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How Digital As-Builts Make American Infrastructure Safer, More Efficient, and More Sustainable

As we enter the post-pandemic new normal, U.S. public policy experts, government leaders, and the public at large are looking to infrastructure investment as a key component of economic recovery. Reviving America’s aging infrastructure has the potential to create thousands of jobs, play a vital role in reaching sustainability targets, and modernize the country’s “central nervous system.” While most public discourse centers on government policy and investment as the solution, the construction industry itself must also do its part to deliver the level of transformation needed.

To gain and maintain public confidence, these projects need to deliver the results that owners promise, within the timeframes they set. That means projects need to be completed more efficiently, cost-effectively, and sustainably. Owners will be looking for partners who can meet these expectations. AEC firms that don’t embrace change risk getting left behind as more forward-thinking organizations take action. KPMG evaluated the future-readiness of 223 people, encompassing both engineering and construction companies and project owners, and divided them into three categories: innovative leaders, followers, and behind the curve. The disparities between the three groups illustrate the industry’s notoriously slow technology adoption and resistance to change:

  • Innovative Leaders: Representing the top 20%, leaders have a clear technology vision; are willing to “fail fast” and adopt technologies that deliver value; and make significant investments in core and leading-edge technologies, including BIM, project management information systems (PMIS), drones, virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR), and smart sensors.
  • Followers: The middle 60% identified as “followers” have just started to implement basic technologies like BIM and PMIS, and develop a technology roadmap.
  • Behind the Curve: Making up the bottom 20%, these organizations have made limited to no investment in even basic technologies like BIM and PMIS, and see innovation as a low priority.

Between the pandemic, mounting climate concerns, and the rapid, ongoing digitization of society, the stakeholders involved in building and operating America’s road and bridges can no longer resist change. The demands placed on American infrastructure are only growing more complex. Disruption is here, and the industry must embrace a cultural shift to address the challenges it faces, both old and new. 

At the same time, disruptive construction trends present a huge opportunity. McKinsey estimates that the most competitive and proactive stakeholders can unlock up to $265 billion in new profits. As designers and contractors face increased commoditization and shrinking profits, the key to remaining competitive lies in creating solutions to the new challenges owners face and delivering projects more safely, sustainably, and efficiently. 

Why It’s Imperative to Maximize American Infrastructure Investment

America’s infrastructure crisis requires a swift and significant response. Not only is there a backlog of repairs and replacements waiting to be made, but our roads and bridges also need to be more resilient moving forward. According to the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2021 Infrastructure Report Card, nearly 21,000 bridges are susceptible to overtopping or having their foundations undermined during major storms. And rising temperatures may cause pavement costs to increase by $19 billion each year by 2040.

Even if the Biden administration’s proposed $2 trillion infrastructure plan is passed, rising materials costs threaten to eat into a large portion of that investment. Materials costs have risen sharply in recent years. Between 2013-2017, highway construction costs rose by 68%, with the price of asphalt increasing by 107%; concrete by 61%; and metals, including carbon steel, by 45%. It’s up to construction stakeholders to find ways to mitigate these cost increases and prepare for unavoidable future maintenance needs.

Better American Infrastructure Depends on More Data Transparency & Collaboration

Rising materials costs can be mitigated by identifying and removing inefficiencies in the construction process. The current approach, in which disparate teams work in siloed processes and systems, creates a domino effect of miscommunication and inefficiency. Owners unwittingly omit important information from the start of the process, then designers lack the information needed—or simply aren’t required—to design to a higher level of detail (LOD). Contractors must make modifications to address a lack of constructibility. Then, they manually share the project data between the field, office, and subcontractors. 

Because of this disjointed ecosystem, the construction process ends up being consumed by rework, change orders, duplicate models, and manual data entry. Rework accounts for an average of 12.4% of the total cost of infrastructure projects, according to the Construction Industry Institute. Exceeding budgets and schedules is all too common: Nine in ten projects costing $1 billion or more go over budget, and transport construction projects are typically delayed by 2.3 years. It also contributes to the construction industry’s large carbon footprint. The building and construction industry is responsible for 39% of global carbon emissions, with waste accounting for a significant share of that contribution, according to the World Green Building Council. 

Poor data visibility is a major part of the problem. If stakeholders had better access to one another’s information, there would be no need for manual data entry and duplicating models. But only 8% of engineering and construction firms have access to complete project data through their project management information systems, while 47% report that they use separate systems requiring manual reconciliation and updates. Closing these data gaps is solvable, and each stakeholder needs to take a more active role in reducing communication barriers between teams. 

There’s a lot of data that the automated machine guidance requires that the engineering team has no idea about. We produce a model, and we assume it's good to go. But in working with the contractor and the survey group, that's not true. There is way more data those machines need, and it's data we can easily provide.

––Priscilla Benavides, Central Regional Design Manager, New Mexico Department of Transportation

Machine control is just one example of the need to break down silos between owners, engineers, and contractors. The bigger issue is lack of collaboration and communication among the stakeholders involved. When stakeholders work together at earlier points in the construction process, these data gaps can be revealed––and remedied.

