After several years of seeing the growth of BIM in architecture and engineering — as evidenced by the increasing number of BIM solutions for design, engineering, analysis, and simulation — we are finally starting to see the application of BIM ramping up in construction as well. A growing number of construction solutions are starting to integrate with BIM, enabling the construction team to continue using the BIM-centered workflows that have been put in place by the design team and benefit from its model-centric, data-centric approach.
One such construction solution I was recently introduced to is VisiLean, a construction planning and control application that includes BIM integration. While it can also be used for construction planning without BIM — it is a full-fledged planning solution in its own right – its ability to work with BIM models immediately vaults it to the top tier of construction solutions, helping to raise the state of the art of technology adoption in the “C” of AEC.
VisiLean is a cloud-based construction planning and scheduling application incorporating lean principles, which integrates with BIM. In short, using popular terminology, it is a “4D BIM” tool. Its strength as a lean planning tool comes from its ability to merge the top-down approach (using, for example, the traditional Gantt Schedule) with the bottom-up approach (using the Last Planner System® that follows lean construction principles). Thus, it can be used for the entire range of scheduling activities, from the high-level planning in the office all the way down to the individual construction tasks in the field, for which there is a VisiLean mobile app. The BIM integration allows the construction schedule — including the individual tasks as well as the overall progress — to be better visualized, providing a clearer understanding of the critical issues and bottlenecks so that they can be dealt with and accounted for as the construction progresses. Figure 2 provides a graphical overview of the solution.
VisiLean has its roots in academia. It started in 2009 as a research project at Salford University in the UK and gained momentum in 2012, when a VisiLean prototype was successfully implemented on a Highways England Project. The research and development work on it continued in Finland, and in 2014, it got a shot in the arm by being awarded a commercialization grant from Finland’s “New Business, Research Ideas” program. VisiLean as a company was founded in 2015 with headquarters in Helsinki and offices in India and London. Since then, it has grown to having customers in over 12 countries, with an increasing presence across the UK, USA, Singapore, and Norway. It continues to have close ties to the research community in the areas of both Lean and BIM; it is a part of both the Lean Construction Institute (LCI) as well as the International Group for Lean Construction (IGLC).
Some of the key projects on which VisiLean has been implemented so far include several data centers in Dublin, Ireland, by MACE Construction (Figure 3); Fullerton College in California by BNB Builders; Victoria Square in the UK by Sir Robert McAlpine Ltd; and several projects across Scotland, UK, by the Scottish Water company.
A more recent implementation was for a large bridge-flyover project in India (Figure 4), showing that the application can be gainfully used for infrastructure in addition to buildings.
The starting point in VisiLean is import or create a master plan for a construction project. The importing can be done from popular scheduling applications like Primavera P6, Microsoft Project, Excel, Vico, etc., as shown in Figure 5. You can also import multiple schedules and collate them. The imported plan will preserve the hierarchy and all the task dependencies, allowing the project manager to start assigning them to different teams. Since the application is cloud-based, the plan can be shared between teams, giving them access to key milestones and allowing them to create sub-tasks for the high-level tasks that have been assigned to them. Updates from VisiLean can also be taken back to the application from which the schedule has been imported if required. This interoperability can be critical for large construction firms.
Since VisiLean is a scheduling platform in itself, the plan can also be created within VisiLean directly, as shown in Figure 6, rather than importing it from another application. VisiLean supports the lean construction workﬂow by providing speciﬁcally designed modules that support all phases of the pull production planning. The system provides a dedicated Phase window, allowing you to visualize the key milestones and targets for the next few months. Here, teams can start to discuss the flow of work and adjust the overall durations to break activities down to a reasonable level of detail that resonates with the team’s understanding of the upcoming work. Subsequently, constraint mapping can be done in the detailed Look-ahead window, which allows visualization for the next 3 to 8 weeks. These constraints are assigned to responsible owners for resolution before the Task needs to be taken into production. Finally, all constraint-free tasks that have been “made-ready” are taken into the weekly production plan for execution on site.
An important component of construction planning is continuously tracking the progress of the construction on site, so that that the production schedule can be adjusted as needed on a daily basis. VisiLean includes project dashboards that capture details such as completed tasks, delayed tasks, stopped tasks, and the Percentage Planned Complete (PPC), allowing the status of the project to be seen at any time (Figure 7). Also, the key pain points can be identified, allowing the staff to determine how to resolve them, and actions can be taken immediately on issues when they occur. Reports on any specific aspect of the construction — for example, the performance of a subcontractor — can be generated instantly, allowing deeper insights.
