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Building a digital workflow in practice

Date published

Understand how to begin constructing a digital workflow and identify where there may be gaps in existing workflows.

Constructing a digital workflow

Moving data from one piece of software to another and achieving meaningful output requires a few steps. Depending on expertise, budget, technical constraints, etc. design practice workflows may differ. It is however, important to understand how these potentially different workflows can operate successfully together to avoid some of the time consuming and wasteful consequences of the ‘data dead-ends’ described earlier.

At the inception of any project the overall workflow should be defined. This includes inputs and outputs of numerous data parameters, some examples of which are shown below.

Table 1: Common analysis and output parameters

Once the outputs are established they can be formulated into a flowchart that forms the framework of the project workflow. Note that when working with external consultants, there should be agreement on both the data to be provided to them, and (perhaps more importantly) the data format in which that information will be delivered.

Once this flowchart of information has been established, software can be mapped to the various tasks that need to be undertaken. Note that some software (eg spreadsheets, databases or custom scripts) can be used as a general-purpose tool with which to manipulate data in various ways, at different stages of the design process.

In figure 1, the required transfer of data is denoted by arrows straddling boundary lines, representing the direction data flow. Note that data flows are required by both design processes within structural design, and coordination with the architect.

Thus, the use of a robust data model and digital workflow has benefits not only for working internally, but for working with other consultants. The more accessible the data, the easier it is it interrogate and check, making the process easier.

To optimise the workflow, it is desirable to reduce the number of programs and formats used, and to adopt a database approach whereby as much data as possible is shared between the various digital models.

This process of sharing common data using centralised information management and transferable file formats is encompassed in the term ’interoperability’.

Robust database-driven workflow

Figure 3, in contrast to those shown previously, demonstrates the power of a robust digital workflow

Data is held in a central ‘hub’ where geometry and other data (parametrically defined or otherwise) drives processes related to the holistic design of the building.

Changes from the structural analysis, testing, construction-staging, fire engineering and architectural coordination are held centrally in the ‘Central Data Hub’. Changes are not undertaken at the branches, but instead fed back to those managing the model held in the hub.

The organisation of this workflow is much like a client-server model seen in many IT systems.

The benefit of this method of working is that all changes are synchronised across disciplines and all consultants, contractors, etc. are working on the most up-to-date and fully federated model which is consistent between all designers.


Interoperability does not need to be complicated or involve high-end programming or scripting. It can often be as simple as using a spreadsheet as a container to move data between different software packages. Many commonly used programs have already developed strong interoperability links, for example between analysis and documentation/BIM products.

There are often discontinuities in these processes as they are rarely perfect, but there are always work-around solutions so getting familiar with the software and knowing the limitations is an important part of the process. By defining workflows and understanding the capabilities of software, an initial investment of time will bring efficiencies in delivery.

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