The MEP industry isn’t exactly known for early technology adoption. Yes, I said it. Despite the fact that projects must be managed efficiently and to their best advantage to achieve success, MEP is historically slow-moving where digital adoption is concerned. That said, the industry of even ten years ago bears little resemblance to the one that exists today. Building Information Modeling (BIM), prefabrication, cloud access, and software that enables more collaborative project coordination are just a few of the tools that have permanently changed the industry by providing contractors with new capabilities, considerations, content, and visibility from anywhere, and at any time.
So why do MEP contractors remain in a world of paper and point solutions, with processes that are neither automated nor seamless? It still takes a monumental effort to ensure accurate and efficient project execution and to prevent complete chaos. It still requires a highly motivated team that is committed to devoting countless man-hours to defining the information to be exchanged and the protocols for doing so. It is still ripe for error and redundancy. While it’s true that processes are now more digitized than ever, information remains trapped in silos across systems.
This is a particular shame in BIM, where as a digital representation of the physical and functional characteristics of a mechanical, electrical, or plumbing system, a model can and should act as a shared resource for information and a reliable basis for decision-making. After all, the basic premise of BIM is to facilitate collaboration across stakeholders at different phases of the project life cycle—How is that possible when inserting, extracting, updating, and modifying information is so tedious?
What MEP contractors need to ask themselves is whether they are actually realizing efficiency in their technology choices, or whether they are instead just becoming efficient at inefficiency. It’s not enough to rely on partially digitized systems and point solutions that tackle only portions of the MEP project life cycle. Technology must be connected in order to ensure project teams are consistently coordinated and working off the most up-to-date content.
By connecting and integrating workflows and content throughout a tech stack, information flows seamlessly from one software to the next, ensuring efficient collaboration across stakeholders. The result? Connected teams, processes, and information across the project’s lifecycle from start to finish.
What is Connected Construction Anyway?
Connected construction can mean different things to different people. Deloitte defines connected construction as "an ecosystem of connected job sites, machines, and workers that enhances operational effectiveness and safety" to create the "smart, connected job sites of the future.” I like to define it as a technological ecosystem that facilitates open communication between users to make sure that project teams have the right information, at the right time.
Any way you define it, the key here is integration between solutions. Too often, even for those companies that have graduated from paper to digital workflows, investment in new software has created a new kind of disconnect for one simple reason: they’ve chosen too many solutions. It often remains intensely manual to transfer information between critical software platforms, and in certain scenarios, significant coding experience is required. According to the ConTech Report 2020, 30% of construction professionals report that none of their applications are integrated. Zero.
And yet…. Estimators still need to hand off what was bid once a project was won. Project Managers still need to ensure the right materials have arrived on a job site. Detailers still need to be certain their design intent is correctly carried out in the field. The need for collaboration and coordination pays no mind to your technology choices.
In a connected design and prefabrication environment, integrated technologies facilitate communication and increase control of process flows throughout each step of the MEP project lifecycle. Cloud platforms connect job sites, machines, and staff, allowing for real-time visibility and centralized decision-making and management.
What’s best is that the connected network never sleeps, providing a constant stream of information and analytics to help guide project fulfillment. In MEP, and with BIM specifically, this is paramount because of BIM’s most important aspect: BIM is the single, non-redundant information repository that supports a broad range of activities in a project life cycle, including design, clash detection, cost estimating, procurement, detailing, and prefabrication. Interoperability is a non-negotiable requirement of such a data store, and business who best leverage their BIM content are those that enjoy the greatest success.
Get On The Bus!
There are certainly many MEP companies that are embracing connected construction ecosystems as a way to improve everything from day-to-day operations to strategic, long-term decision-making. Yet there are also a staggering number of contractors who still manually transfer data for software without integrations. The lack of available integrations, or prioritization of purchasing software that integrates, means outdated methods like manual transfer, spreadsheet imports, email, or other time-consuming, error-prone approaches.
What these contractors are failing to realize is that an investment in connected construction technology will help realize greater profitability and increased ROI. The MEP industry already works within some of the slimmest margins in construction, so many argue that there is no money to invest in software. The truth is that those low margins are a direct result of a lack of investment in innovations and technology. By choosing a disparate mix of point solutions, companies not only waste time but also cost people money. Investing in a connected tech stack will pay for itself in the long term by allowing employees to focus on what they were hired for, or to “do less, better.”