While the collaborative lean planning capabilities of VisiLean can be gainfully used without associating the project with a model, its usefulness is enhanced even further by making use of its BIM integration capabilities. VisiLean is powered by Autodesk Forge®, allowing native file formats from applications such as Revit, Tekla, Bentley, Synchro, AutoCAD, and others to be imported. Models from other BIM applications can be imported in the IFC format. VisiLean also allows direct access to Autodesk BIM 360, allowing you to view and import BIM models and BIM 360 issues directly from there.
Once imported, the model elements need to be linked to their associated items on the production schedule. For this, VisiLean provides tools such as selection-based linking to advanced model filtering options based on BIM properties, designed to be simple enough so that non-BIM experts can also execute the linking (Figure 8). Multiple models are supported, so you can load different models (such as architecture, structure, MEP, façade, etc.) and still retain the links to the project plan.
Once this association has been done, team members can visualize their tasks in relation to the entire model, and the progress of the project can be seen in both task and model view. Activities and model elements can be filtered either by status (for example, in progress, completed, quality checked, etc.) or by the responsible team (subcontractor or worker). The model viewer in VisiLean supports all the functions a standard viewer supports including cutting panes, measurements, and a model selection tree. A recent feature allows a quick visual comparison of Planned vs Actual — i.e., what has been completed verses what is remaining — by simply moving a slider across the graphics window (Figure 9).
All the workers on the construction site can access VisiLean with a mobile app (available for both iOS and Android) which shows each of them a personalized list of Tasks assigned to them, along with all the details they need to execute them. At any point while working on a job, they can update their progress with the app and add any notes, files, photos, etc., to report any issues. A progress slider lets them indicate how much progress they have made on the Task (Figure 10). The app is designed so that reporting their daily progress does not take more than a few minutes.
The updates from the construction crew in the field are instantly recorded and reflected in the project dashboard (shown earlier in Figure 7), allowing the project planners at the office to revise the schedule as necessary and make any needed changes; the revisions are then pushed out to the construction workers on site, updating their task lists as well as sending out alerts if necessary. This allows a nimble, just-in-time production process that maximizes efficiency and reduces idle time on site. It also allows the construction crew to have the latest information about any aspect of the project whenever they need it. Additionally, if a BIM model has been associated with the project, it allows them to situate their task visually, which can be extremely helpful.
Looking back at the start of BIM adoption in construction, the optimism that I had felt in 2004 when I wrote the article, BIM Goes Mainstream: Graphisoft's New Virtual Construction Solutions, was wildly premature. Little did I think at that time that it would take so many more years before we would start to see the wider integration of BIM in construction solutions. However, in retrospect, this is understandable given how distributed the construction process is with so many subcontractors and trade specialists being involved, each of them coming from independent companies and used to working in a certain way. It would be difficult for the general contractor to push the use of BIM to all the subcontractors working on the project, unless there are tangible benefits for them in planning and executing their individual tasks at the jobsite. And this where an application like VisiLean — with its focus on the construction workers in the field — can make a noticeable impact.
In addition to its granularity — with tools for a wide range of tasks, all the way from high-level construction planning in the office to the individual nuts and bolts on the site — and its BIM integration, I found the interface of VisiLean very organized and easy to use. Also, it has the many advantages of being a cloud-based solution, top of which is the ability for multiple users to collaborate on developing the construction plan for a project. And, of course, from a functional perspective, its use of Lean Construction principles — in particular, the Last Planner System —makes it a good planning tool in and of itself.
I was also impressed with VisiLean’s strong grounding in academic research. Too often, academic research in the AEC technology field is confined to the ivory towers of academic institutions and academic journals (see the article, Academic Research in Architectural Computing, published in 2005). It would be helpful for both academia and industry to have closer ties with each other, so that the many years of research in a field can be translated into commercial solutions that can be actually used by the practitioners in the field. I hope the success of VisiLean motivates many more researchers to translate their cutting-edge work and valuable insights into commercial solutions for the industry at large.
Lachmi Khemlani is founder and editor of AECbytes. She has a Ph.D. in Architecture from UC Berkeley, specializing in intelligent building modeling, and consults and writes on AEC technology. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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