BIM Nirvana- interoperability and object libraries


BIM Nirvana

I hear a bit of talk about a BIM ideal world where all applications work together perfectly and object libraries are freely available, i.e:

  • true interoperability i.e seamless data exchange between different BIM applications
  • shared object libraries, so any architectural, structural or engineering object is publicly available & can simply be downloaded.

Ain’t gonna happen

These are very noble goals, but unlikely to happen. The reason is: there is no money in it.
This applies to the design consultancies who rely upon object libraries for their work, and the vendors who rely on selling seats of software.

Data/application interoperability

It just isn’t in the interest of any software vendor to make it too easy to use a competitor’s application.

This is in the same way that Toyota and BMW don’t make their car components interchangeable, or why HP and Xerox printer cartridges are different.

So software vendors walk the tightrope between making some data exchange possible  (but not too well) and keeping customers partially happy, but not enough so you could dump their application and use another instead.
In addition, even within a single vendor, product (application) development teams can work quite independently of each other (or even compete) so data transfer between the applications is not much better than with a competitor’s application.

Furthermore, the growth-by-acquisition business model of many vendors means that they end up with data formats and applications which are fundamentally incompatible with their own.

 Google Translate for BIM

Interchange or standard formats such as IFC can be moderately successful although planning and testing is required and is rarely flawless. In addition, the IFC format being almost 100% model and no views/sheets/annotations etc means it is limited in what it can be used for.
In my experience IFC is similar to ‘Google Translate for BIM’. You get usually something that is recognisable but not particularly useful, with some weird stuff as well. Occasionally, the result is completely garbled, especially if round-tripped:


Object Libraries

Manufacturers/suppliers providing objects of their products have an interest in making it as easy as possible for someone to specify their product compared to a design consultant who has to protect their intellectual property.

Many design consultantancies will invest a huge amount of effort in building up an object library (Refer Importance of object libraries) as it plays a large part in efficient and therefore profitable design & documentation.

Object libraries of a limited number of generic objects may be created and maintained by publicly or industry funded bodies, and supplemented by manufacturer’s own libraries. However, the standards to which these objects are created is important, and for this reason most design consultancies will continue to maintain their own libraries.

For example, in the National BIM Library at the time of writing, there are 547 manufacturer sanitaryware items compared to 4 generic ones.

Object libraries & model contamination

Perhaps ‘contamination’ is a little dramatic, but most BIM (or CAD) applications suffer when objects are imported into a model and it either brings in a lot of unwanted settings, or the settings are incompatible with company standards. (In Revit terms, this is unwanted object styles, materials & parameters, in AutoCAD it is layers, line styles, text styles etc). This means that bringing in an external object creates more trouble than it is worth.

The BS8541 standards are based around vendor-neutral standards (such as IFC) , but given the interoperability issues I’ve described above, I am not optimistic that this will be actively adopted by software vendors. I am guessing that applications will continue to import/export IFC format in a half-hearted way for complete models, but not for object libraries in the form of parametric families/generative components/custom components etc.

It is worth mentioning that ANZRS have done a great job in defining Revit standards for Australia & New Zealand & it seems to have gained local traction. However, many projects involve global design consultants, suppliers and contractors; and these kinds of standards need to be international.

The Future

It will be interesting to see how this pans out over the next few years. Recently, it seems that the AEC industry has been steered by the capabilities of software, rather than applications complying with a particular standard.
Perhaps with sufficient pressure from industry and government this will be reversed….