Amid a continuing UK BIM discussion regarding use of ‘common data environments’, CDEs, Ireland’s BIMLauncher is already connecting some vendors’ platforms at a document-centric level. Truly connected BIM is a long way off, believes BIMLauncher CEO John Egan.
In January 2020 (Towards connected data environments, CDEs), I wondered about the need for data exchange standards to connect the various applications, platforms or technology ecosystems described or used, in the context of building information modelling (BIM), as ‘common data environments’. As UK BIM thinking has influenced international approaches, attempts to develop more consistent international approaches to both defining CDEs and to enabling efficient exchange of data between them has gradually expanded.
Since October 2019, the the UK BIM Framework – the “overarching approach to implementing BIM in the UK” – has, in Part 2: Processes for Project Delivery, offered detailed guidance on CDEs. The Part 2 guidance, written by John Ford of UK contractor Galliford Try, highlights that a CDE may actually not be a single technology or platform, but a combination of tools and workflows. It also highlights the the need for a standard exchange protocol to facilitate transfer of information and metadata between systems.
This matter was discussed at a 5 February 2020 meeting of the UK BIM Alliance‘s Technology Group*, where it was agreed that a ‘CDE subgroup’ be established to review and comment upon Ford’s Part 2 guidance, and to discuss the metadata issue. This subgroup (with eight vendors represented: Asite, Atvero, Autodesk, Bentley Systems, Glider, GroupBC, Procore, Viewpoint) met at Viewpoint’s Newcastle office during BIMShowLive in late February; and several of the participants also joined a public panel discussion at BIMShowLive the following day (27 February), where topics ranged from metadata standards to post-Grenfell whole-life “Golden Thread of building information” requirements. The Technology Group is aiming to agree some updates to the Part 2 CDE guidance ahead of the next edition being published at the end of April 2020.
In parallel with these meetings, as I mentioned, there have also been separate conversations in Europe: DIN SPEC 91931-1 is a draft standard aiming to promote open data exchange between CDEs, with input from thinkproject, Oracle Aconex and Nemetschek, among others. And, while Oracle Aconex withdrew from the UK BIM Alliance, it joined BuildingSmart International as a strategic member in late 2019 (news). The announcement said:
“Oracle Construction and Engineering is actively promoting the concept of collaboration workflows, providing leadership in the development of an open CDE API project in buildingSMART having already established DIN SPEC 91391 in Germany. This drew on PAS 1192 and ISO 19650, focusing on helping the built asset industry to innovate and evolve by enabling an easy exchange of data between CDEs, authoring, collaboration and quality systems.” [my emphasis]
In my meetings and in some of the online conversations about enabling exchange of data between CDEs, Ireland’s BIMLauncher has been mentioned. This is the latest startup established by John Egan, who I met a few years ago in Bristol when he was working on a shortlived offering called BIMScript before (2016) establishing Jenca Cloud – an open source platform for cloud-first BIM applications. In 2017 he incorporated BIMLauncher, aiming to develop connectors between different vendors’ CDE solutions. “A lack of integration means stakeholders can’t access the right information, and so they start bypassing the CDEs, perhaps using email to share files, and all version control is lost.”
“I have frustrations about vendor APIs,” he continued. “Too often they are simply help a CDE vendor’s platform to integrate with other BIM software tools – Solibri or ArchiCAD, for example – rather than enabling efficient data exchange with other CDE providers.
“As I see it, they think the walled garden approach to holding customer data is a strategy for success. However, in response to a maturing information management market, there is an increased demand to boost collaboration efficiency in digital construction workflows. A tightly integrated system is the means to achieve this. As a result, vendors’ integration strategies are key to their success and the conflict between providers begins as they all vie to become the one and ‘single window’ to project information management. Some vendors opt for an ‘open API’ approach making it as easy as possible for others to connect; others vet access and decide based on strategic partnerships and alliances for commercial gain. Some vendors are working under the guise of open initiatives like DIN SPEC. Some are not engaging at all.”
Document and workflow integration
BIMLauncher, now an accredited Autodesk Forge System Integrator, had its first success with the development of a connector between Dublin-based Zutec (originally a commissioning and handover platform, post, but now offering BIM integrations alongside a host of data capture tools) and the (now Oracle-owned) Aconex platform. Other connectors have been created for Autodesk’s BIM360, Procore and for Microsoft Sharepoint (and a connector for Ireland’s i3PT CertCentral is imminent), although the integrations often do not relate to sharing BIM data, but to the more conventional level of documents and email communications. Egan says:
“Our integrations hub is focused on document based workflows, as this is the current format of information exchange required for the majority of industry workflows. There is a lot of work to do here before we can focus as an industry on moving to object level management practices.”
A recently launched integration between the Aconex and Procore, for example, focused on two areas of the Aconex platform: its document register and its Mail project communications tool, creating a project-level connection that, when deployed, recreated Aconex data in a structured folder system in the Procore Documents tool. “This helps projects where, for example, Aconex has been used by a design team, but where the contractor site teams are Procore users. Documents approved for construction are pulled across.” The Aconex integration can be run in continuous sync mode or be used for a one-time migration between the systems, and is now available via the Procore App Marketplace.
BIMLauncher participated in a November 2019 BuildingSmart International OpenCDE-API hackathon involving developers from firms involved in the DIN SPEC 91391 project (see Egan’s December 2019 blog post), and the group (also involved in development of the BuildingSMART BIM Collaboration Format, BCF) is now working on an official BuildingSMART project.
BIM CDE integration
While there is clearly an appetite from some vendors to build better integrations, it’s challenging both technologically – some vendors’ solutions have been in incremental development for over 20 years – and commercially – some vendors may not want to make it easy for customers to migrate projects and data to other providers. However, BIM is providing new opportunities to standardise, and to become more connected. Egan is not enthusiastic about API-based approaches, feels that a ‘hub connector’ enabling integration across multiple CDEs should be the way forward, and talked about the secure use of ‘linked data’ to provide better data visibility across platforms while also maintaining the integrity of that data in its originally hosted platform.
“There is no obvious solution. But the technical challenges for vendors themselves to implement a system that can manage information between multiple systems will take significant investment and time to develop. Alternatively, some vendors are choosing to partner with our BIMLauncher integration hub where we manage connections with other CDEs and tools.
“Ultimately, the vendor with the best integration strategy will be the winner. Some vendors are mediocre in their approach; many have no integration strategy at all. But if they are serious about supporting their clients’ information needs they need to be serious about integration.”
[* Disclosure: I am a member of the UK BIM Alliance executive team and chair of its Technology Group, which includes several vendors of ‘CDE’ technologies. The views are mine alone.]