distil and see how the processes fits into their daily businesses. It is this guidance that is desperately missing and it this that BIM4SME are attempting to plug.

With the BIM Level 2 mandate approaching in April, are you satisfied with the state of readiness of SMEs within the industry?

The understanding needs to be clear. The function of the BIM Task Group has been to take political intent via government strategy and deploy this. The BIM Regions Group are the awareness campaign to get critical mass so that the whole industry is engaged, while the BIM4 are intertwined within industry dealing with the mechanics of implementing and using BIM. This is the premise that BIM4SME has been predicated on. There is some support from institutes and others, but is anchored to individuals from such groups.

For the SMEs that we have touched, I am happy that they will be capable of participating in Level 2 type of work. However, if you’re talking about the entire country then I am afraid that out of the 2.5M people employed in the construction industry, maybe just 5-6% know what Level 2 is about and that is the biggest problem we are facing at the moment.

The issue is that we need to get to a critical mass of something like 700,000 people in the industry actually practicing and working with BIM at Level 2. Only then will that critical mass engage and move forward. Even the tier 1 and tier 2 contractors are not fully conversant with Level 2. It is only a small group of people within these large organisations that are becoming BIM-ready purely for the purposes for bidding on contracts.

It scares me sometimes thinking that this mandate is coming up and the industry is not ready and it’s going to start to crumble. It’s a negative thing, but it is the reality I’m afraid. That’s what we’re trying to bridge the gap at moment and trying to get the word out as much as possible and let everybody know what BIM and Level 2 is all about.

What advice would you give to any companies struggling to be ready for the introduction of the mandate?

Most SMEs struggle because of poor and mixed messages. When the message is explained, as it is meant to be, it becomes less daunting. When we interact with an SME, we try and not focus on the term ‘BIM’. Typically for the manufacturing and product supply chain, we simply advise that the information that they have is more than likely all present. It is structuring the information in a format that that is required.

As an example, our practice simply asks for the information by providing a template to fill in. This is usually a spread sheet. We ask suppliers to provide it in this exact format as we know they have the information; it’s just its not assembled in the correct way.

That’s one of the biggest heartache and that’s the thing that we are trying to preach at the moment throughout the SMEs – you have the information, you know what to do as far as your job is concerned, but you need to assemble the information in a certain way. This means that when the information is handled and passed on further to the next level, they don’t need to reassemble or check the information again. It can be passed on to the client directly without the need for it to be constatly re-assembled and checked at each stage.

That’s what we are trying to teach the SMEs – whatever information they pass on should be accurate and complete.

So you don’t bog the SMEs down too much with the bigger picture and focus on the individual steps?

You can describe the bigger picture, but as far as the nuts and bolts are concerned, you really just tell them exactly what they need to do. The companies are very capable of doing it. They do not need to spend huge amounts of money. Architectural practices and other professionals had a lot of concern about software tools costing too much money, but in fact it doesn’t; you can rent the use of software it on a month-by-month basis. It is the learning of the software that is the problem and nobody can force the learning on anybody. This is an initiative that the SME have to take up themselves and make sure they understand and keep up with the latest tools.

For me as far as Level 2 is concerned, the supply chain can transact with 2D drawings and a spreadsheet. It is developing and delivering information for a projects in a consistent and structured way.

There is a further issue that need to be managed; a consistent way the information from manufacturers and suppliers is structured. The reason is that there is no formative standard that allows this structured approach. This need to come sooner than later in the form of a standard.

Can you tell us about the background to digital2all?

digital2all has come about for two main reasons. One, creating an ecosystem where the campaign is future proofed and can sit under the Digital Built Britain agenda and the wider digital economy and secondly to start to consolidate the all the learning and sharing with other groups and campaigns.

Firstly, digital2all is here to harvest value from the Digital Built Britain, construction strategy, the professional strategy, smart cities strategy and this in turn starts to connect to the digital economy. The construction industry needs to become a slick industry like retail or food industry. If you look at these industries, these people are really well organised in terms of their logistics. We can order something from a supermarket and it can be delivered later that afternoon. There is a digital map that has been set; everything is connected digitally. That is what we want to see in the construction industry.

It might take some years to accomplish, but it will be great accolade. We are starting to design buildings virtually and if done properly, all the information is there to program to get the goods and services just in time.

So idea behind digital2all is to discover and engage with technologies that are suitable for the supply chain and start to connect directly to the construction economy and the wider digital economy.

For me the SMEs are the engine of the economy. They need to be fully engaged within the digital agenda and this is the first step that we have taken to make it a wider berth to include not just the architects, designers and contractors, but also include lawyers, procurement, manufacturers and operations. They all need to understand that when something is built, it is built for a very long time and know how we can service and engage with it in an economical and quick way if everything is digitally connected. This is the initial step towards that agenda.

The second reason for the digital2all is a little more current and very important. There is huge value and collateral being generated by various groups and campaigns in this journey. Some groups are ahead of the learning curve while others are starting. What is very visible is that there is little or no connect in sharing this collateral. Each group and campaign are facing the same problems and are reinventing what has already been done. The digital2all initiative is to allow for this sharing to be facilitated.

