24 January 2019

How digitalization is injecting momentum into the building sector

Building Information Modeling (BIM), Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).

It is no secret that gamers have played a significant role in driving major advancements in digital image processing. What was initially dismissed by industrial automation developers progressed quickly and professionally. Photorealistic, dynamic virtual worlds computed and displayed in real time are considered state of the art in computer games. That is not the case in industrial applications, and especially not in building technology.

Unfortunately, the use of rendered 3D models for visual presentation of designs and virtual factory or building tours are often still the “high-end” result of digital data. This stage is often dubbed “Hollywood BIM”– a moniker that is not entirely unjustified. The future potential of digital building models cannot even be assessed at the moment. One thing is absolutely clear: digitalization is injecting momentum into the building sector.

Data, as always, is front and center. The introduction of the “digital twin” as part of BIM delivers a virtual likeness of the actual building. All the information associated with the building is stored in a database over the entire life cycle of the structure, providing the basis for automated and highly transparent operations in every phase (design-build-operate-demolish). 

Standardization of the data formats used by the installed products and the data structures that map the actual building is extremely important. building Smart international (bSi), a non-profit organization, is taking the global lead in this area. With IFC4 (Industrial Foundation Classes 4), product data for computer-aided design (CAD) has been available in a vendor-neutral format since 2013. Likewise, the building Smart Data Dictionary (bSDD) ensures the consistent distribution of this data regardless of the vendor.

It will be interesting to see how we can ensure transparency over the vast quantities of data for the relevant users in all building phases without unnecessarily increasing complexity. In the past, every discipline developed its own representation, language and symbols. The new human-machine interfaces (HMIs) will play a critical role in harmonizing them. It’s also important to remember that the planners and operators of tomorrow will have grown up with computers, smartphones and game consoles and will have high expectations of the IT tools they use at work.

Why use a cryptic address key for navigation when you can reach your destination with just a few mouse clicks? Why learn symbols when the object (product) is displayed photorealistically? Why build something before you (virtually) test its usefulness?

Hardware has become so powerful that there is no reason not to step into the virtual future. What is waiting for us? 

In the future, virtual reality (VR) will be used right in the design phase. VR drops us into a virtual world, separate from the actual building. This allows us to address numerous problems that might emerge later on in the actual building, including complex ones, at the very beginning. Such clarifications are not limited to regular building operations but begin with construction and end with demolition, thus covering the entire life cycle. Just like a flight simulator, VR can be used for operational training. In addition, it is useful for simulating exceptional situations. Sample applications already exist to optimize evacuations. 

It gets even more exciting when the virtual model is actually built. This is where augmented reality (AR) comes into play. In this phase, the first real building components exist and can be incorporated into the virtual model. This where AR differs from VR. This combination of the digital twin, the convergence of the virtual and the real world, opens up new, unimaginable opportunities. Pokémon GO has already given gamers a taste of how exciting this can be. The real image is augmented with additional virtual information. The applications of AR appear to be limitless. Furniture can be placed virtually in the physical building, workmen see the pipes and cables routed in the walls, measurements and status messages are superimposed onto the real world. AR is not just limited to visualizing the combined virtual and real worlds; it also makes it possible to interact with objects. Users can perform switching operations or retrieve additional information.

An AR view of a defective device delivers all the information required for repair or replacement. This information can include circuit diagrams, data sheets, status messages and supplier data – everything that was saved in the data model. Work orders and purchase orders are triggered immediately. Facility management (FM) processes can be significantly optimized. 

In addition, building users will come to appreciate the possibilities of augmented reality. For example, AR can be used as a navigation aid to locate persons, rooms or equipment. User-friendly AR operating concepts can be created in order to deliver only information which is relevant for the respective phase and which the user is authorized to see. The potential is virtually unlimited.  

Renovations and remodels can be simulated in AR in advance. What needs to be considered? Which installations are located in a specific wall? Who will be negatively affected? How will evacuations be handled during the construction phase? Will legal regulations still be met after the renovation is complete? These are just some of the questions that the digital model and AR can clarify in advance.

VR and AR will become commonplace in buildings. They are advanced tools that will change the way we work. In spite of the unimaginable technical possibilities of the virtual world, data protection and privacy must be kept in mind when using these tools in real buildings. 

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