Common Data Environments (CDEs) are a key component in providing effective BIM processes.
CDEs provide a central storage location for project information. Information such as drawings, schedules, reports and of course most importantly the project models.
The information is made available to the whole project team, providing access to employers, contractors, project managers, quantity surveyors and subcontractors. Enabling access to the latest information ensuring that everyone only accesses the latest and current information.
A CDE also provides a means of easily understanding what each item of information is, who produced it and the status of the item. The filename (which should follow the guidance of BS 1192, provides useful data such as the type of information (drawing, model, report etc) and who produced the information.
The status code provides information on what a document can be used for and just as important, by inference, what a document should not be used for.
The only problem is, it’s becoming increasingly common for a project to have more than just a single CDE. This, of course, means that having multiple CDEs will not result in a ‘common’ data environment. Storing information in two or more places will not result in a common data storage solution. Although, multiple CDEs could be accommodated if the information could be guaranteed to be the same in all locations, including status and revision codes.
The use of multiple project CDEs has arisen as the functions provided by a CDE has expanded. Clients and employers are increasingly using CDEs for their operational organisational data. And subsequently, they are requiring their new project information to be contained within their own CDE. This, of course, is the intention of BIM Level 2 and follows the guidance of PAS 1192-3.
The problem comes when other members of a project team also want to use their own CDE. Most if not all main contractors will have an enterprise licence for their own CDE. They will use their CDE for the standard CDE functions, but also for other business functions such as procurement and project management.
The extra (non-core) CDE functions provided by a client’s CDE will not be the same as those required by a main contractor’s CDE. And equally the main contractor’s CDE will not provide the additional functionality required by an employer. A client would not want detailed procurement functions and a contractor would not want asset management functions.
There have also been concerns over the security of the data. And the lowest common denominator approach of ensuring security is to keep the data as close as possible. For a CDE this means being in control and ‘owning’ the CDE. A contractor having their own CDE means that they have increased control over their (and their subcontractor generated) data. How would someone obtain the data if access to a CDE was blocked? Or who would be responsible if the data on a CDE was lost (this could happen through system failures or a malicious attack).
These are the main reasons why we are seeing an increasing number of projects with two or more CDEs. Provided that the common documents on all systems are synchronised, this shouldn’t be a problem.
It’s useful to consider whether all items of information will be needed to be seen by all the project stakeholders. This is usually considered to be against the philosophy of BIM which requires largely unrestricted access to information ensure effective collaboration amongst the team. But, if you take this argument to the extreme then why not make all the information publicly available and utilise the power of the crowd to obtain feedback. Effectively identifying what information is relevant to different stakeholders is not an easy task, but can be an essential task and provides project benefits.
In some cases it is useful for a client to receive a smaller subset of all the project information. A client often receives too much information, information that isn’t contractually required or information that doesn’t require approval. For example, a client may only receive those documents that require approval and those that have been approved or published. If too much information is received, a client team can be overwhelmed, resulting in a lack of focus meaning that urgent responses to the important approvals are delayed.
The process of transferring data between CDEs has become a manual human task. In fact, it’s a new task that didn’t exist until recently. BIM should enable tasks to be reduced or automated not result in new and unnecessary tasks. Some CDEs allow certain tasks to be automated, such as notifications of new documents or the addition of new comments, but there is currently a large element of human interaction.
This not only diverts important resources but also opens the possibility that human errors will inevitably arise.
The use of multiple CDEs on projects will not go away anytime soon and could become more prevalent as other organisations, within the supply chain, also see the benefits of having their own CDE.
What is required is an automated way of transferring data between CDEs. Something that could be termed as a universal CDE exchange. It would allow selected documents and data to be seamlessly synchronised between the different services. As a document is revised or a status is changed within one CDE the document is automatically altered on the other linked CDEs. For this to work effectively, the primary or the original document would need to be identified. This wouldn’t be too difficult as each document would remain owned by the originator. The location where the original document is provided would be the primary location and then other secondary locations would be linked to this.
The main stumbling block to implementing such a system is that all the web-based CDEs (most CDEs are web or cloud-based) would require some form of external access and, of course, the access would need to be secure to ensure data integrity.
Such access can be provided through the use of APIs (Application Programming Interfaces). A universal CDE exchange approach will simplify and automate workflows and ensure that everyone has the right information in their preferred CDE.
A significant number of CDEs already provide access via APIs, although this isn’t widespread and in some cases, the access is insufficient for the universal approach to work.
Below is a list of the most popular CDEs and whether they have a documented API:
|Autodesk BIM 360||Yes|
It might be worth checking whether your chosen CDE offers an API as in the future it will allow more efficient workflows and additional functionality beyond the universal CDE exchange.
Put pressure on those that don’t currently provide an API. And Definitely consider the availability of an API when selecting a new provider, otherwise, you may regret it at a later date.
Ian Yeo, BIMsense, email@example.com