The connected supply chain is often described as the Holy Grail; is digital2all the stepping-stone to achieving it?

Undoubtedly, it is the Holy Grail. As a simplistic example, if we take Amazon or Alibaba; they are well connected that people can buy or subscribe as sellers and go on to the website and sell their products. These processes are regulate. This ensures buyers receive their items and sellers don’t sell rubbish. It is all digitally enabled.

digital2all intends to support a technology channel. This will allow new and existing digital technologies to be showcased, but more importantly to reveal their connectivity potential, analytics potential and show how the digital technologies can support the construction industry by enabling seamless transactions. That is indeed the Holy Grail.

Is digital2all a reaction to companies asking for advice beyond Level 2 or is it more about getting ahead of the game?

The SMEs are very slick and can change very quickly. Unfortunately, the message that comes out at government level or a very high level is absolutely meaningless to them. What we are trying to do is take that government strategy and break it down to bite size pieces that are easily understood by the supply chain. They understand what to do, when to do it and how it do it. The idea of digital2all is really trying to make them future proof – like when you buy a smart phone and in two years time it goes past its sell by date and you need to ready for the next generation with all the latest application. What we are trying to do for the construction industry is tell them they have to be ready and future proof them. That is simplest explanation for digital2all – future proofing.

You talked about successful transitional models in the retail and financial sector and how these could be applied to the construction industry. Could you tell me a little more about this?

The retail sector has had a lot of advances in logistics to point of sale and demand management. One of the reasons this is the case, is that the sector understands the value of data and importance of connectivity.

I recently had the privilege to see the logistics operations of a major retailer. I followed one random transaction. This was an item purchased via the retailers’ website in Grantham at 11am. The order was received by the retailer, payment processed, stock checked in the UK, showing unavailable, demand checked with the manufacturer in Turkey showing as available, notice sent to their logistic management company who found the best route and best courier price, labels printed out at the manufacturer in Turkey. This took 1mins 16sec from the purchaser hitting the Buy Button. The goods were picked up the same day put on an aircraft and arrived in the UK at Stansted and delivered by UPS in Grantham at 8:15 am the following day. There were two humans who physically handled the box. The driver who picked up the package in Turkey and the driver who remove the package from the truck to take it to the door of the purchaser.

It is not magic. The retailer has set up a digital transactional map. This is widely written about and is now a common practice in retail and financial sectors.

The transitional lesson is advocating a digital transactional map, whether at project level or departmental level with the highest priority to seamless connectivity. This is very rarely done in the AECO sector.

The advantages of digitising the construction industry should open up the financial market?

There discussions on going about the missing link between the financial sector and the construction sector. The issue being that the construction sector has to fight to get funding. The reason why there is this issue is the assessment of risk that the financial sector applies compared to the management of risk that the construction sector perceives are leagues apart. What BIM and the digital agenda are bringing to the fore are technologies that are able to visualise the proposed or existing assets, carry out analyses, play scenarios using gaming technologies all for the benefit for de-risking. The financial sectors risk assessment are based on data and methodologies that are old. They simply need an upgrade.

What we’re trying to do is make sure that everyone is singing from the same hymn sheet and that when the financial sector has to fund a construction project, there will of course always be uncertainties in every single project, but what we can say to the financial sector is we’re going to provide data on pretty much real time of basis and reporting is not a month or two months old.

That’s the thing about digitising the construction industry; when things are happening, you can see them happen live. Tools like camera feeds, models and clash detection, etc. are used to ensure that risk is removed out of the construction practice.

The financial sector is very far removed from how they perceive the construction sector – they just think it’s a body of risk. Our message therefore to the financial sector should be that risks is being better managed.

The link with the financial sector is extremely crucial in all of this and hopefully we will try and bridge that gap by making sure that the key people who lend on construction projects will come and sit round a table and talk to us and see how we can facilitate each other.

What is happening is that when you build something efficiently you get more for your money. Adding value. This need to be demonstrated. The whole idea of BIM is predicated around essentially building a building twice. You may ask, how are we going to build it twice? We’re going to build it digitally first and understand where the problems are. The second aspect is that when you build a virtual asset you are also capturing all the information about the asset. This information can then be used for analysing energy consumption, human flow and usability, carbon analysis etc. All these aspects come with considerable costs over the life of the asset if not done or managed properly.

So it is very useful to understand that BIM and digitisation of the industry is actually facilitating in the de-risking quite a lot, because you’re constructing the asset virtually, testing it, and then building it in reality.

Do you already anticipate any key obstacles digital2all will have to overcome in looking towards Level 3?

I think the biggest obstacle to us as far as digital2all is concerned is making sure that whatever comes from a strategy level can be easily explained and very simple guidance put forward. That was one thing that was missing with Level 2; there wasn’t any guidance provided. The standards were published; the standards are very good standards, they can work very well but you need to present guidance as to how to engage with these.

I think one thing that Level 3 should do is focus on guidance and they should make sure that whatever strategy is developed at high level, it is broken down and filtered into bite size pieces so that people can understand it and have very clear guidance at all levels.

