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Innovating America’s Infrastructure: How Civil Engineers Can Rise to the Challenge

BIM for civil engineering

Leveraging BIM for Civil Engineering 

America’s infrastructure is in desperate need of repair and reimagining. Government agencies at the federal, state and local levels are wrestling with how to improve the condition of the country’s roads, tunnels, and bridges while also facing funding shortages and rising construction costs. 


“More than 46% of E&C executives surveyed in a Deloitte post-election poll indicate that new public infrastructure work will be a significant part of their business.” 
- Source: 2021 Engineering & Construction Industry Outlook, Deloitte

 

The U.S. is already lagging behind other countries in infrastructure quality, creating even more pressure on stakeholders to address these challenges. Furthermore, it’s no secret that the construction industry suffers from a productivity problem, and the urgency to modernize America’s failing infrastructure is only exacerbating it

Initiatives like Every Day Counts (EDC) from the Federal Highway Administration (FWHA) are bringing these issues to the forefront and raising the bar on how infrastructure projects are designed and delivered. As agencies increasingly come on board and push for more innovation, civil engineers will need to adapt to remain competitive. But there are challenges to overcome. 

 

Owner Requirements Can Put Civil Engineers in a Reactive Position

Regardless of the technologies and processes, you use internally, your final deliverables are determined by owner requirements. If you can’t offer deliverables that align with their preferences and expectations, you can’t compete. The status quo is a disjointed process, where it’s common to encounter issues with file conversions, data loss, disparate models, errors, and ambiguity. 

Along the way, at least some of your design intent is lost and, despite how meticulous you are, important specifications can be omitted. These information-sharing challenges get in the way of providing constructible designs that can be built efficiently and cost-effectively. The problem is made more complex by the volume and complexity of stakeholders on each project, and the lack of technology standardization in the U.S. construction industry. 

Even though attitudes about technology adoption are slowly changing, without standardization, issues around data portability still loom large. And the industry has struggled to truly exploit technology: only 32% of construction and engineering firms say they're very or extremely good at using digital technology to improve business process efficiency. Firms need solutions that give them the flexibility to meet owners where they are while also providing higher quality deliverables that improve efficiency and cost control in the design process and downstream.

 

Data Fragmentation Exposes Infrastructure Projects to Increased Risks & Costs

Technological hurdles also make it more difficult to produce complete, constructible models, increasing the risk of structural failures and safety hazards that put you at risk of lawsuits and reputational damage. When you’re expected to design to a lower level of detail (LOD), important data is left out of the model, creating the potential for errors that create safety hazards. 

To compensate for a lack of visibility into environmental conditions, existing structures, and other real-world project details, over-designing, and rework are common. It’s not that the information isn’t available. The problem is that there’s no single source of truth that captures the data you need to produce an accurate and constructible model, as well as changes made after the project is handed off to be constructed. Plus, once the model is sent to a contractor or supplier, it will likely be reproduced and modified, but the changes will never make their way back to you. There’s no audit trail of who made changes and what changes they made.

The costly ramifications of errors 

The cost of errors in construction is staggering. A U.K. study from the Get It Right Initiative found that errors cost the construction industry £10–25 billion ($13.4-33.6 billion USD) per year. Allianz, a leading commercial insurer, reports that claims for design defects and poor workmanship are on the rise, and account for 27% of engineering claims. 

In 2018, a 950-ft., partially built pedestrian bridge at Florida International University (FIU) collapsed, killing six and injuring 10. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found it was caused by calculation errors on the part of the engineering firm. The firm is currently suspended from working on any federal projects and may face a 10-year ban. They were also fired from a bridge contract. 

The bridge was a design-build project, and before a settlement was reached, there were questions about how liability may be shared between the engineering firm and the contractor. Having an audit trail of who made decisions and when could help determine the levels of liability.

 

The Construction Sector Is Finally Ready to Embrace Innovation

To avoid catastrophes like the FIU bridge collapse, and to address concerns around project costs, safety, and performance, the industry is coming to terms with the changes needed to innovate. Engineers and contractors working in silos and perpetuating a “throw it over the fence” mentality is hurting overall productivity and project delivery. That’s evident in the way the construction sector lags behind other sectors. Globally, labor productivity has grown 2.8% a year on average over the last two decades, with some industries growing much faster. But in comparison, construction productivity grew a meager 1% per year. 

