Interoperability: What is it and Who’s Affected?Lack of productivity and interoperability has long been a problem in the construction industry, costing stakeholders valuable time and money. Interoperability, in this case, refers to the ability of the different software systems involved in a construction project to work together seamlessly, allowing the individuals involved quick and efficient access to all the data they need. A project with strong interoperability is one that will result in a quicker, more efficient process to reach a higher quality final product with less capital invested, making it an extremely important yet underrated asset.
A study by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) in 2004 uncovered serious problematic interoperability issues in the U.S. capital facilities industry, conservatively estimating a $15.8 billion loss in 2002. NIST mainly attributes these losses to a lack of technological uniformity across the industry, with some groups beginning to take advantage of emerging online collaboration tools and other useful technologies, but many others remaining content with outdated computer-aided design and drafting (CADD) technologies and redundant paper-based methods. This results in an environment that lacks the ability to foster effective communication and data exchange which hampers and delays entire projects, costs industry stakeholders, and results in missed opportunities that could benefit not only the construction industry but society as a whole. NIST concludes that as software development, integration, and uniformity improves over time, efficiency losses will naturally decrease. Fifteen years later, though, these problems continue to linger.
Benefits of Interoperability
Before discussing the current state of things, let’s dive deeper into some of the potential benefits posed by effective interoperability in construction projects. A 2007 study from McGraw Hill identifies the following impediments eliminated by strong interoperability:
- Manual data re-entry
- Duplication of business functions
- Reliance on paper to duplicate and exchange data
In addition to these, the study also identified the resulting benefits of eliminating these issues:
- Increased speed of overall project delivery
- Reduced infrastructure vulnerability
- Greater reliability of information throughout a project’s lifecycle
- Decreased supply-chain communication costs
- Improved value to customers
A 2015 article by the Construction Management Association of America (CMAA) provides an updated, more detailed list of interoperability benefits.
- Efficient and reliable digital construction project information exchange
- Instant access to reliable data and improved collaboration
- Improved efficiency and time savings by eliminating redundant data entry
- Sharing data on one system for the benefit of other teams
- Eliminating or minimizing human error
Difficulties in Fulfilling Technological PotentialAs stated earlier, NIST’s 2004 study identified the lack of technological uniformity across the construction industry as the key contributing factor to interoperability losses, an issue that they assumed would be naturally solved through time as technology continues to advance. But today, the problems remain. Despite the accessible, implementable and affordable systems that exist today, many companies and stakeholders still choose not to use them. This results in a continued lack of interoperability or systems integration, causing systems and groups of individuals involved in a single project to work in isolation from one another, limiting their productive potential. This phenomenon is known as information or data silos.
CMAA’s 2015 article identifies the following causes for the continued inadequate interoperability that we see today:
Complicating a Simple Process
- Technology is complicated, especially for those who don’t like change
- This leads to difficulty adapting to new, useful technologies
- Can be solved through effective communication and training
- Different groups involved in a project may be unwilling to integrate systems for security/privacy reasons
- Groups want to retain control over their own data or keep it visible only to themselves, preventing others from integrating it
Wrong Tool for the Job
- Many systems available – selecting the right one for the job may be difficult
- Companies may be persuaded to purchase a product that is unnecessarily complex and/or expensive for the tasks required
- Some companies choose to continue using outdated, non-commercial, custom/owner-built system
- More compatible, cloud-based, commercial programs are available and can significantly reduce interoperability losses
Conclusions: Building Information Modelling/Management (BIM)BIM is a digital modelling/management tool that is used to create accurate physical and functional representations of specific spaces. Today, this has become merely the foundation of what BIM can do, as more useful, important functions have been added to expand the program’s capabilities. The biggest solution that BIM poses to the problem of efficiency is its ability to allow different groups and stakeholders involved in a project to access information from a single source. This drastically reduces efficiency losses, as shown in Keith Hedges’ article on the subject where he illustrates efficiency losses associated with BIM being approximately one-quarter of those with traditional CADD technologies.
Lack of productivity in the construction industry is not an issue than can be fixed overnight, or even necessarily over years or decades. As predicted by NIST in their 2004 study, new technology has brought new ways to improve efficiency, but what they didn’t expect was the amount of time it would take for these new technologies to be understood and properly integrated by the people using them. The biggest obstacle that we face today is a lack of systems integration – people and their unwillingness to learn and adapt to new, compatible systems such as those offered by BIM. Today, cloud-based systems are beginning to dominate, allowing all software users to work on the same version, making integration easier to achieve than ever. But we must keep in mind that although technology can help improve efficiency, as long as humans are involved, perfection is impossible.