Forbes, 26 May 2016
Three years ago I wrote about how the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) saved taxpayers $500 million by using mobile technologies. I had high expectations for other State Departments of Transportation (DOT) to follow suit, and in some cases, they were met. I say that without sarcasm.
David Nichols, director of the Missouri Department of Transportation (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)
However, when you have 49 other State DOTs, plus hundreds of cities and municipalities, you can’t expect for them all to follow Missouri’s lead, but you do expect them to at least try. This is a big, big deal.
To better assess whether DOTs have progressed, I worked with Pavia Systems to create and administer an industry survey and the results were surprising. I also asked several DOTs and transportation agencies for their opinion of the results, and while they cited several issues, the data indicated taxpayers should be happy with their progress.
One major initiative that stood out from the results is e-Construction, which the industry defines as technology and processes that eliminate the need for paper. For example, construction management and documents are digitized and quickly distributed to stakeholders through mobile devices instead of the glacial pace of paper-based document distribution.
Of the 185 respondents, 54% either have piloted or adopted e-Construction tools for use in building U.S. roads, streets, highways and bridges. Of those in the adoption category, 60% of the DOT respondents reported on-time deliveries for most 2015 projects, according to the original contract schedule. This compares to 36% of DOT peers who didn’t use e-Construction in 2015. Moreover, 68% of DOTs that have adopted e-Construction tools reported that at least 76% of construction projects were delivered on budget, according to the original contract.
That’s big taxpayer savings.
To learn why the industry hasn’t adopted these tools and processes faster and to understand where we are today, I invited a panel of thirteen government agencies, engineering design and construction firms and builders to share their viewpoints.
“What our system used to be was… an inbox and an office manager,” explained Idaho Department of Transportation (DOT) staff engineer Doug Yearsley, “and all the paperwork from every single project had to pass through that inbox and that project manager. This box would get filled a foot high or more; documents were constantly getting buried. They would sit around for over a year before anybody would even look at them. It was really bad.” When asked what are the true impacts of moving to an e-Construction environment, Doug points to massive improvements over their old system: efficiency in data processing and decision-making as the biggest thing; next would be closing out contracts, keeping them on budget, and improving overall communication.
Tracy Cain, Director, Construction Division for the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) agrees that like any factor in society, the transportation construction industry is moving to an e-Environment. But despite being considered one of the e-Construction leaders, Tracy said, “I don’t feel like we’re where we need to be, I feel like we need to step up our game.” There is a desire to do more with less, and his team is currently investigating various e-Construction tools to determine which tools will achieve that boost.
According to Pennsylvania Department of Transportation Assistant District Engineer, Construction, James Foringer, “e-Construction is dramatically improving the ways in which the State manages and administers highway and bridge construction projects. e-Construction allows our onsite construction manager to monitor inspectors’ work and helps them track submittal approvals which are critical to timely project completion, contract compliance and project safety,” he explained, “It is also reduces the effort required to document work progress and payments while reducing errors. Inspectors want to inspect, not spend their time proving to others the work was completed in accordance with the plans and specifications.”
“For the most part, we use e-Construction tools because we find value in them: increased productivity, fewer mistakes, things like that,” explained Ryan M. Forrestel, president of Cold Spring Construction. When it comes to things like document tracking and tracking RFI’s, the biggest value of everybody having access to information from anywhere, at any time, is avoiding mistakes caused when somebody doesn’t have that information in the field. The costs can be astronomical.
Added Tom Zagorski, Senior Vice President at Construction Engineering firm Michael Baker, International: “e-Construction technology plays significantly in keeping a project on schedule. Starting with project communications, the use of the Internet, email and collaboration software has simplified and accelerated the exchange of vital information.” Tom points to dramatically reduced turnaround times for submittals and requests for information (RFI’s), increasing available float in the schedule to do more within the prescribed project duration or to complete the project ahead of schedule.
Mark Holmes, Construction Engineering Supervisor, Perteet, Inc., pointed to claims mitigation as a significant benefit: In 2015, mid-construction, his team had a geogrid earth wall failure, but since they were using digital inspections tools for onsite data collection, the team members could go back and search for keywords assigned to the photos. This process is otherwise a mind-numbing process that required panning through photos page by page which load incredibly slowly from an external server. “We simply searched for keywords, pulled up photos, and eventually figured out that that the contractor that installed a pipe hat cut the top layer geogrid. Then once we got to that point, we went out in the field, confirmed our suspicions and we showed it to the contractor, who claimed responsibility and took care of it.”
That’s not to say that e-Construction is a panacea. David Brown, Vice President of Parsons Corporation believes e-Construction on its own does not significantly impact overall timeline or budget, “I am a big advocate of e-Construction and going digital. But if you have a flawed base system, trying to overlay that with new digital tools, you’ll still left with a flawed system. If you have poorly developed scope or procurement methodology, then no amount of digital technology can help you,” he adds.
