Moving beyond automation in BIM

Donna Huey, Atkins

BIM should be about adding to what industry does rather than just replacing existing services and people with computer programmes, says Atkins’ Donna Huey.

As Building Information Modeling (BIM) continues to reveal opportunities for revolutionising the engineering and design industry, we are still seeing challenges around adoption.

"We need leaders that will step up and drive the industry. If you are a business manager this might mean doubling-down on your investments"

Many organizations have managed to sort out ways to leverage BIM in pockets such as 3D- and 4D- visualisations, conflict detection in multi-discipline design, or even augmented reality in construction. But the capability of the technology today is already so far beyond that. So why is there a lag?

The design and construction industry has historically been slow to exploit new technology. Perhaps there is a lack of know-how, or far more likely, a bit of fear around change and how it (and we) fit in. The recent Harvard Business Review article, Beyond Automation — which discusses how to protect your career from the growing threat of computer automation—got me thinking more about the gap between today’s reality and tomorrow’s potential.

“Automation starts with a baseline of what people do in a given job and subtracts from that. It deploys computers to chip away at the tasks humans perform as soon as those tasks can be codified … Augmentation, in contrast, means starting with what humans do today and figuring out how that work could be deepened rather than diminished by a greater use of machines.”
– Thomas Davenport and Julia Kirby, Harvard Business Review.

Read more Atkins insight on Atkins Angles.

The article struck me as a means to generate a roadmap and illustrate “how” to engage with BIM from wherever you sit within an organisation. It correlates to how we can drive a view of BIM as an augmentation to the traditional mindset. We should partner with technology to drive new methods, approaches and, of course, solutions. And only when all stakeholder groups engage will we achieve the full potential of BIM and its underlying technologies. So I’ve adapted the Harvard Business Review authors’ original five paths to the following:

Five paths toward achieving BIM’s potential

People have alternatives for how they’ll work with BIM:

Step up. This is for the big picture thinkers. Whether you have invested heavily in BIM already or are simply at the top of the pack when it comes to world class design solutions—we need leaders that will step up and drive the industry. If you are a business manager this might mean doubling-down on your investments—adding new hires and advancing research and development. If you are a technical leader this means greater engagement in thought leadership and investing in greater professional organisation involvement. I would further suggest that those who step up must be ready to partner. No single organisation can own this—our big picture thinkers will need to collaborate to push BIM’s limits.

Step around. These are the people who aren’t BIM experts, but get what’s happening (although their thoughts around BIM are more abstract). There is value in this role too. Their expertise may be in a supporting role such as human resources, learning and development, legal, commercial real estate, and others. BIM will generate new interactions and training demands, requiring interpretation and understanding of emerging business risks and needs. Those who play along the sidelines to integrate BIM will be invaluable. So these guys shouldn’t shy away, but instead they need to get involved, raise their hands and volunteer their ideas.

Step in. These are “the doers,” the practitioners who have had their arms around this for quite some time and have been waiting for the rest of the industry to catch up. Now is the time to step in fully and push the rest of us toward what you know is the technology’s full potential. Be bold and don’t hold back. Breakthroughs are inches away. Expand beyond your immediate circles and get involved with your peers to make potential a reality. Consistent small steps toward the goal will result in giant leaps for the industry.

Step narrowly. These are the guys that have been watching from the sideline for a while and they get it, but they see potential in a very niche area. Perhaps their ideas are related to sustainability, asset management, or even additive manufacturing. Now is your time. Build a unique application of BIM technology and show it off—most importantly, show off the return on investment. Most industries are facing an expensive proposition to fully adopt, so the greater evidence of the return, the easier to generate up front investment.

Step forward. Innovators unite. This space is all yours. We need those who can see over the horizon and inspire the rest of the pack. Digital engineering is the new frontier, and as we deconstruct plans and specs into bits and bytes what new theories will unfold? What new means and methods are available to us that we didn’t see before? Dream big and innovate—we’ll all be better for it.

 So where do you fit in and what steps can you take? How can the use of this technology deepen our abilities rather than diminish us? How can it make the big thinkers think bigger, the supporting services better support, the doer’s better do, the niche developers find their niche, and the innovators find new ideas? I’m looking forward to finding out.

Donna Huey, senior vice president and director of Atkins Strategic Ventures business unit in north America.