feet dangling from a skyscraper
Large scale construction has forced vendors to find new, non-text based approaches to search. Where else is search innovation cropping up? PHOTO: Kaique Rocha

Have you ever walked down a city street and stopped to stare up at a skyscraper? 

Me too.

Have you ever stared up at a skyscraper and thought, "Wow, what a massive investment in information management!"

I didn't think so.

Information Management in Unexpected Places

Major engineering projects, such shipbuilding and construction, used to involve hundreds of individual draughtsmen working on components in a way to ensure everything fit together in the end. 

And while it's easy to assume computers have made this process easier, think of what is involved in the transition from architect to quantity surveyor to construction site manager when so much of the information is specified in diagrams and not just words. 

Since the mid-2000s, the global construction industry has been investing in a set of standards, guidelines and protocols for Building Information Modeling (BIM). BIM is a digital representation of physical and functional characteristics of a facility, which creates a shared knowledge resource. Stakeholders can refer to this resource for decision making throughout the facility's lifecycle, from earliest conception to demolition. 

"Shared" is the operative word here. BIM brings together all stakeholders in a construction project from design to build to maintain and then demolish.

A Digital Workplace, 36 Floors Up

Digital workplace discussions usually focus on managing Office files or social media or even the occasional mobile question. Rarely do we think of the structural engineer working on a ruggedized portable terminal 36 floors up in a new office building. 

Any building or engineering project is now a digital workplace. If things don’t join up, the project becomes a very visible failure.  

The Crossrail tunnels and stations in London are now complete. At Canary Wharf the deep level station had to be constructed in such a way that an escalator bank could be dropped 90 feet through a carefully designed gap in the floors. Finding out the escalator bank was in the wrong place wasn't an option.

You Thought Big Data Was Hard?

We've all heard of the challenges big data poses, but big files pose challenges of another order of magnitude. 

A typical office building project may generate 500,000 files, but perhaps only 50,000 are listed in a database. Individual contractors need only a subset of these files and they have to find them through search. 

Search applications normally rely on text to deliver accurate search results, so when dealing with drawings the normal ranking algorithms go out the window. 

A substantial amount of research and development into searching BIM files has gone into meeting these specific requirements, often involving visualization to help users take a virtual walk around files related to the ones they might originally have found. 

The construction industry is notable in that it has readily adopted open data and information management standards, notably Industry Foundation Classes, which date back to work by Autodesk in 1994. The global nature of the construction industry has meant the need for global standards was identified almost from the outset. Although the pace of development has been patchy, the current level of adoption is very high. 

BIM Search: Not Just for Construction Sites

Multiple software vendors in this sector provide some element of search within their products and services, including Bentley Systems, Graebert and of course Autodesk. A decade ago Exalead was a major player in text retrieval, but since its acquisition by Dassault it has become a leading player in BIM applications

Unsurprisingly given the scale of construction, China has a substantial interest in BIM software development, including how to semantically tag BIM files. Open source search applications will play an important role in this, as in other, sectors. 

Developments in BIM file management and search will undoubtedly cross over into other sectors where there is a heavy reliance on a combination of text and diagrams. Semi-conductor manufacture comes to mind, but searching through PowerPoint files is just as great a challenge as we look for "three linked triangles around a pie chart." 

The patent business always had a vested interest in indexing diagrams, but the scale of the AEC (architecture, engineering and construction) sector's requirements makes it likely we'll see many new entrants appear in the near future. 

A Sign of Search Progress

BIM is one specific example of search innovation, but there are many others. We tend to look at the diminishing list of commercial vendors and bemoan the future of search. But search within BIM provides a clear example of where search is business-critical — and might even offer some lessons on how to improve search in other digital workplaces.