How Technology Can Optimize America’s Infrastructure Opportunity

Mark Schwartz is the Chief Digital Officer at Trimble, responsible for transforming the company’s systems, processes and infrastructure.

While American infrastructure used to be considered the world’s best, it now ranks 13th according to the World Economic Forum, far behind infrastructure leaders Japan, Singapore and many countries in Europe. In fact, according to a recent article in the New York Times, “Years of delay, billions in overruns: The dismal history of big infrastructure,” American infrastructure is more often known for its skyrocketing costs, bloated timelines and political infighting than it is for its technological prowess or efficiency. 

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law intends to change that by injecting trillions into upgrading the nation’s transits, highways and electrical grids, helping offset the 40% reduction in public spending for infrastructure that’s occurred since the 1960s. But many are skeptical that that money will be spent wisely given America’s negative track record for infrastructure.

What most Americans don’t realize is that there have been huge technological advances in construction, which, if implemented by state Departments of Transportation (DOT) and other project owners, will enable infrastructure to be designed and built faster, cheaper, more efficiently and more sustainably than ever before. This is particularly true for digital as-built technology, which are 3D models that bridge design, construction and operations, enabling a project’s stakeholders — from an owner to the engineers to the contractors — to all work off the same model in real time. 

Also known as a “digital twin,” this technology centralizes and delivers project data across stakeholders and construction phases, helping to ensure that what’s originally designed becomes what’s ultimately constructed and eventually what’s also 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. Below is a more detailed look at digital as-built technology, along with examples of how it has already begun to revolutionize today’s infrastructure projects. 

The Power Of Digital Delivery

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 that all stakeholders can see changes in real time, and information is fed to project management, financial reporting and asset management systems, which track everything from inventory and materials to the timeline and budget. With a centralized digital model in place, any change is easily tracked and communicated, minimizing confusion and costly change orders. 

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. This minimizes rework as all design information is visible within the model, and a complete, accurate and accessible as-built model gives owner-operators the ability to easily maintain and operate the assets throughout the asset lifecycle.

As-Builts in Action

While this technology hasn’t been widely adopted, it isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used effectively abroad and here in the U.S. A recent example our company worked on is the Highway 169 project in Elk River, MN, which connects Minnesota’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 will begin in the spring of 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. While the plan has yet to enter the construction phase, it has already enabled the project team to save time by continuously iterating on the design rather than follow the traditional design/review cycle, which forces activities to occur sequentially vs. concurrently. 

The digital plan also enabled public notices for relocating underground orders to go out earlier, speeding up the timeline by eliminating winter work. To-date, the project is estimated to be $10 million less expensive than it was originally proposed, which is largely attributed to leveraging digital data throughout the process.

Digital delivery was also put to work on another recent project of ours 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. Digital delivery enabled the stakeholders to collaborate on the design and construction of the road simultaneously, speeding up the timeline, enabling changes to be implemented quickly when unforeseen events occurred and reducing costly change orders. 

The Time for Adoption Is Now

Digital design and construction technologies will help maximize taxpayers’ dollars provided that they’re widely adopted across projects. Two pieces of legislation are designed to facilitate that, including the Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems, which provides DOTs access to funding to help them accelerate the use and adoption of proven digital design and construction technologies. 

Everyday Counts is a state-based model that gives DOTs options to try proven yet underutilized innovations that are designed to make our transportation system more adaptable, sustainable and equitable. Since the start of EDC in 2011, each state has used 20 or more of the 52 innovations promoted through the program, with some states having deployed more than 45. While neither piece of legislation requires DOTs to adopt digital technology, they provide funding and a safe environment for new technologies to be deployed on projects at scale. 

While it’s easy to cast doubt on the newly passed infrastructure bill given our country’s history executing large infrastructure projects, there should be plenty of optimism given the availability of new technology that has the power to revolutionize how projects are built. Now is the time for DOTs and other project owners to adopt and deploy this proven technology, which will help make better use of our taxpayer dollars while also enabling our infrastructure to be built better, faster, cheaper, more efficiently and more sustainably than ever before.

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