Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK-based xbim is facilitating BIM conversations with its new xbim Flex platform.
A recent Extranet Evolution post (15 June 2020: AEC reliance on email remains high, Mail Manager research shows) highlighted the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) sector’s continued reliance on email for communication. This struck a chord with Steve Lockley of Newcastle, UK-based software developer xbim, and we began a conversation – by, of course, email!
xbim and Flex
Professor Steve Lockley, to give him his academic title, was professor of architectural informatics at Newcastle University in the late 1990s/early 2000s. From 2002, he was executive director of R&D at RIBA Enterprises (today NBS), and later research director at BIM Academy and emeritus professor of building modelling at Northumbria University. Since 2017, he also been a director of xbim – a business he co-founded with Andy Ward (one of the founders and a later CTO of 4Projects, acquired by Viewpoint in 2013) and Martin Cerny.
The company has developed the open source xbim Toolkit, helping industry to overcome problems with information management and data exchange for buildings. The toolkit has been used by 1000s of companies to provide core functionality to solutions from tech firms including Bentley Systems, Viewpoint, BIM Academy, NBS, BIMTrack and Permasteelisa.
xbim’s latest product – xbim Flex – is a “platform for making digital information flow between people who design, construct and operate built assets”. It claims “all the power of email – greater reliability and none of the pain,” and “Flex gives your email super-powers by fully integrating your BIM designs into your e-mail messages.”
EE: What is wrong with the ‘single source of the truth’ vision?
SL: There are three aspects of truth to consider here. First, truth is transient: what’s true today isn’t always true tomorrow. Knowledge and innovation change truth. This is the big error of the strapline ‘a single source of the truth’.
Second, truth is temporal: what the ‘common data environment’ (CDE) vendors are really offering is a snapshot of truth at a moment in time. A record of the state of a design at a given moment whose main use is often defending litigation.
Third, truth is subjective: it is dependent on interpretation and context. Unless you can recreate the context that a set of decisions is embedded within then you cannot determine if they are true or correct.
This is why we now have an ecosystem of multiple potential sources of truth, it’s the fundamental way that design and construction processes work.
EE: Where does email fit into project communications?
SL: The traditional AEC industry process creates largely one-off individual projects. Whether the construction project is large or small, we have to accept that the process is evolutionary and non-linear and encompasses many sources of truth. Also, as we near the end of the process many of the previous truths are now false, or redundant, and must be discarded. But this often does not happen, and we are left with handover models that contain irrelevant or inaccurate data that is no longer true. The volume of outdated data can often exceed the volume of correct and accurate data.
This is where simple information communication based on data exchanges via e-mail falls down. The e-mail process does not dispose of easily identified but redundant truths. And it doesn’t properly retain the context that surrounds those truths. It is merely a ‘bin’ containing many truths and uncoordinated, often random documents, that have been attached for support. Tools like Mail Manager do a fantastic job of filing and indexing this information. However, they provide little control over how the information and its context are authored and published.
EE: Is this where xbim Flex fits in?
SL: Yes. xbim’s Flex Communications really helps out here. We carried out studies with small and large architectural and engineering practices to determine why communication around BIM was so difficult. The main problem related to extracting and publishing information (mostly to send to CDEs or to generic file storage systems). We have focused Flex on facilitating collaborative exchanges of coherent information within a common data environment.
Flex Communications lets you extract a set of coherent and coordinated 3D views, drawings, sections and schedules from your BIM model in one click. These are then automatically constructed into a Flex Conversation, which is also an e-mail. (I appreciate the irony here but it’s a proven way of communicating and we’re not trying to replace it.) The key thing to remember is that conversation recipients don’t need access to BIM authoring tools. This allows wider engagement and consultation and improves the likelihood that more of the project participants have a consensus and awareness of what is true.
A Flex Conversation email provides a potential truth, in a correct context at a moment in time. It allows decisions to be made and captured in the conversation – all of which you can easily find again at a future date. The most important thing, though, is that this conversation is building-centric not document-centric; it provides the basis for the built asset to be the index for its documentation – effectively, another kind of digital twin.
EE: Where is xbim Flex used, and what do users think of it?
SL: Flex has just been launched and is completely free for people to create a personal account where they can send messages with views of their BIM models and associated documents to the people they collaborate with – using our freely available Revit Add-in. You can also use our Flex demo if you’re not a Revit user and want to look at an example conversation about models, drawings and schedules.
In this first release we’re keen to engage with Revit users who create and send messages, as well as their intended recipients, so we can understand how Flex is being used. The potential for a real mix of people taking part in construction conversations using Flex is huge. It can be used by architects, engineers, clients, facilities managers, main contractors, sub-contractors and more. However, we’d love people to find uses for it that we haven’t anticipated. We think it’s useful for talking to clients, carrying out design reviews, requesting product information, resolving snagging issues, doing project handover, etc.
Existing users say they love the simplicity and coherency of using Flex to understand how models, drawings and data can all come together in a collaborative conversation.
As well as providing a self-service communications application, we’re also working with several software vendors who are using our underlying cloud-based BIM platform to build and integrate their own BIM services. Behind Flex is a powerful ‘OpenBIM as a Service’ technology platform that accelerates and simplifies application development and workflows. We’ve just signed a significant deal with an ISV providing BIM asset management and communication services to high-tech data-centre and medical clients.
EE: Will there ever be a time when we don’t need email?
SL: I think we’re already in a time when we don’t particularly want email, but whether we’ll ever be able to do without it I don’t know. The problem with email for most is that we abuse it. We don’t consider how the recipients use it and how we are consuming their time and resources. Social media has greatly reduced personal email; many younger people don’t even have email addresses. However, as soon as they enter employment they get work addresses. Businesses have a perception that email is easy, cheap and largely under their control; they don’t have to subscribe to a third party data manager if they don’t want to. In design terms email is long life – loose fit. I think it will be here for a while.