By Gregory Nadeau
The construction industry is entering the digital age. Technological innovation has transformed many industries—retail, auto manufacturing, media—but the construction and infrastructure segments of the economy have been slow to adapt, operating much the way they have for the past 20 years.
That is changing. Today’s work sites include laptops and iPads, cell phones with GPS connections, augmented reality headsets making the workers look more like video gamers, and even a drone or two flying overhead. And for a variety of reasons, mostly health and safety related, the COVID-19 pandemic is speeding the adoption of many of these new technologies.
Digital construction technology offers the promise of building roads, buildings, and bridges faster and more efficiently than ever before with significant cost savings to contractors, owners, and, in the case of publicly owned infrastructure, taxpayers.
“Today you can take a 3D constructible model of a bridge, incorporate it into an augmented reality platform like HoloLens glasses,” Cyndee Hoagland, senior vice president of Trimble, told the California Transportation Commission in an August 2019 presentation. “Your field workers and your stakeholders can all be viewing that bridge, in a reality type environment to collectively identify where the problems are in real-time and make better, more informed decisions. This reduces rework and saves time and money.”
The introduction of digital construction technology in the highway and bridge sector began in earnest more than 10 years ago. That’s when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) began to encourage the adoption of innovative construction techniques through its Every Day Counts partnership with the states.
The Utah Department of Transportation became an early adopter of 3D modeling throughout the bid, design and construction process. Florida’s DOT also began taking advantage of 3D data models and the benefits of automated machine guidance resulting in better quality roads, improved safety during the construction process and reduction in rework costs. Both state DOTs continue to lead in the pursuit of broader and more integrated application of digital construction technology, which can produce cost savings of up to 25 percent in major projects, according to The Boston Consulting Group.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced new challenges for the construction industry. In order to fully re-open our economy in a sustainable manner, industries will need to meet certain criteria and adhere to social distancing and other guidelines or risk shutdown and delays. Fortunately, the same digital construction technology already employed for remote worksite monitoring can be adapted to include features that address COVID-19 and any future outbreak. These technologybased solutions—including access control systems for worksite security,tracking worker time and attendance, safety compliance, and even drug screens and background checks— can improve transparency and keep projects operational while ensuring that proper health and safety measures are in place.
Congress has directed the FHWA to develop an incentive program to help accelerate the adoption of digital construction technology by public agencies at the state and county levels, technologies that have been extensively validated by DOTs through research as well as collaboration through the Every Day Counts partnership. With technology becoming less expensive and more user-friendly, now is the time for the construction industry and the owners of public infrastructure to take advantage of these advances and adopt these strategies as standard operating procedures.
Gregory Nadeau is founder and chairman of Infrastructure Ventures, a policy-based market development business. He was the FHWA administrator during the Obama administration. See more stories about transportation design and construction industry technology and innovation in ARTBA’s “Smart Design & Construction” supplement.