Digital As-Builts: Promoting Collaboration to Drive Infrastructure Construction Improvements

The current round of the Federal Highway Administration’s Every Day Counts program (known as EDC-6) promotes digital as-builts as a way to improve safety, quality, and cost savings by improving the accessibility of project data and providing a more accurate, efficiently produced representation of the as-built asset. The digital as-built takes shape by incorporating data collected in real time as the project unfolds. 

The use of digital as-builts requires all stakeholders to work collaboratively in a shared model, effectively creating a continuously updated single source of truth about the project, enabling data transparency, and driving efficiencies across the project lifecycle. Using building information modeling (BIM) and collaborative software tools, like Trimble Quadri, teams are able to work together to develop the digital as-built. 

Learn more about the FHWA’s Every Day Counts program with this on-demand webinar.

For digital as-builts to deliver the benefits they promise, the construction stakeholders themselves must collaborate as well. Even the best systems can’t overcome a throw-it-over-the-fence mentality. And while alternative contracting methods, such as design-build, construction manager/general contractor (CMGC), and progressive design-build engage stakeholders earlier in the construction process, there needs to be an accompanying culture shift that prioritizes collaboration. When the stakeholders involved commit to this shift, everyone reaps the benefits.

Engineering firms produce more constructible designs

Because digital as-builts require owners to precisely communicate the type of information they want to see in the as-built, engineers have a better handle on the owner’s expectations from the start. Using the shared model also enables them to engage with contractors earlier in the process. Proactive firms that want to deliver cost savings to owners—and gain a competitive advantage for themselves—can collaborate to identify and address design issues before they get to the field. 

Early Model-based Collaboration Saves $950,000

“We had a recent project where the contractor came to the design team and said, ‘hey, we think that we can save some money here by taking some takeoffs, using them on another spot in a project, raising the profile of an overpass by six feet.’ We were able to run that in the model, and the savings were estimated to be $950,000. And that's all because the contractor was involved earlier, and we were able to take that information they suggested, model it, and then translate it into the construction model.”

-- John Mackiewicz, Vice President of Technology, WSB and Associates

Contractors leverage constructible models to save time and money

Once construction begins, contractors are able to start with a more constructible model. Fewer changes are needed, and when they are, they can be captured within the shared 3D model, eliminating the need for manual and duplicate efforts. The model becomes a single source of truth for the vast web of vendors that contractors manage. The data captured within the model can then be used for machine control, producing gains in productivity and sustainability by reducing wasted time and fuel. 

As more teams work remotely, the data-rich model also enables the use of augmented and mixed reality technology. Teams are able to interact with the jobsite and collaborate from anywhere. Extended reality tools like the Trimble XR10 with HoloLens 2 and Trimble SiteVision also allow contractors to more safely train workers and help them visualize and avoid site safety hazards. 

“Many times when we look at a project, whether it's in the pre-bid or post bid, if we had accurate digital as-builts from the previous work that was done in that area, it would help us plan our work, make things more efficient, eliminate conflicts and errors during construction, and really improve efficiency.” --  Ryan Forrestel, President, Cold Spring Construction

Digital as-builts help owners more efficiently operate and maintain assets 

When the digital as-built is enriched with granular data, owners get the information they need to proactively and efficiently manage operations and maintenance. Owners can access asphalt height information, for instance, to make better informed decisions about how to make a road repair. Or they can use the digital as-built to diagnose the cause of an issue by accessing history about how the asset was built, the materials used, the conditions during construction, and more. 

The digital as-built can also provide the basis for a digital twin, a live model of the asset that can be used to diagnose and foresee deficiencies, perform simulations, and assess the asset’s condition within the broader context of the surrounding environment and usage once it’s in operation. 

“Every successive project that involves the same assets that digital as-builts have already been collected on, sees further benefit from that digital data.”

–– Ryan Forrestel, President, Cold Spring Construction

By adopting digital as-builts as part of their BIM workflows, engineers and contractors can deliver greater value to owners through cost efficiencies and earlier problem solving. Owners continue to benefit by gaining the information they need to efficiently and safely manage the asset over its often decades-long lifespan. 

Connected Construction: Making Digital As-Builts and Safer, More Sustainable Infrastructure a Reality

3D BIM models have the potential to provide the central source of truth required to sustainably plan, design, build, and operate infrastructure assets. Connected construction provides the framework needed to connect it all and bring previously disparate people, processes, and technology together, so they’re all working as safely, efficiently, and effectively as possible. 

Realizing the many benefits of digital as-builts and connected construction requires a sea change in how construction projects have traditionally been managed. And stakeholders who are willing to make the cultural shift stand much to gain. 

To enable that shift, stakeholders need an underlying technology framework that facilitates the sharing of information, while enabling connectivity between specialized tools and systems used throughout the construction lifecycle, from design through post-construction. This is where connected construction comes in. By providing the framework needed to improve data sharing and communication among the various stakeholders, connected construction is the steel thread that weaves the people, processes, and technology together. 

Seize the Infrastructure Opportunity

During the Trimble Dimensions Spotlight Series, Trimble is talking to stakeholders across the infrastructure ecosystem to explore the opportunities and address the challenges they face as infrastructure investment ramps up. Register here for access to the free on-demand video series.