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By Paul Wilkinson
March 29, 2017
In the span of a couple of generations, much of business and commerce has moved from being reliant on paper to be being reliant on data, but the architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) industry is still digitizing. It has been a slow process, first evidenced by the adoption of word processing and email, and then by the computer-aided design (CAD) revolution of the late 20th century.
While these new tools undoubtedly helped increase the productivity of individuals and internal teams, IT was not the answer to all of our prayers, particularly when it came to sharing information with project team members working for different organizations. Differing hardware, operating systems, software applications, and even versions of the same software hampered or even prevented the exchange of information between organizations.
However, in the Web age, construction has become more connected. Since the 1990s, we have seen the launch and expansion of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) applications and online businesses offering AEC-related services––from online marketplaces to collaboration platforms. Critical factors contributing to their adoption include the use of common technologies, the emergence of Web Services, and the development of new industry data exchange standards.
Universal, non-proprietary data standards (XML, SOAP, WSDL and UDDI) allow software written in different languages, or based on different operating systems, to interact and exchange data with each other easily and cheaply via the Web. For software vendors, this enables users of multiple platforms, running on multiple devices, to communicate with each other; for construction end-users, it also dramatically lowers the costs of collaborating with clients and other project team partners.
In parallel, construction has been digitizing its processes: design, construction, and asset data are also increasingly standardized and uniform. New national and international standards, classifications, and data dictionaries are converging and replacing proprietary approaches––facilitating the development of a new “construction operating system.” And this trend will continue. Widening adoption of collaborative Building Information Modeling (BIM) processes, reuse of data by owners/operators for whole-life asset management, and expanding use of sensors (the Internet of things), and of artificial intelligence (AI) will accelerate digital information exchange still further.
As a result, AEC businesses will share information more quickly, widely, consistently, and transparently than ever before, and with less reliance on proprietary hardware, software, or operating systems. Individuals and companies will also be able to integrate solutions together, seamlessly reusing information created in one application to populate data fields in other applications––avoiding wasteful re-keying or cutting and pasting, and the potential for human error.
With data flowing freely between systems, devices, and software applications within a construction business, authorized employees and managers will have real time access to the latest information from across their operations. Moreover, with data aggregated and connected, company executives will also be able to extract business intelligence––helping them take better, more informed decisions.
Of course, mentions of more connected or integrated systems, of increased collaboration and transparency of information may concern some AEC business owners and managers–– particularly those whose previous experience and expertise was gained when construction was more silo-based and adversarial.
Advanced use of BIM––combining data-rich 3D, 4D (time), and 5D (cost) models and sharing them across multidisciplinary, often multi-company project teams––is already requiring businesses to heighten their cyber-security regimes. New standards for built asset security management (BASM).
Such security-conscious approaches build upon the security precautions already built into many networks, devices, and software applications. And the emergence of a new “construction operating system” will enhance this still further by providing a common interpretation of industry terminology, statutory, and contractual workflows, and company and user roles and relationships. This interpretation helps construction software providers build applications that faithfully reflect the information requirements of their construction industry end users, while also facilitating integration with other applications––both generic and industry-specific.
This is familiar territory to many existing providers of web-based applications. Conscious that they must maintain secure access to SaaS tools hosted in “the cloud” (private, public, or hybrid), their software tools and roll-out processes are geared to confine access to certain information to people with certain defined roles.
And with the Web likely to become the primary network for managing future collaborative built asset delivery and management information and processes, businesses will be increasingly reliant upon their platform, infrastructure, and SaaS providers to ensure security.
This should not be frightening, but invigorating. In effect, construction companies will be doing what they’ve always done: working with specialist suppliers. As managing IT systems is not their core business, they will instead be contracting with specialist information services providers––freeing themselves to focus on delivering their construction expertise. And the construction operating system will be key to making these sure these business relationships are established, maintained, and developed as efficiently and securely as possible.
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