As Connecticut-based Lane Construction prepares for the onslaught of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) projects about to come its way, director of VDC and BIM Matt Blake knows what needs to be done.
Blake is working with global engineering and design firm Stantec to steer the 130-year-old leader in heavy civil construction away from "old processes that are tried-and-true" and toward advanced digital delivery that will improve information sharing between design and construction teams, increasing accuracy, transparency, safety and timely decision-making to reduce risk and cost.
"At the end of the day, this likely means producing more projects in less time for less cost, in which case, it can help deliver much more of this IIJA plan," Blake said. "As an industry, everyone has limited resources, so let's sharpen our efficiency pencil and try to deliver this."
As it stands, the horizontal construction industry's well-used pencils are far too dull to keep up with the barrage of projects about to come its way. Of the $621 billion IIJA earmarks to upgrade bridges, highways and roads, more than $500 billion will be dedicated to projects that use outdated methods, according to the Coalition for Smarter Infrastructure Investments, a group of tech companies pushing for accelerated deployment of automated workflow systems and 5D modeling.
"The processes used to design and manage infrastructure projects have been unchanged for decades, with many firms and public agencies still relying on pen-and-paper systems," the coalition states.
In response to the coalition's lobbying, the IIJA includes $100 million ($20 million annually over five years) to encourage adoption of advanced construction management technologies — a drop in the bucket, according to Si Katara, president of digital inspection company Headlight and one of the coalition's founders.
"Some people are like, 'For a $1.2 trillion bill, that may not be enough,'" he said.
The IIJA presents "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to digitize, Katara added, but builders won't be able to keep up if they continue with the practices from the last 30 years.
"The reflex is to hold on like a life boat to your prior processes because that's what you’re comfortable with, but people are realizing there just aren't enough resources out there, not enough humans who have the skill sets to do this," Katara said. "We have to embrace technology and innovation to bridge that gap."
As Blake is quick to point out, no one expects the transition to be easy.
"There are a lot of things — I don't know if ego is the right word — that prevent us from adopting technology," he said. "A lot of this is 'the-way-we've-always-done-it' attitude, and that's the most expensive phrase you can use, in my book."
AI to the rescue
Lack of workers is one of the construction industry's biggest issues, causing two-thirds of contractors to struggle with meeting schedules, according to Infotech's civil quarterly report. Now, said Brad Barth, chief product officer for digital project management platform InEight, the IIJA is "throwing fuel on an already out-of-control fire." As experienced older workers retire, Barth said, their replacements will need tech to "make them smarter, so there's less rework, less chaos and more sharing of knowledge to help scale."
"The A players in any company are of limited number, and they're retiring," agreed René Morkos, founder and CEO of ALICE Technologies, an AI-powered BIM platform. "It makes junior people way more able to perform like senior people."
Most construction professionals see digital transformation as their biggest source of opportunity for the coming year and predict software will be essential to their success in estimating, project cost management, scheduling and risk management, according to InEight's "Global Capital Projects Outlook 2021" survey shared with Construction Dive, but they're relying on general-purpose business software like Microsoft Excel as opposed to purpose-built solutions. To improve productivity, Barth said, contractors should get rid of spreadsheets across several weaker platforms and stop trying to "do all kinds of heroics in Excel."
Projects Controls Cubed (PC3), a San Diego-based virtual design and construction company with $7 billion under contract, is doing this with InEight's artificial intelligence-based system. PC3 Director Jeff Campbell says the platform is "like a superintendent with 30 years of experience who never retires."
PC3 uses InEight's AI to create a knowledge library of archived projects that can be accessed to automatically generate schedules and budgets. Campbell said InEight Schedule also saves PC3 millions of dollars in claims discovery by allowing the contractor to pull up time-stamped snapshots of projects instead of paying attorneys to dig through past documentation.
"That alone has paid for it," he said.
Digital inspection will be crucial as IIJA projects gear up. State Departments of Transportation pay contractors based on measurable criteria such as asphalt tonnage poured or number of acres cleared, said Tom Webb, vice president of strategy/R&D for Texas-based HCSS, a civil business software provider.
Horizontal construction companies are a step ahead of state agencies and DOTs, which have been slow to adopt technology as they've dealt with lean staffs and inefficiencies since the Great Recession, Webb said. He expects the heavier burden of IIJA projects — as well as contractors' innovation — to force these owners to start looking at tech solutions.
"There are a lot of things state DOTs track manually that contractors are already doing in an automated way," Webb said. "Over the next eight-to-ten years, you're going to see them take a step forward and start using some of these technologies. That's going to help the overall efficiency of projects."