The Role of Interoperability in BIM
Erin Green posted on May 16, 2016 |

Interoperability is the ability to communicate between people—and between varying types of software. It has become a buzzword for the architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) industry.

Is interoperability a big deal? Yes, without question.

As our built environment becomes more digitized and relies more heavily on technology like building information modeling (BIM), it becomes increasingly dependent on interoperability. After all, what’s the point in a designer having all of those details about a lighting fixture if the MEP team’s software won’t be able to read it?

Interoperability, however, is not easy to apply and implement. And that is where openBIM comes in.

The AIA 2030 report shows Autodesk’s commitment and progress with AIA 2030 DDx.
The AIA 2030 report shows Autodesk’s commitment and progress with AIA 2030 DDx.

The openBIM mission

OpenBIM is an initiative started by buildingSMART International to inspire international interoperability for BIM. 

John Sullivan of Autodesk. (Image from LinkedIn.)

John Sullivan of Autodesk. (Image from LinkedIn.)

“OpenBIM is this concept of sharing data between different participants on an AEC project, and this isn’t easy to do,” said John Sullivan, business development manager for Autodesk. “There are a lot of different file formats that people use, and there are a lot of different methods that practitioners and consultants will use when creating or constructing a building.”

“Our goal is to enable the benefits of digital ways of working in the built asset industry,” said Richard Petrie, chief executive of buildingSMART International. “Our projects range from engaging users and trying to help users understand how to work interoperably right through to very technical groups who work on the digital coding and processes underpinning interoperable working.”

To achieve this level of interoperability, openBIM uses something that most BIM users will be familiar with: the industry foundation class (IFC). 


Why Is Interoperability Important?

It’s all fine and good to be able to read and write file formats between software platforms, but isn’t it just as easy as getting everyone to use the same software?

Unfortunately, it is not. It’s common for architectural and engineering practices to use multiple software tools—even within the same organization.

“We end up using a lot of tools in our design process and, in doing so, most of the work that we end up spending a lot of time on is when we’re moving between those tools,” said Greg Schleusner, director of design technology innovation at HOK. “We end up having to translate some percentage of information between platforms.”

In the case of HOK, Schleusner mentioned that the main design toolkit encompasses nine to 10 software platforms, whereas the overall available tools number over 100. With numbers like these within one firm, it’s not surprising that interoperability is of such interest in the AEC industry.

Interoperability also offers a way to help design firms (and building owners, for that matter) avoid becoming entrapped in outdated, proprietary systems.

“We believe firmly that to get the full benefits of digitization, you have to be able to work across not only vendor or package providers but also across all stages of the lifecycle of a building,” said Petrie.

“It’s essential for everyone to work toward sharing data more effectively all the time,” said Sullivan. 


The Challenges Facing openBIM

There are multiple challenges standing in the way of openBIM and interoperability—and one of the biggest obstacles is a lack of understanding in the market about what it really means.

For example, Sullivan pointed out that there are two audibly identical groups: openBIM and OPEN BIM. The main difference is that the former is a software-agnostic industry association that promotes data transparency and the latter is a group of companies that uses the concept of open BIM as a marketing tool.

This similarity in name and disparity in mission can cause confusion in the industry and leave people wondering what interoperability really means.

“The other side of it is that there’s a lot of misunderstanding of the capabilities of IFC because of the software limitations,” said Schleusner. “There’s a lot of education that could go a long way for some very basic workflows.”

“The biggest challenge is about engagement; people understanding the benefits of digital ways of working and engaging in this process,” explained Petrie. “The challenge we have is harnessing the resources to capture best practices in an open environment.” 


What openBIM Is Doing for Interoperability

“The best way to make files interoperable is to have this group like buildingSMART International serve as the referee between software vendors,” said Sullivan.

And that is exactly what buildingSMART International and the openBIM initiative are doing.

The main strategy for refereeing this industry is the certification of software. IFC was developed to serve as a way for software platforms to communicate and is the criterion for this certification process.

Certification is essential for communicating between software because it promises a user the ability to translate data in a multilateral exchange. However, having IFC capabilities does not mean the product is IFC-certified.

“Most of the big software vendors that do BIM, at least for buildings—for civil engineering and infrastructure, not as much—the major vendors all have the ability to read and write IFC-certified files for 2x3 [versions of IFC],” explained Sullivan. 


Is IFC the Solution?

The trouble with BIM is that there are hundreds of different file formats, each of which was created for a specific purpose. True interoperability is a tricky road to take because it would theoretically require reconciling all of these formats, as Sullivan pointed out.

“It would take a lot of work to make things truly interoperable,” said Sullivan.

Schleusner, who works with IFC implementation as part of the HOK branch of buildingSMART’s Strategic Advisory Council, made a similar point by arguing that, to gain more traction with IFC and promote interoperability, open-source is the way to go. Currently, the AEC industry relies on self-developed or purchased toolkits that convert a given software package’s data and converts it to the IFC format.

Although this approach has quite a way to go yet, there have been steps in the right direction.

“Our IFC source code library has been put out into the market as open-source,” said Sullivan. Sullivan continued to explain that Autodesk is likely the only software vendor that has taken this step, but if more were to follow, it would certainly improve the level of data transparency in BIM and AEC.

For more information on IFC and the openBIM initiative, check out the buildingSMART International website.

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