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Virtual Construction Opens New, and Improves Existing, Lines of Communication

Jan 11, 2021

U.S. Engineering

With millions of items in its database, U.S. Engineering uses BIM modeling to increase efficiency both with internal teams and between construction trades and clients.

By Ryan Frazier
Director of Virtual Construction
U.S. Engineering Construction

Headshot of Ryan Frazier

Not news: Virtual Construction (VC) increases efficiencies over the life of a project, from estimating to prefabrication to installation. As a recent Dodge SmartMarket report concluded in a case study of a U.S. Engineering project, our use of Building Information Modeling (BIM) allowed for smoother offsite manufacturing, easier corrections, better project management and the ability to construct out of sequence. In mechanical construction, VC makes building safer, faster and more accurate.

And we’ve found, as we’ve been using BIM data to inform our jobs for years, that at the heart of those improvements is communication. Using VC and BIM data opens new lines of communication and streamlines existing channels between our own teams, between trades and with our clients. One of our goals as we continue to strengthen our VC capability is to empower our team members and partners with data and the tools to communicate more clearly and efficiently.

New lines of communication for our construction teams

At U.S. Engineering VC touches almost everything we do, and data is the center of that. Our model houses labor data, MCA rates, part specs, all of the pieces that predict with accuracy how a project will progress. It’s one thing to be able to coordinate a BIM model, but our ultimate goal is to leverage the data in our models across all facets of our family of companies.

VC gives us new ways to communicate more directly. For example, Procore’s Coordination Issues function gives our field teams direct access to concerns we’re seeing on our end. Field supervisors carry iPads that communicate with the model. They can view the model at any time, even as we update it. And if they run into something onsite that could cause problems—something moved, something we couldn’t see in VC, or a change we didn’t know about—they can record an observation, which gets pushed back to the VC team. The onsite person can describe the issue, take a real-world photo of it, and we can immediately update the model based on actual footage.

It’s easy compared to the old way of communicating, where a foreman had to get on the phone with someone familiar with the model and describe a situation, “I’m in Room X facing northwest and this is happening.” With Procore, we’re looking at the same photo of an issue, and we can resolve it much quicker.

Virtual construction creates more efficient channels of communication

Saying that BIM databases are complex is an understatement. Last we checked, ours contained over one million individual elements, ranging from data on small parts to labor hours. Some of that data comes from manufacturers, but about 40-50% of it comes from U.S. Engineering. We’ve spent a lot of time identifying missing elements in our models and backfilling those pieces based on our past and present work. And to best leverage this heavily researched data across our companies, we want to give our teams greater access. More access leads to streamlined communication, which leads to more efficiency across a project.

We’re talking about many individuals, so to be efficient, lines of communication should bypass unnecessary interactions. For example, Purchasing has access to the cloud version of our models. So those team members can—in real time, as we’re coordinating the model—pull BOM (bill of materials) themselves, dial in those items, lock in rates, without having to rely on VC personnel to do that for them. It saves everyone time and empowers team members in Purchasing to do their jobs more efficiently.

Labor tracking is another example. That’s a broad term, but I’m referring to anything from tracking what’s installed onsite to being able to schedule what’s needed either in our Metalworks facility or in the field. Labor hours are embedded in our models. If the right stakeholders have direct access to that information—what percentage of labor hours will be in the shop, what percentage are in the field—they can calculate that information quickly and accurately, as opposed to having to track that information down through several channels. VC allows for a leaner communication process between teams.

BIM allows for clearer communication between construction trades

Besides enhancing internal communication channels, Virtual Construction also offers tools to better communicate with project partners. When we are the prime on a project, we can share our model with other trades on the jobsite. This practice not only helps with schedule, but it gives other trades immediate access to the information they need. They no longer have to go through our internal channels to find out when a certain work pack is scheduled, and where, and what the labor looks like that day in a certain area. Partners in other trades can dial into our model directly and find what they need to know.

We’re currently building a new manufacturing facility in Lawrence, Kansas, and we’re sharing our model across multiple platforms—structural, electrical, fire protection. Recently, on an FDA facility in Lenexa, Kansas, we shared our model with other trades on the project. Communicating that information quickly and efficiently led to a level of coordination that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

First and foremost, we leverage our data internally, but when the job calls for it, VC offers a line of communication with trade partners that boosts information sharing.

More access to data, more communication, happier clients

When more of our team members have access to model data and training on how to find what they need, they can communicate better with clients. If our project managers have our data models at their fingertips, they can give up-to-date, specific, accurate information to the clients they’re talking to.

A recent example of how VC allows for better communication between our teams and clients comes from U.S. Engineering Construction’s Brian Zorbini, who was Senior Project Manager on our FDA project: “It just provides so much more comfort to our customers when we can tell them we know we’re 42% complete because I’ve tracked every component in BIM.”

That understanding project managers have when they can access the data enables them to communicate schedule shifts with the client, as with the FDA Lenexa project, giving them the option to build in reverse or out of sequence.

Next in design-build construction, BIM and virtual construction?

Continuing to find ways to more efficiently communicate leads to smarter work, more flexibility in schedule. Design-builds continue to become more prevalent across the industry, and we want to find new ways to leverage our model data to improve the experience for our partners and clients.

Better communication, thanks to new and improved channels via VC, leads to more efficiency, which is always an end goal. We want to find similarities, or recurring data across jobs, and wrap them into packages we can apply to future jobs. The more we can automate processes we perform on almost every job, and the more teams across the company have access to model data, the more efficient we can become.

Ryan Frazier is the Director of our VC team for both regions and has been with U.S. Engineering since 2017. He has been involved with BIM for 16+ years and has enjoyed participating in the evolution of what it can do for construction. 

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