We’re all likely familiar with building information modeling, but do we truly understand how to leverage this concept to improve efficiencies within our businesses? The possibilities of BIM are boundless; getting the most out of this process, understanding its importance, and fostering a high-performing virtual design and construction program are key.
VDC is the umbrella term our industry has adopted to define the processes encompassing the design and coordination of a construction project in a three-dimensional, virtual environment before in-the-field work begins. Countless pieces of software, constant information transfer, and seemingly endless meetings culminate in a finished product ready for construction with all major issues resolved.
The VDC process aims to address potential problems before materials hit the field, allowing the installation process to minimize waste in material and manpower. The challenge is creating VDC programs that perform at their highest level.
During my 20-plus-year career in the VDC field, I’ve been a part of various efforts to build, improve (or maintain) a program meant to address, meet or exceed a particular set of business needs. Through many triumphs and just as many failures, the recipe for success appears to rely on the effective implementation of the following four concepts: establish standards; manage relationships and expectations; invest in technology; and train continuously.
No matter the size of your operation or project, mastering these four concepts will lead you on the path to success.
Consistency and predictability improve efficiency, a concept Henry Ford discovered more than 100 years ago and still holds true today. By standardizing our processes and digital environments, we create efficiencies through repetition and fine-tuning. Performing the same process for a given task in the same manner over time inevitably results in completing that task faster.
This is achieved through familiarity with the task as well as our ability to make micro improvements as we discover the task’s inevitable minor flaws. Multiple users performing the same tasks enhances this efficiency gain even further by allowing the community to produce improvements based on a wide range of experiences and expertise.
When setting your standards, it’s important to remember that, as subcontractors, we often have both internal and external customers. Because of this dynamic, our standards need to follow suit. Some standards will be specific to the inner workings of your organization, such as internal drawing quality control processes or timesheet reporting. However, other standards may need to be tailored to your external customers, such as the project’s drawing approval or request for information processes.
Because of a subcontractor’s unique position, a best practice is to use “flexible standardization” when deciding how to design and implement a specific process, task or platform. In most cases, we’re at the will of the project environment, which the general contractor or project owner dictates.
Digital environments, drawing standards and coordination processes are usually predetermined and vary from project to project. If we set rigid internal and external standardization within our VDC processes, our ability to adapt to these ever-changing requirements will suffer, ultimately negating the efficiencies we hoped to gain in the first place.
In practicing flexible standardization, we base our processes on our preferred means and methods, but leave the door open to, and plan for, the inevitable requirement to deviate from established norms. Planning for and training on this deviation will allow your teams to flex and adapt easily, continuing to build on the efficiency gains you originally hoped to achieve.
Collaboration is the key to success in any VDC program. The VDC process is most effective when all parties work together to achieve a common goal.
Managing the relationships and expectations of these parties, both internally and externally, is paramount to spearheading a successful VDC program. Teams have unique experiences and expertise in their defined tasks; successfully managing these relationships means working to help each group understand the other’s strengths and weaknesses.
For example, consider setting expectations for how long tasks take because one group may not understand the intricacies of another group’s workload. Clearly communicating information is a critical part of relationship management as well. People are more willing to work hard when they’re kept in the loop. Continually dumping unexpected work on a team will almost certainly lead to poor working relationships.
Invest in technology
Technology changes at a rapid pace, and the VDC world is no exception. When I was in college, we learned how to use a straight edge and triangles to draw parts in pencil on a drafting board. Today, robot “dogs” with laser scanners attached to their backs can autonomously walk the jobsite and create a virtual map of an entire building. We must keep up.
While robot dogs may not be the answer for most companies, maintaining proficiency with the latest software and technology is paramount to continuous improvement. Software today updates yearly or even quarterly, which can be both a blessing and a curse. These more frequent improvements allow us to easily keep up with the changes rather than trying to relearn a completely revamped system every few years.
The problem arises when we stick to using a version we prefer. By the time we’re forced to make the switch, we’re already behind and need to work harder to catch up.
As for that scanning robot dog, adapting the latest technology also is necessary to continuously improve efficiency. Laser 3D scanners have been one of the VDC process’s biggest improvements in the last decade. Previously, our only option for understanding and working around existing conditions was to use as-built drawings (hoping they were accurate) and send out a team to take physical measurements.
While this method works, it’s time-consuming and, inevitably, you may take 200 measurements and still miss the one you need most.
Laser scanners, or point cloud scanners, take a 3D image of a space and allow us to walk through that space as if we’re in the building, all from the comfort of our office. In this virtual space, we can take measurements and resolve issues without traveling to the site. As we increasingly move to virtual work, these files can be shared across the entire project team, wherever they’re located, and used in a collaborative environment.
Train, Train, Train
With all this process standardization and new technology, a robust and proven training program is the only way to ensure adoption. In my experience, training must meet three requirements: it needs to be timely, it needs to be specific, and it needs to be ongoing.
Training content sticks most easily when it’s backed up by immediate implementation. When a new process or technology is rolled out, provide a high-level overview to the entire team, but wait until in-depth training is completed to require the adoption of any new process or technology. This allows for more personal, hands-on training where the trainee can ask questions. It also allows the user to put these new concepts into practice immediately.
When training on a new concept, keep it specific to it — and keep it short. Day-long training sessions will overwhelm employees and not result in the concept mastery needed to succeed. Short, small-group training focused on one or two specific concepts will allow trainees to ask questions and work hands-on with the concept before putting it into practice.
Lastly, consider making training a standard process as well. Whether it’s on a new concept, an updated process or simply a refresher, getting your teams in the habit of regularly scheduled training sessions will help put them in a mindset of continuous learning. Knowing that training will accompany any new concepts also helps alleviate the anxiety that, for some, accompanies implementation.
VDC presents incredible opportunities for project teams to create efficiencies within their respective businesses. However, getting the most out of the process remains a challenge for many teams. If organizations take the time to establish standards, manage relationships and expectations, invest in technology and prioritize training, then they are most likely to achieve truly impactful VDC programs.
Ian Strawn is a virtual design and construction project manager at McKinstry in its New Construction Department. He acts as the VDC lead for McKinstry’s coordination efforts.