ETIM is rapidly gaining ground in the construction materials industry

The relatively new ETIM Sector Committee Building Materials has already shown remarkable progress in its efforts to connect the construction industry to ETIM. We spoke to Sector Coordinator Jeroen van der Holst about the latest developments.

Jeroen, how does the building sector differ from the electrotechnical sector when it comes to standardization?

ETIM classification is rooted in the electrotechnical and installation sector and started almost 30 years ago in the Netherlands. Ketenstandaard/ETIM Nederland, who facilitated this endeavour, and Koninklijke HIBIN, the Dutch trade association for suppliers of building materials, joined forces 2020 to help the construction industry standardize their product data as well. Both sectors are strongly related, even interconnected, so this collaboration made absolute sense.

Why has it taken longer for the building sector to embrace ETIM?

When we look at the situation in the Netherlands, ETIM has taken longer to catch on in the building sector. The consolidation of wholesalers in electrical engineering and installation urged their sector to standardise early on: the larger the parties, the larger the article files, the more important it becomes to organize a well-structured and automated flow of article data from suppliers and customers. In the more fragmented Dutch building materials sector, however, consolidation is a recent development, making the practical and economic advantages of standardization apparent. Of course, smaller parties also profit from this development as ready-to-use product data for ecommerce and BIM becomes available to everyone.

Which other parties are key to these developments?

UFEMAT, the European umbrella trade organization has supported our efforts from the beginning, generating trust and interest, both in the Netherlands and abroad. The same can be said for to the enthusiastic support of major players such as Knauf and Saint Gobain Construction Products. Almost 50 parties in the Netherlands have joined us since the start of our collaboration with Koninklijke HIBIN early 2021. This rapid movement also fast-tracked involvement of countries like UK, France and Portugal, whilst Germany is almost on board. Purchasing groups Eurobaustoff, Hagebau and Stark together cover almost every supplier in their country. All three are members of DPB Datenmanagement, which focuses on construction products process optimization. All three have advanced plans to put ETIM on the agenda in their association. Once they embrace ETIM, German manufacturers, but also other countries will follow.

What do you feel are ETIM-based standardization’s main USPs? 

I practically grew up with ETIM. For me, it’s a no-brainer. I know from experience how much time manufacturers spend on meeting the information needs of wholesalers, installers, contractors and engineers. Each with their own delivery requirements. I also know what it takes to streamline the information from different manufacturers. ETIM solves that. In addition, I always ask wholesalers what percentage of their sales they credit each month because buyers ordered the wrong materials. This hits home every time: I know the corresponding and relating costs add up. The only way to limit the risk of incorrect orders is by describing your product information – from item number, price and delivery time to technical characteristics – correctly and uniformly and providing easy access to this information. When wholesalers tell me “My website and ERP system function well, my suppliers use the format of my choice and customers show no need for ETIM”, I explain how ETIM supports information specs within ISO19650, the international standard of information management for a building’s entire lifecycle. That ETIM supports industry-wide agreements with manufacturers on information needs and that you can influence the ETIM model itself to suit your information needs, for instance with regard to BIM models. Another strong argument is that ETIM allows for very precise product records with technical compatibility features that can be used in BIM models and engineering software. It not just describes bricks, doors and concrete slabs, but also classifies products that cannot be captured in drawings, like impregnating agents or tile adhesives:  via ETIM you can simply add these as information components. This ability to control the entire supply chain from within the BIM model speaks volumes. Without ETIM, manufacturers will miss out on more than just innovation opportunities from these standardized information flows. Just look at the wholesalers in the electrotechnical and installation field: many only accept products with ETIM classified product data now. It has become their e-commerce backbone. With good reason.

How do you oversee the building material working groups?

My main task is to achieve synergy and avoid conflicting activities by coordinating all working group activities from change proposals to the introduction of new classes in the different ETIM member countries. In case of shared interests we make shared decisions. The working groups in the Netherlands are divided among three ETIM experts, one of which is me. Our job is not to know the product-related content details of all 6500 classes: the working groups determine these and thus actually create their own SLA’s: the working group Mortar Manufacturers, for example, decides which types of mortar and which mortar characteristics should be listed.

What are some of the issues these working groups encounter?

There are always fundamental semantic discussions or definition questions. Take sustainability: questions like “What do we mean by a sustainable product?”, “What defines biodegradability?” and “Does that information belong in a product class or in a product message according to the European Master Data Guidelines?” are typical. As experts we rely on the product group committees to provide the product-specific sustainability characteristics, like the percentage of recycled material processed in an OSB board or the energy performance of an LED bulb. However, once working group members realize their decisions help determine the data flow, they get carried away and sometimes overshoot their mark. We only intervene when we detect monstrosities-in-the-making: not every single product detail on an internal technical datasheet is relevant to trading partners or end users.

How do you ensure a successful international rollout?

To intensify the data flow in Europe and beyond, we focus on even more countries to join and actively work with ETIM working groups for building materials. The more participants, the faster and better we can create and complete relevant classes. Working together with participating countries to get the translations right is also crucial, since internationally operating companies regard the multilingual nature of ETIM as its power. A difficult task, because we can only leave this to ‘local’ professionals who are familiar with the jargon. Translation agencies are simply not equipped and far too expensive.

What do you regard as contributing factors to your endeavours?

We are on the verge of a global digital ETIM-based revolution in the building industry. Things are already moving fast and various developments around exchange formats contribute to our momentum. Linking the European Master Data Guidelines to ETIM, for instance, has given the model a broader scope. The advanced development of a new ETIM exchange format for product data offers even more perspective. But what I think contributes most is that the building sector itself is now intrinsically motivated to participate and invest. The more steps we take and the sooner we take them, the faster the results and further adoption of the ETIM standard. Which benefits us all. Which is why I do what I do.