Virtual design

Error-free construction is possible with digital collaboration, top innovators agree

Nick Lerner
29 July 2020

4 min read

While most of the world’s major construction projects continue to be delivered late and over budget, a few industry pioneers are breaking that pattern. Compass spoke with three that are leading the trend and discovered how they use project-wide innovation platforms to deliver the insights and collaboration that ensure both efficiency and quality.

When you’re helping to deliver on an iconic corporate headquarters in California, failure is not an option. So architect and construction industry consultant James Kotronis knew he had to ensure that the project’s entire value chain, down to the last carpenter, welder and mason, worked in perfect synch.

But how to do that in an industry infamous for delivering such massive projects, on average, 80% over budget and 20% late, as estimated by global management consulting firm McKinsey? That’s where Kotronis Consulting’s secret weapon comes into play: its business innovation platform, which allows Kotronis to identify and resolve issues in 3D virtual space – not on the job site.

James Kotronis, Kotronis Consulting (Image © Kotronis Consulting)

How good is the technology? It even adjusted for widely fluctuating temperatures in California, which affect everything from deflection of metal structures to concrete drying times, and highlighted materials that were less-than-ideal for the area’s weather so that they could be reconsidered.

“A living, breathing digital model that represented the building was constantly updated throughout the project,” Kotronis said. “This was instrumental to develop and learn from whole-team thinking during and in advance of construction. The model demonstrated the problems, which were solved digitally rather than on the Jobsite.”

Philip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science under construction in Miami, waterfront Museum Park by  Kotronis Consulting (Image © Kotronis Consulting)

This is just one example of how digitalization – especially in the form of 3D digital models that connect and coordinate the entire value chain – are helping a few pioneers break the industry’s reputation for inefficiency.

Unfortunately, their innovations remain the exception, rather than the rule. “In this disrupted industry,” Kotronis warned, “there will be no room for those that do not evolve. They will, like the dinosaurs, become extinct.”

A synchronized supply chain

One reason the industry remains disjointed is that, even where architects, engineers and builders use digital technologies, they usually work with specialized, incompatible software packages that make it difficult – even impossible – to anticipate and resolve the inevitable clashes in approach, scheduling and materials where their disciplines intersect. In fact, such silos may be doing the opposite of what they’re intended to accomplish; they may be making the disconnects worse.  

Lionel Lambourn, Syntegrate, Hong Kong (Image © Syntegrate)

“A common scenario is that each participant, from designer to builder to operator, utilizes BIM [building information modeling] in a self-serving and, therefore, sub-optimal manner,” said Lionel Lambourn, architect and founding director of Syntegrate, a BIM consultancy based in Hong Kong. “And when data goes solo, it causes work to go off-grid.”

Syntegrate utilizes a business innovation platform for BIM to assist in planning, design, project management, construction and operations of built environments across the entire value chain. It has been involved with major infrastructure, museum and leisure construction projects across four continents.

When each department uses a siloed, disconnected dataset, collaboration and innovation suffer, just as they did in the days of paper blueprints, Lambourn said. Time gets wasted through repetition of tasks, and so do materials.

“A number of studies have found that as much as 30% of construction materials end up as waste,” Lambourn said. “The good news is that technologies exist today that, if properly applied, can easily bring this percentage into single digits.”

But materials aren’t the only waste that can be eliminated by enabling every discipline and trade to see what the others are planning and doing.

“Process, contractual and physical worksite clashes can be wholly avoided when BIM is federated into a single enterprise-wide digital platform,” Lambourn said. “Working this way leads to efficiency and, therefore, lower costs. Complexity is better understood through visualization and simulation and is simplified in advance to remove risk at the building stage.”

Kotronis agrees.

“Clarity, cohesion and certainty can be achieved, together with enhanced creativity throughout project value chains,” he said. “When knowledge is not shared in real time and people work offline from each other, project processes go out of synch. But by modeling in a cohesive way that incorporates processes of design, manufacture, fabrication, installation and operation, a solution space can be generated that brings people together. And that sparks creativity.”

Capturing knowledge

Hiromu Matsui is managing director of Japan-based Pacific Consultants. Founded in 1951 to support the nation's post-war reconstruction, the company has been involved in urban development, including roads, ports and railways, as well as urban infrastructure in Japan and overseas, that responds to the kind of natural disasters that have occurred frequently in recent years.

Hiromu Matsui, Managing Director, Pacific Consultants (Image © Pacific Consultants)

“I manage the technology department,” Matsui said, “and promote technological innovation that fits our company's corporate culture of always taking things one step further.”

Since civil engineering must respond to different conditions, such as terrain, geology and environment depending on the construction site, the design of structures can become inconsistent. When designs are done in 2D, not only are a huge number of drawings created, but the inconsistency between the original drawing and the derived drawing may cause construction errors and rework. The challenges are how to improve the efficiency of design work with many manual elements and how to ensure consistency of drawings.

Pacific Consultants believes that to achieve improvement, it must enhance efficiency and productivity through work style reform. Deploying a unified enterprise-wide platform is very effective for smooth communication in each process of design, manufacturing and construction. “If we collaborate with a consistent 3D-based digital flow,” said Matsui, “many inefficient processes can be removed.”

Pacific Consultants is currently working on bridges and disaster countermeasure sand control dams. Efficiency and speed of design are greatly improved using 3D design templates. Since these can be used as stock designs for the next project, processes can be continuously improved.

 “The civil engineering industry in Japan possesses world-class technical capabilities of earthquake seismic technology and flood control technology against tsunami and heavy rain,” said Matsui. “The professionalism of engineers involved in the projects is very high. However, because competent technology often depends on personal skills, there are problems that skills are not handed down if engineers retire. Therefore, I think it is necessary to digitize processes and retain and share knowledge using 3D simulation technology.”

Tama Ohashi Bridge – by Pacific Consultants (Image © Pacific Consultants)

These three industry innovators prove that the route to truly smart construction is via centralized project management using accredited and highly visual 3D models complete with all associated data. This presents so many practical, commercial and technical advantages that many more leading industry players are set to follow its best innovators in this excitingly disruptive movement

Learn more about digital collaboration in design and construction here.

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