Demystifying BIM and predicting what’s next for digital twins in construction

Building information modelling (BIM) has been around for decades, but advances with cameras, scanning, data software, and artificial intelligence (AI) – as well as the emergence of digital twins – has made the practice more enticing for even smaller firms. At the 2024 Construction Technology Summit (ConTech) in March, three sector experts discussed what BIM is (and is not) and what to expect from the process in the future.

BIM roundtable at ConTech (Image: Eason Photography) The BIM roundtable at the 2024 Construction Technology Summit in Austin, Texas, US. (Image: Eason Photography)

“I think when people hear the [acronym] BIM, they immediately think of a 3D model,” explained Dr William O’Brien from the University of Texas. “But really, we’re talking about a digital representation of the project.”

Dr O’Brien was a panellist on ConTech’s “BIM round-table” talk that sought to answer the question: Will the latest iterations of BIM help maintain its relevance on today’s infrastructure projects?

He was joined by Adam Cisler of Hexagon Geosystems and Corey Johnson of Bentley Systems, and the trio agreed – in certain terms – that building modelling has arrived, is here to stay, and is likely to improve.

O’Brien, who is a professor of construction engineering project management at Texas in Austin and the associate director of technology for the Construction Industry Institute, noted that, as BIM adoption moves forward, so too will companion technology like digital twins.

He said BIM and digital twins provide – especially for infrastructure projects – “the correct attributes, structure, but also the geospatial connections to utilities.”

Do contractors understand BIM?

But in the US, where the panellists’ companies and organisations are based, adoption of BIM has been slow compared to other regions in the world; some European member states and the UK, for example, have mandated BIM practices for publicly funded projects, whereas, in America, BIM regulations differ from state to state.

Johnson acknowledged, “We’re a little behind where the building market has been [and] where the European market is.”

He noted some of it might come down to contractors misunderstanding the purpose of BIM software and technology.

“What if you could put in existing metrics and track the history of other projects that use those same components?” he asked rhetorically, while explaining the advantages of cultivating a building information model or twin. “Then you can track and understand [if this is] the right piece of equipment, the right lighting to use.”

The benefits go beyond just engineering and structural needs, he said.

“We have historical data, and you can actually make better decisions even earlier on in design,” said Johnson.

“BIM is not just the model,” added Cisler. “It’s not necessarily all about the technology, it’s really about the people and the processes.”

Education is key

Since a functioning BIM platform might be unique to any given company, it’s understandable that, in some cases, multiple departments will have a role in cultivating the model.

That’s where internal education is key, said Cisler, which has been lacking industry-wide.

“We spun up a training programme to basically run everybody in the company through what BIM is and…how to operate within the model so that we could actually get more efficiency out of it,” he said. “There’s a huge education piece, and people are hesitant because they think it has such a large learning curve.”

And the divide is between the largest companies and the smallest. Data suggests most large-scale projects (90% or higher) and companies working on them use BIM. On smaller projects and with smaller firms, the figure is closer to 30% adoption.

“A lot of the smaller projects, they are [focusing on] time and material, still,” explained Johnson on the divide. “There’s no incentive. Until you change those contracts [or] until you change what the actual deliverable is, you’re not going to see [smaller projects] adopt those technologies.”

And with nearly 40 years of development, BIM practices are no longer held back by technology; instead, modern tech is making the process easier.

Dr William O'Brien (Image: Eason Photography) Dr William O’Brien of the Construction Industry Institute and the University of Texas at Austin. (Image: Eason Photography)

“The answer used to be: the technology wasn’t ready or is still niche,” said O’Brien about previous decades’ slow acceptance of BIM. “We’re largely beyond that. It’s really not the technology anymore.

“It’s the people, the training… the contracts, and, frankly, the expectation of deliverable in our environment,” he continued.

He used the example of creating a 3D model only to have it translated to 2D for builders and contractors. It’s a part of the construction process that could be retired, O’Brien said.

“Once you go [to 2D], it’s hard to come back up,” he said. “Changing our contracting language, changing the way we do business, that’s the challenge but, also, the opportunity.”

User-friendliness reduces fear factor

BIM and digital twin platforms have become far more user-friendly in recent years, as well, which Cisler said will lead to more universal adoption with time.

In Hexagon’s construction analysis portal, Cisler said there’s no ‘gatekeeping’ of the model, and that every segment of a project has access to interact with the information. The collaborative working space can be more beneficial when everyone has access and knows how to use the tools, he said.

“We can bring the foreman in, the superintendents, [or] the people are that typically afraid of breaking something in the model or… don’t know how to navigate in the traditional 3D modelling platforms,” he said. “Making it more ubiquitous, making it more accessible, that’s going to put more eyeballs on it, and that’s going to give you more value.”

And the panellists noted BIM’s purpose exists well-beyond the design phase of any project, though most applications take place in pre-construction.

“The model should be created early on in the design, making that product useful to the downstream consumer, whether it’s construction, start-up and commission, operations,” said O’Brien, noting functionality down the supply-chain has been a barrier to use.

Johnson illustrated how holistic input to a BIM process aids a project.

“A pipe is not a pipe,” he said, explaining that a six-inch conduit from one company may have entirely different properties to from another company. “How do you actually find that information? When you start putting some logic to it that is consistent, like a cost code or Omniclass, then it makes it a lot easier for people.”

It should not be up to the designers, in conception, to understand all this, either.

“We should, as a technology provider, give them the opportunity to add the data that makes sense for them, for their situations,” said Johnson.

“Let’s teach our designers to model for modelling,” he continued. “Let’s not teach them to model for paper. Because, right now, the deliverables are paper. Let’s get rid of that. Let’s actually model it properly and fill in all those details, and then the paper representation should be a clear reflection on the model, not the other way around.”

Will the US ever fully adopt BIM regulations?

On whether or not the US will ever fully adopt mandated BIM regulations, the panellists weren’t sure it’s a method that would work in their home country while recognising successful mandates elsewhere.

“In Europe, in the UK, they enforced it. They have a plan,” said Johnson, adding that varying laws between US states makes uniformity difficult in America. “But, the United States… they’re still pouring concrete, building roads, very similar, but [the states] have different specs, different requirements. That’s the challenge.

“The technology is there, but it’s the legal contracts,” he said.

Cisler agreed, expressing scepticism the federal government could successfully force BIM on builders.

He said, however, that if incentives to adopt the process prove worthwhile, more firms will implement BIM.

“Insurance companies [could] start to lower premiums on projects that are using some of these AI monitoring tools for site safety reasons,” Cisler said. “Once incentives catch up, I think there’s going to be more use and adoption.”

Target the small wins

Addressing a question from the ConTech assembly, Johnson encouraged project leaders to take adoption slow and set measurable, attainable goals. He said too many contractors, with their first adoption of BIM practices, try to “boil the ocean” or do too much too fast.

“They want to have very large outcomes and [say], ‘I saved 30% on this job,’” he said. “Do a little bit on the project. Get the small wins. Set the goal small [and] if you don’t see improvement in some workflow, you’re not doing it right.”

An investment like BIM or digital twin software can be huge for some companies but so can the rewards.

“I think it’s a tremendous opportunity,” said Dr O’Brien. “[It’s] a chance for us to have better discussions about how can we deliver a better operating model in a virtual form… and use that to drive the construction cycle and design cycle to be better.”

Texas faculty and grads at ConTech (Image: Eason Photography) A group of current and former University of Texas staff and students at the 2024 Construction Technology Summit in March. (Image: Eason Photography)

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