Multi-disciplinary organizations and government agencies have begun the process of improving technology and processes to address these challenges. Though the U.S. has lagged in BIM adoption, industry associations, federal agencies, and state DOTs are finally making meaningful headway. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), along with 17 state DOTs, is working to standardize BIM for bridges and structures, with the Industry Foundation Classes (IFC) scheduled for release in 2021.

Infrastructure innovation in action 

Innovation programs are in progress throughout the country, each with their own ambitious goals and specific areas of focus. Several states have piloted 3D modeling for infrastructure projects, with Utah DOT (which has embraced an all-3D workflow) and Pennsylvania DOT (which has implemented an initiative to enable bidding in 3D format by 2025) leading the pack. The FHWA’s EDC program, now in its sixth iteration, is promoting proven innovations like e-ticketing and digital as-builts. And safety initiatives such as Vision Zero seek to eliminate traffic accidents through a multi-disciplinary approach, starting with designing road systems to anticipate and lessen the severity of inevitable crashes.

Owners are also growing increasingly interested in design for operations, the process of managing construction, operations and maintenance costs through the design process. Technology and collaboration are fundamental to achieving that goal. Additionally, more than half of contractors are using advanced technology on the jobsite (such as automated machine control), with the goals of improving safety, scheduling, and productivity. Altogether, the industry is ready to innovate, and higher standards are inevitable. Engineers face an important choice: either wait until you’re forced to innovate, or lead the charge. Forward-thinking firms will get a head start on establishing themselves as capable partners for meeting increasingly high standards. 


Improving Infrastructure Project Delivery at the Engineering & Design Stage

As more owners see the value of BIM models, digital as-builts and other innovative techniques, you can expect owners to require them on an increasing basis. Savvy civil engineers can get in front of these inevitable shifts by proactively working to improve collaboration and design more constructible models now.

A shared 3D model facilitates better collaboration

Using a shared 3D model has the potential to significantly improve the delivery and ongoing management of infrastructure assets. For example, 3D models reduce the number of drawings produced for a project considerably: while a traditional approach may result in more than 1,100 drawings, using a 3D BIM model reduces that number to 89, a 90% reduction. 3D models also provide the foundation for performing visualizations and using augmented reality to better understand the conditions on the jobsite. They enable better sight distance analyses by integrating visualizations that allow you to assess visual obstructions, road curvature, and grading. And the same model can be referenced for future improvements, as well as ongoing operations and maintenance.

 

“Using 3D data, designers and engineers [can] now generate building profiles and building parts/components in real-time and help enable a connected construction environment virtually. These advances in technologies can help in identifying how structures are progressing during the construction phases. Since all data is aggregated into a digital dashboard, project managers and project teams can have real-time status updates.”
Winning with Connected Construction, Deloitte

 

When engineers and contractors collaborate around a shared model, they're able to identify and resolve design issues and site challenges earlier in the process, before construction begins. Fixing those discrepancies in the model reduces rework and the cost overruns that come with it. Better collaboration also produces a more constructible model, which in turn leads to time and cost savings.

A higher LOD improves efficiency and cost control

No matter how meticulous and collaborative you may be within your own company, contractors and project owners are often not receiving enough detail for the design to be constructible. This leads to rework, requests for information (RFIs), and change orders. While some of this inefficiency is unavoidable, there needs to be much less of it to effectively reduce costs and risk. Better data sharing and collaboration are part of the equation, but so is designing to a higher LOD to ensure models are constructible as designed. 

Designing to a higher LOD not only reduces the number of RFIs that your firm must process and address, it also provides cost savings and efficiencies downstream in the construction and asset management process. A higher LOD enables contractors and suppliers to make decisions more quickly and confidently, reducing bottlenecks and errors. Asset owners reap the benefits of better cost control and time management. And with the increased demand for safety, operations, and maintenance considerations in the design process, a higher LOD enables you to better convey how your design solves for those challenges. 

