Opinion

BIM and Augmented Reality in Construction & Maintenance

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From BIM Journal. Click Here to Read Issue 5

The evolution (and availability) of an ever increasing array of technical approaches and devices shows no sign of abating. To discuss the reach, influence and significance of this field further, Will Brocklebank (Founder & CEO, Shepherd Networks) brings us up to speed.

Augmented Reality may sound far-fetched and indeed something from the future, but Building Information Modelling and Augmented Reality (aka “Mixed Reality”) are not new concepts. Both have been in discussion for fifteen years or more, but they have yet to become standard fare in either construction or maintenance.

This is surprising as they both seek to solve straight-forward and fundamentally human problems: how do we most effectively coordinate ourselves in a world of staggering technical detail? How can we best understand this complexity and its effects on a minute scale, yet still be able to ‘zoom out’ to sufficiently make appropriate decisions at a strategic level?

BIM begins this process by gathering together disparate sources of technical information relating to the wider built environment and the assets that are installed within it. It is the granularity of this available data that is also worthy of mention. Consider picking up a leaf from the ground and examining its shape and texture, before turning it over to inspect its intricate biological structure and engineering. On a macro level, its form is already readily understood and appreciated yet, when examined on a molecular level, it reveals the mechanics that allow it to carry out is real function in order to complete photosynthesis.

BIM sets out to achieve a similar task: to be a platform common to all stakeholders which can be viewed on a macro level to resolve questions of design and interaction, whilst being available to curate the most intricate engineering details of its component parts, in terms of integration and maintenance. Furthermore, to support this, it must allow for inquiry and analysis by all parties and all disciplines. As anyone who is involved with data knows, it is a significant challenge to be able to encapsulate the overview as well as the engineering details of measurement, load, route, capacity and structure simultaneously.

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This is where the idea of “resolution”, being able to zoom into the details and back out to the bigger picture sees Augmented Reality fitting in the best. It offers a technical lens that can overlay fine-grained contextual information upon our natural, visual view of the world. Apple and Google have recently enabled ARKit and ARCore on their newer devices, ensuring that fairly soon our pockets will be endowed with hardware that has the processing power to illuminate these AR entities without further sophisticated hardware being involved.

As the data is all that is required to feed the AR view, this is where BIM and AR sit so well together because, believe it if you will, we will soon reach a place where a sufficiently detailed export of all of the key structural, mechanical and electrical information in a building can be delivered to a modern smartphone.

Imagine the utility of this. For example a maintenance engineer can now trace a faulty circuit through a building by simultaneously viewing the image generated by their device camera, which is now overlayed with an AR map. This even enables the operative to scrutinise the loads that are connected to the circuit in real time, as they move along. Or an energy assessment that provides a visual overlay of predicted energy & carbon data on the building, alongside the reporting of the actual performance information to identify sub-optimal assets, environments or commissioning errors. The sky's the limit.

This brings us to what I believe is the third leg in the stool needed for BIM and AR to really achieve its full potential; real-time operating data. Of course BIM and AR can be highly useful in the construction phase, but for their investment to provide a fuller return they must be utilised in the running of built asset after commissioning.

For this to be possible, the BIM model must live and breathe with the real-world performance of the building and its assets. The data from distributed sensors should be piped via BIM into various analytics services that can drive predictive maintenance, advanced risk management, optimised workplace structures and many more convenient dashboards and interfaces.

Through the use of AR, BIM and predictive maintenance as well, engineers no longer have to be ‘static’ on site in order to respond to issues as and when they are reported. The sensors will flag up any blips or signs of concern to be investigated in real time. The use of machine learning can then make sense of the data flowing through the BIM platform and can triage issues and direct them to the ideal responder for the most rapid resolution. Diagnosis of the issue can begin from afar, using the data from BIM and the real-time sensors, so much so that should site attendance by required, they can go accompanied with an AR environment that will pin-point the asset needing attention as well as surfacing the operating manuals, past remedies and other pertinent information to expedite the repair more timeously.

Statistics from GE’s Asset Performance Group, the Carbon Trust and the US Dept of Energy all concur that programmes like this can reduce overall maintenance costs by up to 30%, breakdowns by 70% and increase engineering productivity by 15% or more.

It is not news that issues regarding the adoption of BIM have tended to centre around technological cost, lack of skills and a natural inertia for the old ways of doing things. But there is also a good chance that BIM suffers from a problem common to all data-intensive endeavours as well, insofar as it can be extremely challenging to make sense of it all and find an approachable way in.

This is the key role for AR; cleverly designed views of the outputs of BIM overlaid onto the familiar physical world that blurs the boundary between the physical human space and the data engineering space. It will literally allow anybody to ‘see through’ this division to exploit the data most effectively and will drive enormous efficiencies for all operators at all levels.

But there is a good chance that the biggest impact for all of us will be felt in the way that BIM & AR affect the building after construction. The recent RICS report (“Artificial Intelligence: What it means for the Built Environment”, October 2017) stated that it is highly probable that within the build environment, the impact of AI (Artificial Intelligence) will be felt the greatest in facilities management.

I believe that BIM and AR will play a central role in allowing Artificial Intelligence (AI) to finally have the real-world impact across the entire industry that it deserves.

Read BIM Journal in full here.

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