In this first of a series of articles about product data for manufacturers in the construction industry we look at the importance of secure, validated and interoperable structured product information and why it is the key to bringing the construction industry into a safer future.
What type of data are we talking about?
When we talk about product data for manufacturers, we’re talking about the wide range of information generated about their products. For example:
- Manufacturing Data – the information that is required to make the product, such as bills of materials (the ingredients), the manufacturing process, information about tolerances.
- Dimensional Data – information about the product length, width, volume, capacity and so on.
- Performance data – information on test standards, environmental performance (including certification), hazardous materials data, and also data on compatibility, for example which other products the product is compatible with and can or should be used with.
- Cost data – including information about procurement and purchasing.
- Logistics data – information about storage, warehousing and materials handling, packaging and unitisation, inventory, transport and control information to enable the product to be supplied and delivered.
- Identification data – information to identify the product and relate it back to the specific information about that product, such as GUIDs, Bar Codes and other Unique Product Identifiers. There can be identifiers which specify the exact type of product or the individual product itself - that identifies when the specific item was made, where it was made and so on.
- Maintenance Data – How often the product needs to be maintained, how you maintain it, when it was last maintained and information about replacement parts.
When products are made for construction projects, a vast amount of information is created, but only some is shared, and often in an inconsistent way. Some of this information may be published in Declarations of Performance but not all products are required to have a DOP.
Who needs Product Data?
Some of these data described above are needed for the manufacturing process, some for design, some for construction, or operation, and some for end of life disposal. However, getting the information needed about construction products isn’t easy for designers, contractors, building owners or demolition operatives.
The way that the data is currently stored and made available creates huge risks in the construction supply chain.
The 2018 report ‘A Fresh Way Forward for Product Data: State of the Nation’ set out some of the problems with the journey of product information through the construction supply chain. In essence it identified how information does not pass smoothly between manufacture, design, construction and operation stages. For example, a designer looking for information about a product they want to specify or assess, cannot know if the information they are looking at on a company website is current, or accurate. This creates risk.
If the information that is created about products were to be made secure, was verified and was interoperable, the designer would not have to guess. They could access the accurate information about available products all the time, with confidence, and other members of the supply chain could access the same data.
Structured product data should be:
- Secure – only available to those who are authorised to view it
- Verified – guaranteed to be accurate by being traced back to the source
- Interoperable – able to be transferred accurately between software platforms - such as those used by different actors in the supply chain.
What is Stopping Manufacturers Providing Product Data?
All of the information we have described is held internally by construction product manufacturers.
Many manufacturers hold their data in several different places (spreadsheets, databases, SAP, accountancy programs, manufacturing records). Different departments within a manufacturer source data from different places in their organisation that are not connected. One manufacturer we have worked with had over 100 different unconnected places where they stored product information!
If the many sources are interlinked, they create a single source of truth about your construction products. Because there is a single source, you can’t make mistakes, and risk is reduced.
Many construction product manufacturers are not currently in a position to supply interoperable information about their products in a way that would meet the wider needs of the supply chain. At present, they understandably prioritise managing the risk of non-interoperable data internally to suit their own business purposes, often making investments in new systems for those internal needs alone.
A Logical Data Model
The construction product information that the industry needs therefore, already exists, but it often isn’t held in a system which produces a logical data model. A logical data model is one which can be machine readable by others.
This process of reading is done securely through a Data Template – a filter which identifies what parameters are required to be shared with a third party – a specifying architect or installer, for example. The third party can then securely access the information required for different purposes, at any stage in the construction and operational process.
If the construction industry can agree the standardized format for the attributes for this data, manufacturers could then provide the information for all sorts of different purposes as required, securely and accurately.
Why Does Structured Data Matter?
In the past it might have been OK to scan a certificate about a product’s performance and send it via email. It might have been OK to provide some data for a company website, and other data for a product directory website, entirely unconnected and using copy and paste methods. These methods, however, are not going to meet the needs of modern construction.