Developing a scope of work, writing it into a contract, and procuring the lowest-priced bid is common practice. If the lowest priced bid gives a figure that is flawed, then it will negatively impact the scope, the timetable, and budget. You have to get the contract language correct and have a solid procurement method that clearly communicates the scope and gets you to the right price to do the work. Coming in with an under-budget price causes problems you can’t fix with e-Construction technologies.
Dan Becker, Construction Services Lead for HDR, Inc., believes the relationship between e-Construction adoption and performance has more to do with people’s mindset: “Those willing to resolve issues quickly tend to be more willing to adopt e-Construction tools.”
Considering the efficiency gains, greater transparency and cost-savings opportunities, I next asked why 42% of engineering firms that adopted e-Construction tools and processes used them on less than half their projects last year.
Project complexity, and clients’ willingness to pay, emerged as the primary factors:
According to David Brown, “The complexity of the requirements and speed of delivery dictates the tools and techniques that must be used to manage the scope and requirements. If you have five requirements, you can manage that on your fingers. If you have five thousand requirements, you’ll need a very sophisticated system. The more complex the requirement set, the more sophistication you need in managing those necessities.”
“The client dictates the way projects are delivered. We have a $100 million bridge project and our client wants us to use Excel. We explain where there are cost-savings benefits associated with using e-Construction tools. Some take our advice, some don’t. Especially those running one to two major projects a year may not want to spend the money on e-Construction tools,” says Dan Becker.
So why is it so challenging for the transportation construction industry to go paperless, and what’s being done to overcome these difficulties? Derek believes public agencies have adopted technology at a slower rate because they’re responsible for long-term obligations. Once a project is finished, private industry is able to move on; a luxury that owners don’t have.
Others point to the lack of tools tailored for project owners’ specific needs.
Still others cite the human factor as a significant variable. According to Freeman Anthony, Greenroads STP, City of Bellingham Public Works, “The big effort for us…is really a matter of getting people up to speed who might not really be wild about the computer, quite frankly. I think moving to tablets has the capacity to have a huge impact to how we do business and really offer a lot. I think it’s being utilized, probably 60% of what it could be, by virtue of the users. Field inspection staff at a city level do use it, but they are less inclined to really get wound up about it or to really look into what it can do.”
To overcome these challenges, the City of Bellingham is easing into e-Construction with large-scale implementations essentially serving as pilots. “Some of those new approaches are going to-trickle down into other projects.”
John Hancock, Chief, Office of Construction Innovation, CalTrans, points to fears of change and failure as significant impediments. “The industry has operated in largely the same fashion since the early 1900’s in regards to administration.” That deep rooted history has made change and failure utterly unnerving. This, combined with potential public scrutiny, could make the collapse of an IT project a catastrophe that the agency could have a difficult time recovering from; and IT projects, have a high rate of failure.
To tackle these challenges, John and his agency turn to other states that are farther along in e-Construction to learn valuable lessons; looking at the hardware and how it is used. By seeing what’s been successful and what’s failed, John’s organization is looking to avoid the same pitfalls as they pilot several technologies designed to shift from pen and paper to record construction data.
On the other hand, Rich Juliano, Senior Vice President for Strategic Initiatives, American Road & Transportation Builders Association, sees the human factor gradually becoming less of a consideration over time: “For the generations now starting to manage and work on transportation construction, it’s second nature to have tablets, smart phones, and so forth. I think that, on one level, it’s simply integrating those common devices into the workplace. On another level, it is a positive thing for workforce development and showing younger people who are thinking about a career in this field that the industry is using all these types of technologies effectively.”
So why is it so challenging for the transportation construction industry to go paperless, and what’s being done to overcome these difficulties? Derek Case, Assistant State Construction Engineer – SR 520 Corridor for the Washington State Department of Transportation, believes public agencies have adopted technology at a slower rate because they’re responsible for long-term obligations. Once a project is finished, private industry is able to move on; a luxury that owners don’t have.
There are also significant organizational challenges, as Alexa Mitchell, Civil Integrated Management Consultant at Parsons Brinkerhoff, explains: “I would say the biggest organizational challenge is prioritizing different initiatives and getting IT collaboration. So that means within an agency, e-Construction is just one thing that the agency does.” Therefore, it is constantly competing for funding. Prioritizing e-Construction into the overall scheme of the entire organization is very challenging; often times, they defer IT operational budgets to go back into projects so they can fix more bridges and roads.
With everything e-Construction has going for it, are their cons to e-Construction adoption?
“The cons aren’t necessarily cons but expenses,” explains Forrestel, “There’s reluctance toward bringing on a new skilled person to manage the technology even though it may result in a greater cost savings sooner than later.” It can be hard for people to adapt. It seems that if it doesn’t pour concrete or directly help fill the bridge, there’s question about the investment in it. Plus, there’s a period of time before you see that return on investment take shape.