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From 3-D to 6-D: How Contractors Are Building New Value Through Virtual Construction


All contractors share a common set of performance indicators that can make or break the success of a project. Delivering a project that exceeds client expectations while also staying on time and within budget is never a guarantee.

Weather, safety incidents, supply chain delays and other unexpected obstacles can prevent contractors from delivering maximum value to their clients. Today, technology is starting to turn the tide in the battle for time, cost and quality. For many contractors, including Southfield, Mich.-based Barton Malow, virtual design and construction (VDC) is providing new ways to create value throughout the project life cycle.


Just as contractors realize economies of scale as they increase the output of labor and equipment, layers of benefits can be derived by expanding the use cases for 3-D models on a project. Leveraging multiple value streams from a set of 3-D models is the secret to maximizing ROI for the implementation of VDC processes and technologies. That’s where the “Ds” come in.


Jobsites are complex and dynamic environments. Barton Malow uses 3-D site logistics planning to help project teams understand the evolving jobsite and visualize how the work will be executed in the field. The value for both logistics and safety was exhibited on the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB) at Michigan State University, where Barton Malow virtually planned the installation sequence for a large liquid helium storage tank.

3-D trade coordination enables project teams to identify and resolve constructability issues well in advance of field installation. Through enhanced visualization and clash detection analysis, the use of 3-D models drastically reduces coordination time, reduces schedule risk and increases the quality of the finished product. It also helps facilitate prefabrication, which further drives efficiency and reduces waste.


The next value stream for VDC is 4-D, which integrates the critical dimension of time with the 3-D model. By linking model objects to the live construction schedule, 4-D model-based scheduling helps project teams visually verify task logic, collaboratively plan the work and more effectively communicate the schedule plan to all project stakeholders. The benefits of 4-D have been demonstrated on projects like the Arauco Particleboard Plant, where Barton Malow’s self-perform concrete team visually identified logic busts in the schedule and was able to re-sequence the work prior to installation.


After the integration of time, the next logical step is to link cost. Model-based quantity takeoff (QTO) provides the foundation for leveraging estimates driven by 3-D models. If building elements are properly modeled, comprehensive quantities can be derived very rapidly compared to traditional 2-D QTO methods. Integrated model-comparison tools help visualize changes between model iterations and can be combined with quantity variance reports to analyze the impact of changes on cost estimates.


The final layer of the VDC value stream is the population of information for use in ongoing operations and maintenance. 6-D models provide an intuitive visual interface that allows owners, operations personnel and end users to virtually navigate a facility, select building components and gather the critical information needed for ongoing management of the facility throughout its life cycle. With the 6-D model serving as a central information repository, key data and documents such as asset tags, O&M manuals and warranty information can be accessed more efficiently than traditional methods.


The construction technology landscape is constantly evolving. As current capabilities continue to solidify, the future will be shaped by several emerging industry trends. The continued improvement of reality capture technologies (e.g., laser scanning, photogrammetry, etc.) and related software will greatly enhance as-built verification and virtual reality simulations.

Artificial intelligence and data analysis will continue to evolve, leading to innovations in automated coordination of MEP and FP systems, optimized schedule sequencing and predictive building cost modeling.

Finally, integration between data-rich virtual models and tracking mechanisms, such as indoor positioning systems, bar/QR codes and RFID tags, will drive major improvements in material and asset tracking/management, including the use of augmented and mixed reality.

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