BIM Marches Into the Electrical Market

Sept. 9, 2011
Imagine a world where you can click on any product in a three-dimensional blueprint for a construction project to access that product's source of supply,

Imagine a world where you can click on any product in a three-dimensional blueprint for a construction project to access that product's source of supply, pricing, maintenance and installation instructions, warranty, catalog cut sheet, and other pertinent technical data.

As Electrical Wholesaling subscribers will learn in an article in the upcoming September issue on building information modeling (BIM), this is a few miles over the next hill for most architects, engineers and electrical contractors, as well as electrical manufacturers, distributors and independent reps. But with the help of some of the electrical market's biggest BIM advocates, the groundwork needed to shape and organize the digital product information standards that will make this dream a reality is underway. Some electrical manufacturers who want to get a head start on preparing their data for the supply and product information aspect of BIM designs are already developing the digital CAD icons for their electrical products that designers will use in their three-dimensional building models. Several BIM experts say these CAD icons will function as a branded marketing presence in digital BIM databases of product options for designers.

Several executives and trade associations in the electrical market who are already active with various BIM initiatives have little doubt that it will play a much bigger role in the electrical market's future. The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), Rosslyn, Va.; IDEA, Arlington, Va.; Datagility, a Chicago-based provider of data management services; and Trade Service Corp. San Diego, Calif.; are already helping electrical manufacturers and distributors get ready for BIM. Sources from these companies agreed that most distributors, manufacturers and reps haven't been more active with BIM is because, the primary focus of BIM so far has been the design and evaluation of 3D building designs and there hasn't yet been major demand for their digital product-level data to be integrated into BIM designs.

That's changing with what's called 5D BIM, which integrates the supply chain directly into BIM designs at the product level, and requires the type of digitized product data that IDEA is collecting for the Industry Data Warehouse (IDW), and that Trade Service develops for its electrical product database and suite of related services for the distributor and end user market segments.

Mike Podaris, Trade Service's director of product management, says his company has been busy over the past year building up its library of digital documents that will support BIM objects in a project design. These documents include but are not limited to a product's operation and maintenance, installation instructions, Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), the catalog page itself, and other technical specifications. “We have seven different document types that we are capturing that all could be associated to that BIM object,” he says.

Podaris adds that the pricing data Trade Service has provided for years in an electronic format meshes well with what BIM software developers need, and that the company is now working with several large developers to create the dimensional product data (size and performance characteristics) that 3D BIM designs require.

John Henry, the company's director-business development, said Trade Service will support any BIM standards for electrical products that NEMA and a broad coalition of construction industry trade associations develop through the buildingSMART alliance, Washington, D.C. But because Trade Service wanted to start working with some BIM software companies that now need assistance with product content, the company is moving forward before any industry-wide product standards are developed.

Working on these BIM standard with the buildingSMART alliance are Jim Lewis, manager of NEMA's High Performance Buildings, and Deke Smith, executive director of the buildingSMART alliance. Smith says that while BIM was initially used as a visualization process for construction project designs, the focus has now shifted to the “I” in BIM — information.

Smith, who gave attendees at last year's IDEA E-Business Forum an update on progress in BIM standards, is one of the building community's leading advocates for BIM and the Specifiers' Properties information exchange (SPie), an open standard now being developed for product data utilized by architects, engineers, specifiers, contractors, subcontractors, procurement personnel, operators and maintenance personnel. It will require the close cooperation of several dozen construction industry trade associations. But if Smith and the buildingSMART alliance can pull it off, SPie will serve as the foundation for the next generation of BIM designs and will tie electrical manufacturers and their products directly into the design process.

Steve Horton, IDEA's director of product portfolio management, says IDEA's role in BIM will be to support the industry standard NEMA develops along with the buildingSMART alliance and to then work with manufacturers to ensure their product data in the IDW has the necessary BIM-related information.

Datagility is another electrical player already working with BIM. Angela Baraks, the company's manager of data synchronization, and Marty Brett, NEMA's BIM Task Force manager and marketing manager for Wheatland Tube, will be doing a BIM presentation at the upcoming IDEA E-Biz Forum. The company also developed a workbook for NEMA electrical manufacturers to help them get started with BIM. Denise Keating, Datagility's president, believes 80 percent of what's required by a BIM standard is already been defined in the electrical industry's existing product data standard, and that the other 20 percent is related to the 3D modeling that's needed for BIM objects.

While there hasn't yet been a groundswell of demand in the construction community for the product-level digital data that electrical manufacturers, distributors and reps already have in place, if the SPie product standard becomes a reality, it should go a long way toward creating this demand. Until then, several BIM experts said it's important that electrical manufacturers start developing the CAD icons used in BIM designs.

Says Mike Podaris of Trade Service, “If your object is not in that BIM model, there is a less likely chance that you are going to be in that job. Designers are going to look to the top object in the model. When it comes down to spec it or buy it, they are going to say, ‘I want the exact stuff that is put into this BIM model.’ And if the distributors want to have some influence on or ability to keep involved with or support BIM, it's to make sure their brands or manufacturers have the BIM libraries out that they will need. That's going to put them in a better position to win the business down the road.”