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Chris Fischer: Competition will force the construction industry to evolve


Chris Fischer is Business Systems Development Manager at Schuff International Inc. in Phoenix, Arizona. Schuff is a major company offering comprehensive steel construction solutions in the US. The company uses Tekla Structures modeling software for the design and fabrication of steel frames and parts.

Fischer presented the keynote speech at VaikuttajaForum, an annual construction industry event organized in Hämeenlinna, Finland, in April 2008. At the event he discussed the general construction project workflow in the US, and in particular, the opportunities that Design-Build and Building Information Modeling (BIM) generate for the steel industry.

Chris Fischer was hired by Schuff as shop laborer in 1996 and has been leading the company’s BIM efforts for some ten years. He is in charge of the company’s Technology Management and is the author of their Process & Procedure analysis. He is also involved in the company’s Research & Development as well as in industry liaison, and various other roles as and when needed.

“Schuff crosses all market segments in the US, from the smallest to the largest projects,” Fischer says. “This gives us a good perspective on the industry. We set out to become the best from the very beginning. The fact that we also became the largest is secondary.”

Waiting for direction
“The construction industry is just waiting to see in which direction it should turn,” says Fischer. He believes that tighter competition will force construction companies to look for more efficient processes and to choose a standardized format of communication and data transfer, instead of the many formats protected by proprietary rights.

“There’s too much wait-and-see involved,” he says. “Once a standard is established, it’ll give everyone direction. Even slight innovations will accelerate progress. Pioneering companies like Schuff International have chosen to work with their vendors to encourage the change towards improved processes in the industry. We give software vendors something to work towards and a standard to write by. Many smaller companies are holding back until a clear standard has been established by others.”

Expansion of processes involving BIM
According to Fischer, major industry groups and organizations, such as FiaTech and the NBIMS (National BIM Standard) committee, will have an impact on the changes in construction processes. “At Schuff we’ve committed resources to process development and became early on a member of the most influential associations, such as the AISC (American Institute of Steel Construction),” he goes on.

“Tekla Structures is the only option at the moment to do certain things by modeling, such as combining shapes and materials,” Fischer continues. “To develop the BIM process further, we need requests from project owners to include, for example, compatibility with facility management in the model. I have great hopes for the US DOT (Department of Transportation) 3D project delivery developments – where I act as a technical advisor for highways and bridges – to bridge the gap with construction by facilitating the expansion of improved work processes involving BIM. The upkeep of bridges based on a database is already a practice there.”

Reality bites
In Chris Fischer’s opinion, the construction industry is advanced in some areas but lagging behind in others. Model exchange with EOR (Engineer of Record) is well known to Schuff but not well known to fabricators. However, value engineering can reduce costs for owners and operators, as dimensionally accurate models offer further improvements to a structure. “The reality is that there are project managers who have never looked at a product model in their life,” he notes. “Then again, there are those who use 3D modeling on a daily basis. On the whole, adopting product modeling and BIM has been slower than expected.”

“2D software tools are very popular, but 3D modeling is not going away,” Fischer goes on. “The use of models, the ’world of building information’, is open and available and being pushed for reporting but not many are taking advantage of its possibilities. There are too many lawyers around preventing it! Among the major challenges is model ownership and version control: how do I know my model is the most up-to-date version and what changes have been made to it? With 2D drawings it’s easy to determine and stamp an original copy.”

Overcoming the challenges and looking ahead
Schuff has solved some of the problems by providing connection macros to subcontractors, and by gaining the approval of the macros by the engineer, rather than the engineer having to approve every instance of a connection, and in many projects the legal responsibilities are being discussed and documented. A further solution could be user rights management integrated in the software. “Digital signatures and scanned copies are already accepted by the US Federal Government, and once legal bodies are okay with electronic material and decide on the media types, others can follow suit,” believes Chris Fischer. “RSA Encryption combined with user rights management could take us somewhere. If we get some digital signature management in place, such as that which is federally approved, and in use every day for web transactions, we could move forward with the ideas of approving and reviewing in the model.”

Fischer knows that broadband network connections are not available everywhere, especially not on site. “Even when money is no object, there may not be a WLAN set up for a project in its erection phase. However, a broadband connection would be an optimum method of getting building information to the site and back to engineering and fabrication. I’m talking about getting it where it is needed quickly: real-time data sharing with instant messaging, document transfer through an FTP server, and so on – even flexible mobile displays and rollable screens to share the model on site. These are concepts, but could find their place in construction. Also, user interfaces need to be simple for the field: it’s not so easy to key in information with your safety gloves on!”


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