After General Motors Corp. opened its 2 million sq. ft. Lansing Grand River vehicle manufacturing plant in 2001, a vice president at the automaker issued a challenge to GM's Worldwide Facilities Group: Improve factors such as cost, speed and safety by 25% on the next big project in Lansing, Mich. — the $1.5 billion Lansing Delta Township vehicle manufacturing complex.

Jack Hallman, director of capital projects for GM's Worldwide Facilities Group, recalls thinking it would be a daunting task to achieve the 25% target for Lansing Delta Township. Armed with the corporate directive, the Worldwide Facilities Group assembled an in-house team to devise a strategy. The team found its inspiration inside GM in 2003. The automaker already had been using 3D modeling technology to design and make vehicles, so why not apply the 3D approach to the design and construction of buildings?

Hallman says that step required a high degree of blind faith. The Worldwide Facilities Group previously had toyed with the idea of adopting the technology, Hallman says, but members of the group weren't sure whether it would be successful.

The technology has paid hefty dividends, in fact. Design and construction cost savings for the Lansing Delta Township project totaled 5% to 8%, compared with Lansing Grand River, Hallman says. The company doesn't divulge separate figures for design and construction expenses, but overall cost savings on the Lansing project totaled about 20%.

GM missed the 25% goal for faster completion of the 2.4 million sq. ft. plant, but did hit the 19% mark. Lansing Delta Township was finished in 19 months — just shy of the 18-month target — rather than the 24 months it had taken to build the smaller $558 million Lansing Grand River plant. Meanwhile, the safety record at Lansing Delta Township improved 38% over the safety record at Lansing Grand River.

As GM was reaping the benefits of the 3D pilot project at Lansing Delta Township, it embraced the 3D modeling process for the $300 million expansion of a powertrain plant in Flint, Mich. The 442,000 sq. ft. project was completed 27% faster than had been targeted — nine months vs. the expected 13 months. Thanks to 3D modeling, the automaker notched design and construction savings of about 10% to 15% for the Flint plant, Hallman says.

In early 2006, equipped with knowledge from the Lansing Delta Township and Flint projects, the company committed to use 3D modeling for all of its construction and renovation work. Detroit-based GM - with revenues of $192.6 billion in 2005 - makes vehicles at 178 plants in 33 countries.

Aside from Lansing Delta Township and Flint Powertrain South, GM has completed two other construction projects using 3D technology and is employing it for at least six others.

In fact, GM has harnessed 4D technology — 3D modeling that adds a scheduling element for better sequencing of construction activity — for the first time in conjunction with the $500 million expansion and renovation of its 400,000 sq. ft. transmission plant in Toledo, Ohio.

‘Trust the model’

3D modeling, based on computer-aided design (CAD), lets engineers build a plant in a virtual setting as many times as needed before the first concrete is poured.

Ghafari Associates LLC, the Dearborn, Mich.-based architectural engineering firm for both the Lansing Delta Township and Flint projects, developed the initial 3D model, complete with virtual images of facets like structural steel, plumbing and electrical systems.

In most cases, the 3D images are passed along to the appropriate subcontractors and fabricators for them to tweak. Although all the parties involved can access the combined 3D files, only the structural steel detailer, for instance, can change the steel portion of the model. With 3D procedures now in place, GM's new design and construction mantra is: “Trust the model, build to the model.”

“GM took a manufacturing tool and made it into a design and risk management tool. It makes it quite clear how a plant should be built, regardless of the contractors involved,” says Richard Kadzis, director of special projects for CoreNet Global, a corporate real estate trade group based in Atlanta. “It's a strong example of the latest new thinking in corporate real estate.”

That tool allows GM and its partners to generate a realistic computerized model of what a manufacturing plant will look like, from the structural beams to the HVAC system to the electrical lines. Yet the 3D process stretches beyond high-tech renderings and electronic versions of paper documents. It also fosters uncomplicated sharing of information about a project. When changes in the 3D model are made, for example, everyone involved in the project receives updates.

Most people are familiar with 3D, or three-dimensional technology, from movies and video games. The technology helps breathe life into on-screen characters and objects.

The 3D modeling at GM adheres to many of the same principles as 3D in movies and video games. Through the 3D method at GM, clicking a mouse lets someone zip through an entire building, display all or part of the structure, or zero in on a particular aspect of the building such as the HVAC system.

At GM, that technology has propelled the automaker toward a new age in design and construction of manufacturing sites. In a nod to the technological and collaborative benefits, GM refers to the overall practice as “3D-enabled lean design/build.” The term “lean” refers to a business philosophy of integrating tools and techniques to save time, and maximize human resources, assets and productivity, while improving the quality of products and services, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers International, a trade group whose members blanket the automotive sector and other industries.

Boosters say the benefits of software- and computer-powered 3D modeling, which is commonly found in the aerospace and petrochemical industries, extend beyond the gee-whiz factor. The modeling process introduces a higher, more precise level of collaboration to the design and construction process.