Structured, interoperable data has many benefits. Once it is available, specifiers and installers can check compatibility at any time. Owners and operators can implement planned maintenance regimes much more effectively. With no more guessing, there is a saving on time, on money and on risk. But it hasn’t happened. Why not?
Our industry suffers from inertia when it comes to digital transformation. No one will agree to changing and developing interoperable data until the risk of staying the same is greater than the risk of changing. We believe that we are reaching the tipping point. What will be the motivation to make the change?
“Our industry suffers from inertia when it comes to digital transformation. No one will agree to changing and developing interoperable data until the risk of staying the same is greater than the risk of changing. We believe that we are reaching the tipping point.”
Firstly, there is Grenfell. The Grenfell Tragedy destroyed the reputation of the construction industry in the public eye. The fire brigade did not know what was in, or on the building. The fire doors in the tower differed from those which were tested by the manufacturer and specified for a programme of refurbishment. Revelations about the product journey issues with Grenfell continue to emerge, and Grenfell Tower is surely not the only building in the country affected by these issues.
The resulting Hackitt Review and subsequent Building Safety Regulatory System will bring in a new regime where those responsible for multiple occupancy buildings above six storeys or 18m will have to continually demonstrate, via digital records, that their buildings are safe. Responsibility for this duty will be enshrined in law and will apply to new, and existing buildings irrespective of whether they have been worked on.
Secondly there is the risk of legal action. This isn’t far off, indeed earlier this year a European Arrest Warrant was issued for the directors of a Spanish construction company over a motorway construction project in Slovakia. It is only a matter of time before the managing director of a major construction company in the UK will be sent to prison following a fire in one of their buildings.
The only way we can show clear conformity to market requirements and surveillance authorities is by having standardised data, something we don’t historically or currently have.
The ultimate purchaser of many construction products are contractors and volume housebuilders. Many of these companies are not yet aware of the scale of the challenge they are facing with product data. They are not aware of what is available, what the standards are they need to require compliance with, how construction products are certified or registered. In the atmosphere of greater risk, these companies are pulling together libraries of products entirely separately from manufacturers. Yet they will have to demonstrate that the products they install in the buildings they construct are safe to use.
Who is Responsible for Construction Product Data?
A manufacturer has a responsibility to ensure that the information they provide about their products are correct to the best of their knowledge. Once the product is specified, once it is installed, responsibility can be much more difficult to discern. Manufacturers are aware of this; nine times out of ten, if it is claimed that a product has failed, it turns out that the product is used for the wrong purpose, used in the wrong way, or installed with incompatible products. Once your products go out into the big wide world, they can be misused. The key to overcoming this abuse is structured data.
Manufacturers cannot be responsible for what happens to their products, but they must be responsible for how they communicate about their products.
Manufacturers cannot be responsible for what happens to their products, but they must be responsible for how they communicate about their products. They shall be responsible for the information they provide.
Treat your product data as an asset. Make sure it is structured. Make sure it is properly secure, accurate and interoperable. Make sure there is a single source of truth, so that you can supply information with confidence, and it can be used with confidence. Make sure your data doesn’t let you down; make it work for you and for the supply chain.
Share Your Views
Over the coming months we will be sharing a number of articles investigating how construction product manufacturers can solve the problem of product data management. Then later in the year we’ll be publishing a Plain Language Guide to Product Data, written specifically for the CEOs of manufacturing companies.
If you’d like to know more about this project, please subscribe to this blog using the link below and we’ll notify you as new items are published. In the meantime, we want to encourage as much debate about the challenges as possible.
- Please comment below with your views and share this article with the #ManufacturersPLG hashtag.
- You can also join the conversation on the 'ask the community' IET forum channel: Plain Language Guide to Product Data for Manufacturers
- We’re also hosting an Open Zoom Call next Friday to discuss this article. If you’d like to join us, please Register to join us on Friday 11th September at 11am-12 noon. The Zoom Call will be recorded and made available afterwards.
We look forward to hearing your views.
Update: View the call recording