Are free BIM viewers worth the price?

Editorial Type: Opinion Date: 2016-05-01 Views: 7,738 Tags: CAD, Construction, BIM, Sitedesk PDF Version:
By Michael McCullen, Chairman, Sitedesk

BIM is starting to impact every area of the construction industry. Even before it became mandatory for public projects, its use had spread to the private sector. Seeing and interacting with BIM models is becoming essential, and while this has been seen as a natural progression for architects and designers, it is less so for others. It is unsurprising, then, that BIM viewers have emerged to deliver visibility of BIM models.

BIM viewers are desktop software applications that can open an existing BIM model file on a local drive and display it in 3D. Pan, zoom and walkthrough features are standard - but little else. Early BIM viewers were unreliable when reading IFC data, the open standard for BIM data. Proprietary formats worked best, hence many vendors of design software had their own viewers. These were usually bloated applications: full design software with 95% of the features disabled. Vendors often offered them free, but the value was equally low.

IFC has since matured and is now acknowledged as the best way of exchanging design data between CAD packages. Credible viewers should read and display BIM models stored as IFC data, making it possible to view models from any mainstream design tool. However subtle differences in the way that IFC data is created by different design tools means the display of IFC models can be unpredictable. Good quality viewers can deal with these differences.

What we really need are tools which free people up to collaborate and easily interact with BIM models. We must replace early, bloated viewers with fast, memory-efficient tools capable of opening 3D models on mobile devices. Sadly, these are few and far between. Processing 3D models is complex; producing a professional viewer that is efficient in terms of processing power and memory usage is not easy. Thankfully some people are doing this.

We must stop expecting something for nothing. There are good reasons why many BIM viewers are free. That zero investment brings with it limitations and blocks to the very sharing and collaboration which BIM aims to create. Have you tried to share large IFC files where each person opens or downloads their own copy in a free viewer? The files are too big for email, so must be exchanged in some other way e.g. Dropbox or a memory stick. This approach does not make the leap to true collaborative working - it is the old way of file sharing, further hampered by the inability to email.

Viewers are not collaborative tools. They come nowhere near to supporting the collaboration stipulated in government BIM guidelines (PAS-1192). They let you view a BIM model - but that's all. They don't offer multiple users shared access to the same model, as a SaaS solution might.

Why stop at viewing? We need to examine what our organisations really require to satisfy their BIM needs. The potential gains are improved efficiency, lower risk and better project outcomes. That means saving money, protecting margin and increasing certainty. Every organisation must run its own ROI calculation but surely there is a price worth paying?

BIM is about doing things differently and better - not doing things on the cheap. More collaborative working requires shared access for project stakeholders to a single up-to-date BIM model. SaaS tools offer a perfect solution where both data and software reside in the cloud, giving people with the correct authorisation functionality that goes far beyond viewing.

Before you settle for simply viewing, consider the critical requirements for BIM model interaction:

1. Turn data into information - add documents, notes, photos, videos to a location or object in a shared 3D model
2. Create digital workflows - replace paper using forms, task assignments and notifications
3. Navigate a shared 3D model and its rich store of associated data
4. Do all of this on a mobile device for flexible, anytime, anywhere collaboration

Anyone considering using a free BIM model viewer is urged to look beyond the "free". Don't cut corners: think about what tools will genuinely add value to the way you do business and bring you closer to complying with government guidelines for collaborative 3D BIM.

Buy into BIM properly, and your business will be well placed to reap the rewards. It is a price well worth paying.