In a recent Q&A series on the GovDesignHub, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) Casey Dinges talked about the state of U.S. infrastructure, and the importance of investment now to both improve our infrastructure grading and spur the economy beyond COVID-19. To learn more about some of the new tools and innovations that are available to the civil engineers, architects, and construction personnel that will work to improve that infrastructure grade, we sat down with U.S. CAD’s Vice President of Professional Services, Chris Keck.
During our discussion, Chris, a licensed civil engineer himself, suggests that the need for increased productivity and overcoming the obstacles of our past infrastructure failures are the grounds for new overlapping of technologies, like model-based construction and cloud-based solutions, which are leading to collaboration and shared learning.
Here is what else he had to say:
GovDesignHub(GDH): In recent years, the U.S. has had some relatively low ratings by the ASCE in regard to infrastructure. Can you detail the realities of the country’s infrastructure today?
Chris Keck: The country’s infrastructure is lacking the required funding needed to keep existing facilities maintained, expanded, or improved – we’re not keeping pace with the country’s growth.
I default to the experts who are in the trenches doing the research and reporting on the details and specifics of the infrastructure’s low grades. However, I do believe it is hard to ignore things like the failing roads, or the demand for the delivery of healthy drinking water to growing communities.
GDH: Why is it getting such a low grade?
Chris Keck: A growing population and aging infrastructure that requires significant funding for maintenance and improvements are nothing new to the U.S. Since 1998 when the Report Card on America’s Infrastructure began being published, we’ve seen only marginal improvement in our country’s grade, if at all.
Primarily, this is a funding issue that does not receive the level of attention or priority required to see significant improvements in our rating. ASCE indicates a $2 trillion, ten- year investment gap, with a need to increase investment in the next five years from 2.5 percent to 3.5 percent GDP.
Comparatively, there is a lack of innovation within the broader infrastructure industry. Materials used are only moderately progressing and require the same level of funding, if not more, to maintain. We’ve deferred investment dollars and lacked a clear, smart, sustainable vision for what our country’s infrastructure should look like. New approaches, technologies, and materials are needed to create a more resilient infrastructure.
GDH: Some experts are projecting that large infrastructure projects could be on the horizon following the COVID-19 pandemic. Do you share in this opinion?
Chris Keck: I agree with the experts and believe that there are a number of legislative infrastructure funding related items that are in the queue that will come to fruition following the pandemic. There seems to be support from both sides of the aisles to see the proposed funding for infrastructure as current programs like the FAST Act begin to sunset.
GDH: What about the current environment makes it a good one for infrastructure development and construction?
Chris Keck: I believe that the opportunity exists right now to make the improvements thanks to a large population that are off of the roads and bridges as a result of restrictions related to COVID-19. The work-from-home environment makes roadways more accessible than what will be seen in a post-COVID environment.
Job levels have gone down in a variety of sectors as a result of the pandemic’s impact. Getting people into a safe work environment and building our nation’s infrastructure may be a viable option to turn some of those numbers around sooner than later.
There is some careful planning that needs to occur to make that a reality, alongside identifying “shovel-ready” projects that can be quickly set in motion.
GDH: We’ve seen a massive shift in the technology used across the AEC industry in the past few years. CAD has given way to BIM and there is a new generation of collaboration tools and solutions meant to improve workflows. What are these new technologies and solutions?
Chris Keck: I would agree that there is a bigger push toward model-based construction going on right now. The advances in reality capture and augmented reality are helping with the adoption within the infrastructure world, especially when combined with asset management solutions to assist maintenance teams. Cloud-based solutions are allowing for better collaboration with internal and external team members, and machine-controlled construction is starting to gain momentum in the infrastructure arena.
In the future, I would anticipate AI applications to start to become more prevalent. The key to all of these advances will be found in the capability to create accurate digital models in a standardized, common format.
GDH: What impact are they having on how the government designs and builds new infrastructure?
Chris Keck: Agencies that are embracing advancements in technologies are realizing benefits such as decreased risk, lower project costs, better quality designs, and quicker delivery of design and construction.
There may be an interesting correlation with a retiring generation from the government sector and newer staff having a willingness to embrace technology. We may see adoption rates accelerate as a result. This would go a long way in changing a stigma often used to describe government agencies as slow.
GDH: What are the benefits of these new design and collaboration solutions? What is the ROI for the government user? How do they benefit the taxpayer?
Chris Keck: The taxpayer realizes the benefit as government agencies start to realize organizational change. In other words, as the technology is implemented correctly within various government departments there will be significant efficiency gains in project approval, delivery, and construction.
Additionally, we have seen the private sector capitalize on improved project costs as a result of implementing better collaboration solutions, which means that the taxpayer’s dollar can stretch farther.
GDH: Can you tell us about any new technologies or methods, like prefabrication, that can help to expedite infrastructure projects? What do these new methodologies look like? How are they enabled by digital design solutions?
Chris Keck: Right now, we are seeing that the advances in technologies and methods within the fabrication and construction world are starting to blend. With more construction firms bringing high-tech fabrication facilities to vertical job sites that utilize digital models, it won’t be long before we see this realized more commonly within the infrastructure world.
Machine learning is making significant advances that will change the way in which we have traditionally approached civil construction. Additionally, we are seeing innovative pioneers bringing advances to methodologies from outside the infrastructure world into this space to make giant leaps in how things are built. I believe we will continue to see this trend increase, and it will occur more rapidly as infrastructure becomes more and more of a priority.
GDH: U.S. CAD is running a series of monthly Webinars called, “Infrastructure Tuesdays.” What types of topics are these virtual events covering? Who should attend these events and what can they expect to learn from them?
Chris Keck: U.S. CAD has been running monthly webinars for the past several years to help better equip the infrastructure industry. We have a team of passionate, smart individuals who have a heart to help people. They recognize that many companies make large investments to bring solutions to their team members, but oftentimes the efficiency gains of these technologies are not fully realized.
We want to do our best to help the infrastructure industry take advantage of their investments. Our bet is that if we can help educate this industry on what’s possible with their technology solutions, they will bring better designs, ideas, efficient methods, cost savings, etc. to our industry today, and in the future.
The webinar series has been tailored to not only engage those that are immersed in the technology daily, but also for those who are making decisions on what technology their company should invest in. Those that attend will get immediate “tips and tricks” that they can apply to their current projects as well as ideas for future investments in technology and process improvement.
We realize that we cannot solve every issue or highlight every emerging solution in a short webinar, but we want to make sure that we are bringing knowledge that is concise, impactful, and applicable to as many people as possible.
Those that have attended past sessions include private, civil engineering firm owners, end-users, project managers, and designers. Over the past year of running the series, we’ve seen more teams join together in their respective conference rooms to participate as a group. This has generated great conversations and sparked new transformative initiatives within those organizations. Additionally, we are seeing that many government agencies are following this practice and attending in larger groups to try and determine how their team can implement the ideas being presented.
To learn more about rebuilding America’s infrastructure and the role that digital design solutions play in the AEC lifecycle of large infrastructure projects, click HERE, to register for the upcoming “Infrastructure Tuesday” series of Webinars.