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Infrastructure Outlook: Digital Delivery Will Drive Efficient Projects and Sustainable Infrastructure

Cyndee Hoagland on August 30, 2022 - in Articles, Column

By earmarking an unprecedented $1.2 trillion for infrastructure improvements, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law—formerly known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA)—provides a generational opportunity for America to regain its top-level status among the world’s infrastructure leaders. Yet money alone will not deliver success. As the United States has fallen from the envy of all to its current world ranking of 13th for infrastructure quality, we’ve spent more on roads than any other country that discloses spending data and more than all but five other countries on public-transit projects.

In recent years, American infrastructure projects have a track record of running over budget and behind schedule. U.S. infrastructure is more often known for its skyrocketing costs, bloated timelines and political infighting than its technological prowess or efficiency.

Although it’s easy to cast doubt on the newly passed infrastructure bill, there should be plenty of optimism given the availability of proven digital design and construction technologies revolutionizing how civil infrastructure projects are executed today.

Adoption of Digital Delivery Is Critical to Success

There have been huge technological advances in construction since America’s last major infrastructure investment during the Eisenhower era. However, use of proven digital design and construction technologies by the U.S. highway infrastructure industry lags behind that of other countries. If implemented by state Departments of Transportation (DOTs) and other project owners, these advancements will enable infrastructure assets to be designed and built faster, cheaper and more efficiently as well as able to be operated more sustainably than before.

This is particularly true for digital as-built technology: 3D models that encompass design, construction and operations, enabling a project’s stakeholders—from owners to engineers to contractors—to all work collaboratively from the same model in real time.  A “digital twin” centralizes and delivers project data across stakeholders and construction and operation phases, helping ensure what’s originally designed and modeled becomes what’s ultimately constructed and eventually maintained. This is in contrast to standard 2D paper drawings, which aren’t easily shareable and don’t accurately reflect changes to a project as it evolves, leading to a breakdown in communication and execution.

Overcoming “Silo” Mentality

Although adoption of digital tools and processes is increasing among highway agencies, the data captured throughout the various phases of the project remain siloed and not easily shared across design, construction, and operations and maintenance departments. The benefits of building information modeling (BIM) and common data environment (CDE) tools, such as Trimble Quadri, are enabling streamlined data-modeling and workflows so data can be efficiently exchanged across stakeholders and systems during the various phases of the project lifecycle. Quadri, in particular, allows for the right data to be accessible during the various handovers of information among stakeholders during project phases. 

Digital delivery is unique in that it enables stakeholders to collaborate in ways that facilitate efficiency, visibility and transparency, giving them equal access to the same model throughout the project lifecycle. This means all stakeholders can see updates and changes in real time, and information is fed to project-management and financial-reporting systems as well as asset-management systems that track everything from the inventory and materials to the timeline and budget.

Most importantly, with a centralized digital constructible model in place, an owner has access to as-built and as-maintained conditions of assets at all times, allowing for more-efficient management of the asset throughout its lifecycle. Digital delivery also improves the environmental resiliency of projects by combining existing design and process data in one place, preventing costly surprises—environmental and otherwise—while allowing for the evaluation of potential risks and events through each phase of construction, starting from the very beginning. This minimizes rework as all design information is visible within the model, and a complete, accurate, and accessible as-built model provides detailed information to those who must maintain the asset after it’s complete, enabling owner-operators to more easily maintain and operate assets throughout the asset lifecycle.

Time for Widespread Adoption

Although this technology hasn’t been widely adopted, it isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used effectively both abroad and here in the United States.

A recent example is the Highway 169 project in Elk River, Minn., which connects the state’s central lakes region with the greater Twin Cities metropolitan area. The highway and adjacent streets exceeded capacity, creating a bottleneck for travelers, so the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) initiated a $158 million project to improve the three-mile stretch, a two-year project that’s scheduled to begin in spring 2022.

The highway overhaul was designed and delivered to MnDOT using a 3D digital, paperless model, which helped unify the owner-operator and get them on the same page from the very start. Although the plan has yet to enter the construction phase, it has already enabled the project team to continuously iterate the design rather than having to follow the traditional design/review cycles, which takes significantly more time as activities occur sequentially vs. concurrently.

The digital plan also enabled public notices for relocating underground orders to go out earlier, speeding up the timeline and eliminating any winter work.

Digital delivery also was put to work on a recent project in Norway. National road 3/25 Løten-Elverum was completed three months ahead of schedule and had roughly $167 million in shared savings in just two years of construction. The use of digital delivery enabled the owner, designer and contractor to collaborate on the design and production of the road simultaneously, speeding up the timeline and enabling changes to be implemented quickly when unforeseen events occurred. The Norwegian Public Roads Administration expects to use digital delivery on future work based on the success of this particular project.

Government Advocacy Is in Place

Although more project owners, contractors and engineers are taking steps on their own to adopt the use of digital technology on transportation infrastructure projects, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) continues to advocate for the adoption of digital project delivery. Its “Every Day Counts” (EDC) state-based program empowers DOTs to deploy established yet-underutilized innovations designed to make transportation systems more adaptable, sustainable, equitable and safer for all.  

Currently, the EDC-6 program promotes the use of “Digital As-builts” and identifies digital data such as 3D models as beneficial to building road projects. They recognize that sharing the design model and associated digital project data allows agencies and contractors to streamline project delivery and contract administration as well as collaborate on challenges “virtually” before they get to the field. 

In addition, the IIJA includes funding for advanced digital construction management systems and related technologies, and offers DOTs access to funding to help them accelerate the adoption of digital design and construction technologies. This new Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems grant program is funded at $20 million per year through five years and will be administered by the FHWA.

As we move forward with the task of putting the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law funds to good use, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to revamp our nation’s infrastructure by leveraging modern technology and government appropriations to ease the adoption of such technology. By doing so, we can regain a world-leadership position in infrastructure and enhance the quality of life in this country. 

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About Cyndee Hoagland

Cyndee Hoagland is senior vice president for Trimble’s Public Sector and Enterprise Accounts; email: [email protected]

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