 

The combined direct and indirect costs associated with
design errors average more than 14% of contract value.
—Journal of Construction Engineering and Management


A better BIM collaboration process supports digital as-builts and efficient asset management [H3]
Industry initiatives such as the FHWA’s EDC-6 are promoting innovations like digital as-builts to drive collaboration and the scheduling and cost benefits that come with it. Digital as-builts rely on shared and continuously updated BIM models to produce accurate depictions of the final as-built asset. 

By acting as a repository for utilities, alignments, geometrics, surfaces, materials, and relevant metadata, the digital as-built gives project owners ready access to the information needed for efficient and proactive maintenance and management, as well as future design improvements. A digital as-built can also serve as a digital twin, which is an exact digital replica of the physical asset, that acts as an always-current source of truth about an asset. When integrated with AI and IoT devices, the digital twin provides real-time information on an asset’s current conditions and properties. 

By producing digital as-builts using centralized and shared models, project owners are able to realize significant improvements in safety, quality, and cost control. As these advantages become more well-known throughout the civil construction industry, the increased use of shared models will not only be increasingly widespread but will likely become a requirement.


Gain a Competitive Advantage by Being on the Cutting Edge of BIM for Civil Engineering 

Owners are looking to designers to solve their lofty goals for safety, sustainability, cost-effectiveness, and productivity. They have data from GIS, commuter devices, GPS, etc. that can help inform design decisions, but that data needs to be aggregated, incorporated, or at least considered in your deliverables throughout the entire process. If you can position yourself as part of the solution to the problems that plague civil projects, you’ll be a better, more attractive partner to owners. 

Embracing BIM collaboration makes you a better partner as a civil engineer

Owners need partners who are considering the full lifecycle of the asset, not just their contribution to the project, and they understand how critical it is to start off on the right foot with the design process. To align with industry initiatives such as EDC-6 and Vision Zero, they’re looking for partners who are embracing tools that allow for better collaboration and data sharing and can deliver more accurate and constructible designs. Firms that fail to tackle these issues risk getting left behind.

Unlock the full potential of BIM for infrastructure

Today’s construction technology enables you to collaborate more effectively and deliver more constructible designs. Connected construction allows you to capture and centralize all pertinent data from the start, and in a real-time bidirectional workflow as information is updated. With shared data, all parties can connect to a single source of truth and see what has changed across systems. Software-agnostic collaboration helps you break down internal and external silos and avoid data duplication. 

Designing higher-quality, more constructible designs helps you deliver on your promises more effectively, thereby building and safeguarding your reputation. Using a shared BIM model enables you to perform simulations and analyses to assess constructability, sustainability, and safety before you deliver final designs. Designing to a higher LOD allows you to communicate the full intent of your designs more effectively and reduce omissions or design issues that can lead to construction errors or even failures.

As other parts of the world adopt higher LOD standards and see the positive impact it has on costs and scheduling, expect those same standards to eventually make their way to the U.S.. Even if your contracts don’t require a higher LOD yet, you can be on the leading edge by offering a more sophisticated design process.  

 

Close Communication Gaps and Design to a Higher LOD with BIM Collaboration Software

The opportunity to be involved in U.S. infrastructure projects is huge as the new administration pushes its proposed $2 trillion plan. Firms that can set themselves apart by facilitating better collaboration and producing more constructible designs stand to gain the most as DOTs are facing pressure to make the most of the dollars they receive. 

Civil engineers can play an integral role in improving communication and collaboration throughout the design and construction process and enhancing safety and performance after an asset has been built. A cloud-based BIM server can streamline workflows and reduce communication errors without overhauling your technology suite. 

Utilizing cloud-based BIM collaboration software like Trimble Quadri, you can break down the communication barriers between stakeholders. By bringing all project stakeholders together around a shared 3D model, which serves as a single source of truth about the project, you can create a common understanding of the project and realize improvements in project safety, quality, and delivery. 

Because Quadri enables open collaboration in a multiuser, common data environment, you can experience the benefits of BIM collaboration while continuing to use the software programs you rely on most. By integrating the tools used by both engineers and contractors, Trimble Quadri provides the missing link needed to connect design intent to the ultimate constructibility of the asset. 

Learn more about how you can facilitate cooperation and produce higher-quality designs to gain a competitive edge.

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