Canadian Consulting Engineer

XML

Every consulting engineer knows that a lack of coordination is the biggest issue on projects. Considering how information-intensive the architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) industry is, consulting firms realize that having systems that can...

November 1, 2004  By Pejman Saifi, Yolles

Every consulting engineer knows that a lack of coordination is the biggest issue on projects. Considering how information-intensive the architecture/engineering/construction (AEC) industry is, consulting firms realize that having systems that can integrate project drawings, data and other information will improve profit margins.

Enter XML. This open, universal file format is a tool to simplify the exchange of information between different computer programs in a radical way. Extensible Markup Language, or XML, is a simple, flexible text format derived from SGML (standard generalized mark-up language). SGML is a standard for how to specify a document mark-up language or tag set. SGML was originally designed to meet the challenges of large-scale electronic information exchange on the Web and elsewhere, i.e. it is a mechanism to identify structures in a document.

The XML specification defines a standard way to add mark-up to documents. The information structured is both content (words, pictures, etc.) and the indication of the roles these contents play. A document refers not only to traditional documents but also to the other XML “data formats” such as vector/CAD graphics, e-commerce transactions, mathematical equations, object meta-data, server applications, and a thousand other kinds of structured information.

Using XML as a universal file “language,” a computer operator could import and amalgamate different types of programs — say CAD drawings, spreadsheets, reports — much more easily than is possible today. Without XML as a shared metalanguage, the computer operator is handicapped by having to open up different operating programs and platforms. Besides the time factor, there can often be complications in reading the different programs, for example, if not all the fonts are available.

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In the future, XML is expected to play a major role in design and engineering content. Kham Chang is a senior software engineer working in Toronto at EMC2/Documentum, a leading supplier of information storage and content management systems. He believes: “having this simple and flexible text format which enables industry to serialize multidimensional data for easy interchange between heterogonous platforms will change the way any type of data is stored and distributed.”

What is necessary now is for the companies that produce the myriad programs used by the AEC industry to agree on the standardized XML format so that sharing files is much more easy.

Large engineering companies such as Bechtel have been developing XML applications that address every aspect of their engineering, procurement, and construction processes. According to the June 15, 2001 issue of CIO Magazine, Bechtel’s Procurement System has saved over $3 million in annual courier expenses.

Meanwhile, approximately five years ago, an association of various companies and people launched the “aecXML working group.” Its goal is establishing a common platform and standard for XML for the AEC industry. Organizations involved include a range of players: software companies, construction firms, building product manufacturers, construction industry publishers, the National Institute of Building Sciences and a host of academics from universities across North America and Europe. According to an announcement from Bentley Systems, a leader in the aecXML working group, an initial specification has been created (see http://wml.coverpages.org/aecSML.html).

In a press release, Bentley explains aecXML as: “a framework of XML-based schemas to facilitate communications between and among the various constituents involved in the A/E/C process … The aecXML schema conforms to Microsoft’s BizTalk Framework (www.biztalk.org) and is designed to incorporate and extend cXML, the Commerce XML standard developed by Ariba and others.”

Currently the development of aecXML covers the areas of design, product catalogues, procurement, project and construction management, as well as facilities management, operations and maintenance. Eventually these XML-based platforms will enable everyone in the AEC industry to integrate applications and share information in the entire project life cycle.

While the CAD era has over a decade and a half of real maturity behind it, the construction industry is now on the cusp of an entirely new age. Computing is about to take on an even more dramatic role and affect forever the nature of the AEC process.

Pejman Saifi, B.Sc., PMCP, is IT manager with Yolles, consulting engineers of Toronto.

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