GM engineers, the architectural engineering firm, the contractor, subcontractors and others cooperate on generating a master 3D model. Every player in the project then follows the model, which forces coordination among the various tradesmen, such as steel, electrical and concrete workers, according to Hallman.

“It's not technology for technology's sake,” says Robert Mauck, vice president of technologies at Ghafari. “It is technology and, more importantly, methodologies that go to the bottom line.”

Changing old habits

Until the Lansing Delta Township project, GM had relied on the conventional paper-based, two-dimensional design system for construction projects. Design work was done on computer and paper, with thousands of drawings floating around among architects, engineers, contractors, subcontractors and fabricators. The 3D process eliminates the need to “dumb down” computerized data to 2D paper drawings. Instead, data is viewed online in the virtual 3D environment.

Under the 3D scenario, the exchange of digital information between the architectural engineer and the structural steel detailer meant whittling down the schedule for placement of steel-mill orders, from the 10 to 12 weeks for previous projects to three weeks for the Flint expansion and two weeks for the bigger Toledo expansion, says Hallman.

Speeding up the steel orders narrows the window for tinkering with a design — moves that can drive up a project's price tag. For the Flint plant, the sharing of electronic information eliminated the generation, handling and review of about 5,000 shop drawings for the steelwork, according to Ghafari.

In another example of collaboration, the 3D modeling for the Flint project led to no change orders stemming from “field interferences,” which are unanticipated glitches like an HVAC system intersecting a water line. Such obstacles can add 5% to the cost of a project.

Ironing out the kinks

Mauck attributes the absence of those interferences to weekly “collision detection” meetings among the assorted players to ferret out potential problems — problems that then are fixed within the computerized model.

Now, under the “collision detection” arrangement, if an HVAC system is installed in the wrong place, the subcontractor must move it to the correct spot at its own expense, Hallman says.

Because of 3D modeling, subcontractors are on track to install components at specific times, so there's far less congestion among workers at the site. Plus, components arrive ready to be installed since they're fabricated off-site in tandem with the 3D model. Therefore, there's less clutter at the site from “just-in-case'' parts such as ductwork or conduits that might be needed for quick fixes, and fewer scrap parts are scattered around because the reworking of components has been reduced dramatically.

Hallman says the sheet metal subcontractor for Lansing Delta Township used about 20% less material because it was fabricated in an off-site shop, delivered to the site on schedule, hauled off a truck and put in place without any alterations required. Aside from the monetary advantages, the reduced congestion and clutter heighten work-site safety.

John Egan is an Austin-based writer.

A bright future for 3D

Experts say 3D modeling is being incorporated into the design and construction of hotels, hospitals and other types of buildings. “This is not unique to the auto industry,” says Jack Hallman, director of capital projects for GM's Worldwide Facilities Group. “It is going to be how we do business going forward, and I think it's just going to spread.”

Yet some architectural engineering firms still must get up to speed on 3D modeling. Many firms lack experience, competency and confidence in that area. “Some people think it's just a program of the day, and if we wait long enough it will go away,” Hallman says.

3D will take awhile to catch on in the architectural, engineering and construction business, says Greg Howell, co-founder of the Lean Construction Institute. “Don't underestimate the power of current practice.”

Motivated by savings, forward-looking companies initially will take advantage of 3D modeling, says Howell. When 3D modeling becomes standard practice, companies motivated by fear will accept that technology, he adds.

“Most manufacturing companies have had to face near-failure to take on a ‘lean’ approach,” according to Howell. “The only other motivator strong enough to sustain change is a sense of really wanting significant improvement.”

Regardless of the motivator, converting to 3D demands patience. GM engineers on the Lansing Delta Township project in Michigan balked at 3D and insisted on 2D drawings, Hallman says. Ghafari Associates LLC, the architectural and engineering firm for Lansing Delta Township, wound up creating about 10,000 2D drawings for that plant, but the paper-based design was later scrapped.

Further hampering the process was that the 3D modeling software from Bentley Systems Inc. wasn't in sync with production of 2D drawings for Lansing Delta Township. The software initially didn't work as planned, Hallman says, but Bentley was able to remove the bugs.

For GM and Ghafari, the Lansing Delta Township pilot project was a tremendous learning experience.

These days, 3D modeling is much more than just a high-tech pilot program. Last year, the National Institute of Building Sciences formed a committee to establish a national standard for building information models (BIMs), which incorporate the 3D process used by GM.

Starting last October, the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) — the federal government's landlord — began requiring BIMs for major proposals from architecture, engineering and construction firms. The GSA says, however, that not all 3D models qualify as BIMs since a 3D geometric representation is only part of the BIM concept.

“It's a big cultural change. It's very collaborative,” says Robert Mauck, vice president of technologies at Ghafari, referring to virtual design and construction. “It requires a high degree of trust by the entire supply chain to do this.”
— John Egan