Expert Q&A: How tech adoption could help you win infrastructure bids
By Jenny LescohierFebruary 16, 2022
The recently passed $1.2-trillion infrastructure bill is cause for excitement for many contractors who view it as an opportunity to get more work in the pipeline, but that’s not the only effect the legislation promises to have on the industry. Some see it as an inflection point in the widespread adoption of construction technology.
Cyndee Hoagland, senior vice president for Trimble’s public sector and enterprise accounts, talked with CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365 about her vision for what the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) will mean to construction.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What do you think is most noteworthy about the BIL that promises to push a significant amount of new money into U.S. infrastructure projects?
Hoagland: We have a perfect storm of market dynamics, making it the ideal time for widespread adoption of technology. The BIL presents a generational opportunity for America to gain top-level status with infrastructure leaders, once again.
Coupled with the BIL, we have the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts program which is a state-based initiative that empowers DoTs to deploy established, but underutilized innovation on projects. In 2020, the FHA announced six initiatives within Every Day Counts and one of those was what’s referred to as ‘digital as-builts.’
What digital as-builts do is identify digital data, such as 3D models, that can be beneficial for DoTs to leverage in building roads, bridges and highways.
The initiative will help educate and train stakeholders on all kinds of technologies, both from Trimble and many others in the industry today. What’s most important is the FHA has recognized that sharing the design model, and the digital project data, allows agencies as well as contractors to streamline their project delivery, adding transparency across the project.
The BIL also includes a specific technology-related grant program dedicated to advanced digital construction management systems, which create a central
location for planning, allowing the use of data from past projects to define contingency budgets and make accurate predictions.
This grant will be administered by FHA to help DoTs adopt proven technologies that can help them to improve the productivity, safety and sustainability within their digital delivery process.
The BIL instructs for $20 million a year for five years, so approximately $100 million in funds to be slated for state DoTs to use in leveraging technology.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: It sounds like the federal government recognizes the importance of using available technologies in enhancing the efficiency of getting projects done, and now they’re incentivizing the state DoTs and involved contractors to utilize these technologies. Is that accurate?
Hoagland: Yes, technology has been proven to improve efficiencies both in the project schedule, as well as project cost. Eventually, all DoTs will adopt construction technology, but they have traditionally been laggards. Unless you incentivize state DoTs, they’re more likely to stay with their same-old, same-old methods.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What will change to light that fire, so to speak? What must happen to get stakeholders to embrace these technologies?
Hoagland: The Every Day Counts program is so important because 24 DoTs have already acknowledged they want to try digital as-builts or E construction technologies. Those 24 states will be doing pilot programs, leveraging these types of technologies over the next several years. Those successes will then breed success and adoption by some of the laggards.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What are some of the greatest benefits that technology can provide in the construction of infrastructure projects? What are some things we can expect to see?
Hoagland: I was recently at a conference with quite a few DoT engineering teams, and many of them are talking about the adoption of digital delivery processes on projects.
Technology focused on everything from design through operations and maintenance will provide the greatest benefit to DoTs, engineering firms and contractors, because using digital delivery means all stakeholders need to be engaged in data relative to design, construction and operation. That will improve efficiencies, reduce work orders and provide transparency to what’s going on in the design to construction, as well as provide better taxpayer extension of dollars.
That, for me, is what’s most beneficial. It’s the adoption of not just technology, but the process that DoTs engage in to collaborate with engineering firms and with contractors. Everyone will get on the same page and leverage digital data to be more efficient.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What does it look like when everybody’s engaged and on the same page?
Hoagland: For digital delivery, a bridge is designed using a 3D model, but the design needs to be actually constructible. That means you need to be able to go into the field and take that design and make it real.
You’re now moving into what’s called the digital delivery process. What we do with our technology and other technologies is give you that digital twin that is constructible.
Now the DoT has a model of that bridge with all the attributes related to it, such as the material used to construct it… sizing, rebar, everything that’s involved in the design of that bridge. The DoT can then illustrate the maintenance, inspection and operation of that bridge in a digital world.
An inspector who goes out 12 months after that bridge has been constructed can use a digital model to identify issues found during the inspection and can apply that information into the model and create a work order right there.
Everything is done from a digital platform as opposed to 2D blueprints. That’s the efficiency that’s gained when a DoT has access to a constructible 3D model.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What are some real-world examples where this is paying off?
Hoagland: Let’s look at Highway 169, the Elk River Project in Minnesota. The highway and adjacent streets had exceeded capacity and they were creating a real bottleneck for travelers. The Minnesota DoT initiated $158-million project to improve the intersection which is around a three-mile stretch. It was a two-year project.
For the first time, Minnesota DoT used a 3D model digital delivery process. This is an example of a DoT that is saying we’re all in, we’re going to design and construct this project digitally. This means they needed their design team or their engineering firm - in this case, it was a company called WSB - and Ames construction, the contractor, to collaborate early on.
The result of that collaboration is an estimated $10-million savings for Minnesota DoT to date. The DoT, the engineering firm and the general contractor collaborated to identify where there might be challenges for the design to be truly constructible.
And that’s just the beginning. They’re just in the early phase on the design side, they haven’t even started construction.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What are some of the long-term benefits of using digital as-builts?
Hoagland: I think the DoTs will start to require and put into their specs that the engineering firms and the contractors provide these digital models and the digital data back to the DoT so they can be much more efficient.
Future contract awards for renovation or expansion of an intersection or bridge will be able to streamline maintenance and operation. We’ll move into a more predictable understanding of what assets need to be repaired and when without having to physically send individuals out to the field every single time.
And you’ll start to see that technology benefits are not just from a productivity perspective. One of the big challenges right now for DoTs is labor. They don’t have the skilled labor to execute all these projects that will be coming with new infrastructure funding.
One of the advantages of technology and getting DoTs and general contractors and engineering firms on board is that we all need to do more with less skilled labor. We need to leverage technology to pick up and provide augments, or do some of the tasks that labor used to do for us.
There’s an investment in technology needed right now, but it will pay off.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: How would you characterize where federal and state governments currently stand in terms of their willingness to adopt technology?
Hoagland: We still have a way to go, but I think we’re definitely moving in the right direction. Contractors are recognizing that technology provides efficiency and benefits to them when it comes to estimating for a project, and efficiency when executing a project.
For DoTs, I think you’re going to see them putting technology into specifications as they learn and feel more comfortable with the proven results and the ROI benefits. I think we’re all moving in the right direction and the Every Day Counts program is certainly helping us to get there.
CONEXPO-CON/AGG 365: What will speed the adoption of technology in construction?
Hoagland: It’s driven by the owners who can set standards for what they want to see from a technology perspective and what’s useful to them. That will trickle down to the contractors.
A lot of the work we’re doing is connecting workflows to accelerate the hand-over from one stakeholder to the next. It’s not just about the hardware, it’s about the software being able to intuitively know how to move information along as the project is progressing without an individual having to be the one that’s always doing the checks and balances.