By automating complex workflows, improving operational efficiency, and facilitating collaboration through a seamless data flow, MEP contractors can solve many challenges in the field and office, including data loss and miscommunication. Operating on one integrated platform will lead to better problem solving and decision-making on projects, reducing rework, limiting risk, and increasing project visibility.
There are myriad benefits of connected construction for MEP contractors, but here are some highlights:
Minimized Risk and On-Site Issues
The process of MEP coordination involves locating components from all systems in compliance with design, construction, and operations criteria. With continual access to real-time information in a centralized hub, stakeholders can feel confident that they are working off of the latest data set as they coordinate mechanical and electrical systems to detail their configurations. Continuous access to changes made to the model can save hours in coordination, which will increase response times and streamline the construction process, minimizing errors and risk onsite.
Eliminated Redundancy and Increased Quality
Connected construction in BIM captures and centralizes specific types of distributed content. In MEP, this includes technical, visual, dynamic, and geometric parameters that form the characteristics of each product in a model, ensuring the virtual object used behaves just as it would in the real world. Automating how BIM content is shared not only ensures stakeholders are comparing apples to apples, it eliminates duplicated tasks because information can be updated once instead of toggling between systems. This minimizes data loss and reduces time-to-complete in certain supply chains.
In addition, it's no secret that decision-making in MEP requires a significant amount of deliberation, research, and coordination. A lack of easily accessible and/or up-to-date information can make this process little more than guesswork, which can significantly impact the quality of a project. Improved access to the BIM model using integrated technology stacks allows business leaders to extract actionable insights that form a holistic view of projects to ensure project quality is preserved and executed.
Increased Productivity and Collaboration
When workflows are linked digitally, information moves between teams quickly, and critical context doesn’t get lost along the way. In this environment, MEP teams can plan, escalate and resolve work—all in one place, no matter where they are. This leads to a lot less delay when any changes or developments around project scope come into play. Connected workflows make for faster decision-making by increasing response times and visibility into discussion points.
By removing the friction involved in managing model updates and tracking changes manually, designers can focus on what matters: collaboration, creativity, and producing high-quality designs. In turn, other stakeholders can coordinate and communicate based on the same model in real-time, making for a seamless transition of information that enables them to focus on their area of expertise with confidence.
Less Waste, More Safety
Connected construction makes feasible the off-site fabrication in controlled environments of larger percentages of MEP components and assemblies, increasing their quality and longevity. Prefabrication reduces on-site construction activities and materials staging, creating a less crowded and safer site.
Reduce Re-Work and Non-Recoverable Costs
Rework in the construction industry at large is frequent and a well-known scourge to all companies. Manual or disjointed approaches drain productivity, profitability, and the timeliness of project delivery for both contractors and owners. Additionally, the need for rework can have spinoff or downstream impacts for all project stakeholders. The causes of rework are, likewise, very well known: design and construction changes; errors and omissions; project enhancements; operability changes; fabrication changes and errors, etc.
Connected construction decreases the opportunity for rework by enabling users to coordinate complex sequencing and phasing issues, evaluate site logistics, staging, and workflows, and visually identify any potentially hidden logic flaws in the schedule. Projects are then more apt to stay on track, protecting the bottom line.
This Is The Future
It is impossible to build a project in a vacuum. Construction is like a team sport: You are only successful if each stakeholder – owner, design/detailer, project manager, fabricator, and field technician – is working together consistently and based on the same set of parameters. This is what separates a win from a loss.
That said, technology integrations remain a big challenge for most MEP companies, with many still manually transferring data for point solutions that don’t “talk” to one another. The lack of available integrations, or prioritization of purchasing software that integrates, means outdated methods like manual transfer, spreadsheet imports, email, or other time-consuming, error-prone processes cost companies time and money.
For MEP contractors, integrated software tools drive more profitable jobs by making complex workflows more accessible, making data more visible, and allowing for the appropriate model access at the appropriate time. At Trimble, we know that companies need a better way to efficiently connect their applications and automate their workflows. Our VDC Pro+ Solution, purpose-built for MEP contractors, includes integrations between our products and best-of-breed construction software across disciplines, providing multiple advantages that can’t be ignored. Lower up-front costs, less procurement effort, streamlined systems, faster training and utilization, and efficient coordination, are just some of the benefits MEP contractors enjoy when using one integrated technology platform.
Put simply, disconnected systems increase risk and connected construction is the future of the MEP industry. With integrated digital workflows that enable the seamless transfer of information from one phase of a project to the next, the industry will be able to take on more projects with better productivity, increasing margins beyond what could be achieved in any other way.