Unfortunately, that is still desperately needed today for Level 2 and one of the things that BIM4SME is doing and will launch in middle of May –June is a set of very simple guidelines for the very small SMEs to engage and disengage from the Level 2 process.

Presumably moving from level 2 to level 3 brings a completely different set of issues from preparing the industry for Level 2. How will digital2all tackle this?

Of course. One thing that is really outside of our control is the advancement of technology; the manufacture of sensors, cameras, measuring equipment, it is all advancing at the rate of knots. What we have to do is make sure that we understand how fast they’re moving and move closely behind them so that we can actually use and adopt that technology.

What we don’t want to do is try and invent something that is not achievable. We’re trying to assemble a built environment, but we want to make sure that we can successfully integrate digital knowhow very easily and the connectivity needs to be very simple. So it’s a push-button type connectivity rather than write thousands and thousands of lines of code so two things can connect. This is the very problem today. If I have to connect two things together then that’s a lot of very difficult work. With the Level 3 proposal, all this should become seamless with the connectivity becoming simple.

What we have to do is educate the people going from Level 2 to Level 3 that both levels can be very similar in terms of when you transact information, it’s just that the information is going to be transacted not semi manually, it will be transacted completely digitally. We need to make sure that they learn that you have to understand that whatever you do within the construction industry is treated like a transaction and you have to make sure that you fulfil this transaction completely.

Let me give an example – if I’m going to a supermarket and take a £10 bottle of wine to the checkout and pay £10 for it, then I have completed that transaction. If I go into the supermarket, take the bottle of wine and leave without paying for it, then that transaction is incomplete. In construction what we’re trying to teach the SME is that whatever people are asking of you, treat every single entity as a transaction, break it down to the smallest level. Even if it’s in a contract for example, which says ‘thou shall send a letter out for a demand for payment to your client’ – that is a transaction. In the construction industry the concept of a “complete transaction” is alien, this thinking has to embed for the sector to come into the digital transaction age.

The jump from Level 2 to Level 3 is about educating the masses in the construction sector that everything is now going to become a digital transaction and you’re to make sure that this digital transaction remains very pure. Whether the information is coming from the client down or whether it’s going up to the client, it is a transaction and no matter what you do, it must be complete.

The same could be applied to a signal received from a sensor that the motor is running. The signal received says that a control block has completed its transaction.

That’s the mantra behind the jump from Level 2 to 3.

Do you think we are far away from the tipping point or the point of no return in terms of the take up of BIM by the construction industry?

Yes I think it will start to take effect within about a year or a year and a half’s time. One of my mad scientists at our practice worked out the critical mass. Assuming that there are 2.5 million people employed in the construction industry, he worked a critical mass number of 672,342, which is now engrained into my brain!

This number basically says that we have to get to this particular point in order to make sure that the industry reaches the point of critical mass. Now that said, it should be easy to get to that critical mass, but we are struggling over here. Why we are struggling over here? Let me explain – we have all the main institutes such as RIBA, CIOB, IEEE, IStructE, etc. etc. that all have small factions that talk about BIM and Level 2, maybe 200 to 300 people engaging in the BIM story. There are quangos, product groups, excellence groups etc. Now if I take the mailing list of all these institutes and mail it out, it gives me about 800,000 people, why this has not been enabled I have no idea. The constant reminder and notice to clients, designers, engineers, procurement, lawyers, supply chain, institute members is the only way.

In order to get those in the industry to work at Level 2, there is a huge amount of educating that needs to be done, and it is not just six people sitting on a floor plate of 170 in a large construction company who know about BIM, it is everyone down to the cleaner who needs to know what it’s all about; it is a digital agenda. That’s not being broadcast very clearly.

There are groups called BIM regions, which are putting the word out there, but their readership and attendances at their conferences is only the best part of 100 people. You could take 20 BIM regions and that would still only be 2,000 people; that’s not critical mass. The BIM Regions are an awareness campaign. If we want a critical mass, then the BIM Regions must be sensibly funded, join with a good PR Agency and broadcast aggressively. Everyone needs to know about it, but it’s not happening. It’s treated like a very specialist subject; and why so, I have no idea.

Once we reach the tipping point, do you think achieving future levels will come more easily?

Absolutely. The industry has been stuck in the dark for ages for decades. There have been cutting edge projects, but these have been few and far between. For everyone to engage, we have to make sure that we engage with the masses; there is no other way of looking at it. Full immersion.

Once we reach that tipping point, Level 3 and beyond will be a lot easier to work with because one of the problems is the industry is very lethargic and there is a lot of old guard within the construction sector reluctant to change.

Today I wouldn’t preach or I wouldn’t say anything to the older folk. I’m not interested in the CEO’s or MD’s of companies. I want to focus on the next generation because they are the ones who are going to make the change happen. The old guard today are really stuck in their thinking and that is the problem. It is that cultural shift that needs to happen in order to achieve the tipping point. And it’s the youth that will come up and the people who are coming up in the management chain understand the value of digital. It is these people who will start to take hold of the agenda, but that will take time obviously.

So of course the tipping point is one of the key levers for us to make sure that Level 2 is actually successful.

Exclusive interview with Raj Chawla from BIM4SME



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