Infotech recently joined buildingSMART USA, an organization dedicated to the digital transformation of the building and infrastructure construction industries. From their site, buildingSMART is “the international authority for a set of standards known as the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC), which deal with process, data, terms, and change management for the specification, management, and effective utilization of assets in the built asset industry.” That is quite a lot to unpack, and Infotech has been researching how we can best contribute to this digital transformation. For starters, Infotech has committed to supporting IFC in our products and AASHTO has adopted IFC as their standard for the exchange of electronic engineering data. So what exactly is IFC, why does it matter, and what does it mean for Infotech? Let’s dig in.
What is IFC?
One way to think about IFC is how we think about PDF. There is an incredibly detailed, complex ISO-standard specification behind PDF that spans hundreds of pages. And yet, PDF has become such a ubiquitous format that people effortlessly create them every day and open them for viewing even more so. It is standard functionality for most modern browsers and, outside of that, readers can be downloaded for free.
What does this have to do with IFC? PDF is the universal format for 2D documents, IFC is the universal format for 3D models. Just like a user should not have to know or care that a PDF was created using Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or hundreds of other possibilities, that same user should also not have to worry how an IFC was created. They should be just as confident knowing that they can open it in their tool of choice and consume the model within.
There are already standard file formats if all we care about is the 3D geometry of a model. Where IFC gets much more interesting is in the additional information that can be stored within. IFC is a hierarchical standard, where each class builds off a more primitive one. For example, one of the classes that could be in an IFC file is the IFCRoad class. It is built upon several classes and adds its own unique information. In practice, this means we could look into an IFC file and when we find an IFCRoad entry, we could extract information unique to that class, such as the number of lanes on this road, the maximum speed it is designed to support, or its length, width, and depth, but we could also extract information about this road such as its material composition or it’s location in the world because it is built upon the more primitive class IFCSpatialStructuralElement.
When people talk about Building Information Modeling (BIM), this is where it starts. IFC is necessarily complex because it is attempting to model the entire constructable world. It is the duty of software vendors like Infotech to take that complexity and make an experience as easy as PDF has become. IFC could bring significant value to Infotech’s customers. But why should we, buildingSMART, or anyone else want to create an open data standard for this data?
Why does IFC matter?
Several major software vendors create computer-aided design software for their customers. Each of them naturally seeks market dominance. One of the strategies these vendors would have used in the past is to lock down their proprietary data formats. That way, if someone wanted their data to flow from one part of the construction phase to another, it would all have to be stored within that specific vendor’s products and ecosystem—walled gardens, as they are sometimes called.
This strategy was extremely successful for many years. But today is not yesterday, and the needs of the industry are evolving rapidly. There is an expectation that software from different vendors will interoperate. What interoperability means in practice is all data is organized in open, standard formats that any vendor can learn about and implement within their offerings. Additionally, it means customers can choose the best possible solution for their needs at each step of the process and know their data will flow accordingly. For potential customers determining which software they will adopt, interoperability is a, if not the, deciding factor.
IFC, like PDF, is designed to be an unchanging snapshot in time. It does not contain the history of how it came to be and it does not automatically receive updates from the source software. It can, however, serve as the definitive, final product that is then made available for consumption. If changes need to be made to the IFC file, the changes should occur in the source software, which would then generate a new IFC.
Design software continues to own design tasks. These vendors have come to realize the strength of adopting open standards like IFC not just as a matter of remaining relevant in an increasingly interoperable world, but also because it is the only way we will all successfully move public sector construction forward technologically. On one hand, there is the business driver of increased stickiness when you make an invaluable contribution to the ecosystem that plays well with others; on the other hand you have the immense benefit to society that comes with open standards like IFC.
What does it mean for Infotech?
Infotech is right in the middle of the emerging BIM-centric world for public sector construction. At the state level, and as AASHTO’s contractor for AASHTOWare Project, Infotech is first responsible for the planning, estimation, and preconstruction aspects of infrastructure construction projects. When those projects are ready for advertisement to the public and for contractors to bid upon, Infotech’s Bid Express manages all components of the online bidding process. After the contract is awarded, AASHTOWare Project then manages the entire construction process. At the local level, Infotech’s Bid Express handles all solicitations for work by local public agencies and then Appia manages contract administration.
In both the state and local levels, Infotech has the opportunity to truly move the industry forward by embracing BIM principles and by supporting IFC. What does it mean to support IFC in Infotech’s products? During bidding, it means interactive viewing and manipulation of models so contractors can make more informed decisions, enabling earlier issue detection, and providing means to move the model forward to construction. During construction, it means augmenting the model with as-built data derived from Infotech software in much the same way one might augment a PDF with annotations, signatures, or additional metadata; it means interfacing with field tools that provide augmented reality views of the complete project superimposed upon the worksite. By the time construction finishes, the model could contain everything required to jumpstart asset management.
Asset management is the idea that an owner should know not just what they own, but where it is in the world, what it is composed of, and any other relevant information necessary to make informed decisions about that asset. A sophisticated enough owner can then integrate low cost, resilient sensors into their assets to bring real time data to the model. With the combination of all of this data, one might see their assets as digital twins of real world physical assets. When the owner is a city, this is the basis of the Smart City concept. Smart Cities allow for the intelligent analysis of all city infrastructure, including safety analysis, traffic simulations, maintenance planning, and beyond.
This may seem futuristic and far away, but everything needed to see this vision become reality is available today. IFC is where it all begins. By having this globally agreed upon standard to build upon, software can become more interoperable by speaking the same language, new services can arise that make interoperability seamless, and all users benefit from the capabilities they have at their fingertips to reduce cost and build better.
IFC is the structure of BIM. BIM is the engine that will allow smart asset management and Smart Cities. Infotech is dedicated to bringing the industry forward by bringing BIM to the bidding and construction phases. When Infotech joined buildingSMART USA earlier this year, it was with the goal of both supporting such an important endeavor while simultaneously learning what we can to contribute to the evolution and adoption of IFC throughout the industry.