Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation

The U.S. infrastructure construction industry risks falling behind on digital project delivery, at a high cost to the public. 

By Lori Tobias 

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On the face of it, the Randselva Bridge in Hønefoss, Norway doesn’t appear that special.  

It’s 2,080 foot-long span crosses a river, forest and railway. At its tallest point, it’s 180 feet. Its construction includes 200,000 rebars and 250 post-tensioning cables. 

But the feature winning this bridge headlines around the world is what you won’t find: paper. The Randselva Bridge is the largest bridge in the world to be built solely with 3D models – and with a design team working from four different countries, no less. 

The bridge, located about an hour’s drive from Oslo, is the envy of engineers and contractors around the world, including, of course, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). The agency hopes to join Norway in its advanced use of digital technology someday soon. And there’s no doubt it will – the question is whether it will come soon enough.  

“The technology and data standards exist today to make digital construction and digital lifecycle management of assets possible,” said Heidi Berg, business development manager, Trimble’s Norwegian division. “Our challenge in the United States is a mental issue only; we have to change our thinking and adopt what has already been successful within the Nordic region. It will not be easy, but it’s a proven model that can be followed.” 

In Norway, government infrastructure projects are managed digitally, from conceptual design to the construction phase. Paperless management then proceeds to the management of the assets once they’ve been built, said Doug Reichard, director of transportation and infrastructure, NA Trimble Global Accounts. There are no plan sets; no drawings. 

But the Nordic country didn’t go from 2D to 3D modeling overnight. In fact, it took a full decade of training and development, of revising systems and rewriting contract language. They had to create binary systems, plugins and a common data environment. Today, the country’s 3D transportation project models sit in a cloud, allowing everyone to work on the same model. 

“They spent a lot of time fixing the process first,” said Reichard. “Then the state or the Norwegian road authority could turn around and tell the contractors, ‘You’re going to do this, OK?’ Otherwise, you’re not going to get a contract with us. So, of course, they comply.” 

Here in the U.S., the FHWA has been working to catch up. For the past 12 years, the agency has worked with their state DOT partners to implement the newest tools and innovations through the Every Day Counts (EDC) partnership with the states. The program launched in 2010 and is currently in its seventh round. Described by the FHWA as “a state-based model that identifies and rapidly deploys proven, yet underutilized innovations,” EDC panel members currently operate on a two-year cycle. 

Front line state DOT officials relevant to the specific initiatives have gathered at Regional Innovation Summits every two years since 2010 and most recently at a virtual summit in 2020 due to the pandemic. The purpose of the summits is to brief officials on the content of the multiple initiatives selected by FHWA, and for the participants to select the innovations they believe will work best for their state and discuss how they’ll implement them. They then return to their states and review their recommendations with their State Transportation Innovation Councils (STIC) which include stakeholders from local infrastructure agencies, the private sector and academia. 

“Since the inception of EDC, each state has used 20 or more of the 52 innovations promoted through Every Day Counts, and some states have deployed more than 45,” FWHA reports. “Many of these innovations have become mainstream practices across the country. By advancing 21st century solutions, the transportation community is making every day count to ensure our roads and bridges are built better, faster, and smarter.” 

In particular, two innovations from the most recent round of the EDC program – e-ticketing and digital as-builts – are gaining significant momentum. E-ticketing provides infrastructure construction stakeholders with the technology to produce, share, track and verify material deliveries digitally. Meanwhile, digital as-builts use digital data, such as 3D models, to design and construct road projects.  

“Twenty-seven state DOTs have signed up for digital as-builts and 43 have signed up for e-ticketing, which is a record for EDC,” said Greg Nadeau, publisher of InfraTalk America, a former FHWA administrator and architect of EDC. “There is an ongoing growing commitment among the institutions to advance digitization of project delivery. It’s a very challenging endeavor but the scope of what they have to accomplish is being embraced significantly in a number of states.” 

The process for digitizing infrastructure projects is clearly progressing, but it needs to move faster, said Ed Shappell, director of digital delivery services at Trimble, Inc. And there’s good reason – cost savings, safety and efficiency among the most important. 

“The reason Norway had to adopt a process sooner and faster than the US is that their particular landscape and how they build infrastructure is much more costly over the lifecycle,” said Shappell. “Basically, you can’t build a rail or road project there without tunnels and bridges, which are very expensive assets to maintain. And so, this actually started out of the need to be much more efficient with the dollars they had.” 

The efficiency gains from digital project delivery add up. From 2021 to 2022, CalTrans calculated it saved $7 million through the use of Automated Machine Guidance (AMG), a technology that uses positioning devices, such as Global Positioning Systems, total stations, or rotating laser levels to determine and control the real time positions of construction equipment such as bulldozers, blades, scrapers and paving machines.  

Florida DOT estimates it can save 25 percent in work related to estimating, scheduling and value-engineering through using digital project delivery technologies. 

With models already established in places like Norway, there’s no reason for the U.S. to start at square one. By reaching out and learning from experts and by working with each other, the US can advance its construction technology and be leaders in the field.    

“This shouldn’t take us 10 years,” said Shappell. “We already have the model for success. Norway spent 10 years doing things wrong, experimenting. Let’s take their data standard example and their technology, and replicate it. Let’s work together.”