Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation

The agency credits GPS, LiDAR, and internal database with 30% efficiency gain.

By Lori Tobias

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Trisha Stefanski, asset management program office manager for the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), is still getting used to thinking of her agency as a domain-area leader.

At a recent conference, she found herself listening to an in-depth discussion about design construction. “They were literally into the weeds of design construction. And I’m thinking, ‘I don’t know if I should be here,’” said Stefanski. 

Then, she took the mic and began talking about MnDOT’s asset management programs. “And I’m telling you I had five people afterwards saying, ‘Please, can you send us your data dictionaries? Can you send us information about how you did it and what you’re doing?’”

Over roughly the past 15 years, MnDOT has overhauled its asset management process.  They’ve incorporated tech like handheld GPS devices and LiDAR as well as developed their own databases with reams of organized, accessible information. The new process has boosted the efficiency of the asset management process by 30-percent, agency leaders say.

Stefanski recalls the years when MnDOT was just beginning to collect asset data for its inventory.

“Some agencies will do a corridor approach where they’re recording their maintenance information on, for example, a corridor,” Stefanski said. “We said we really want to know the (total) number of signs we have out there. We want to know the number of guardrails … and so, we started collecting those things with GPS handheld devices.”

It wasn’t always easy. Some maintenance workers were resistant to the change. In at least one instance, workers accidentally ran over handheld devices. But Stefanski knew the initiative would pay off. When a consultant recommended the use of LiDAR to collect the data, it unlocked even greater efficiencies.

“It was safer, faster, more efficient ways to collect the data. We were reviewing that data and saying, ‘Hey, this is going to be super helpful,” Stefanski said. “It’s going to be helpful to know, ‘How many assets do we own? How much do they cost? When do we replace them? What’s the condition and then also, how can we use this data for design. This was the beginning of that 30 percent efficiency (gain).’”

Next, MnDOT staff developed a database for the information they were gathering, which could then be pulled directly into the design plans.

Not only was the data more accessible, but it was also much more detailed. Now, it wasn’t just a sign, but a sign with all the attributes – the type of sign, the color, the size, the structure, the direction it faced. Today, MnDOT has identified 78 asset classes, including bridges, signals, lights, barriers, signage, geotechnical assets, and special drainage. The program is so successful that Stefanski and her colleagues make presentations about it nationwide.

“There are so many ways that we can make better decisions if we know the number of assets that we have, the condition of the assets, and when those assets should be replaced,” she said. “In addition, we can either lower the lifecycle cost or extend the lifecycle of the asset and save money as an agency.”

Along with increased efficiency, asset management also helps agencies adhere to government regulations, as well as identify risks. “If you’re going to replace a noise wall, what’s the risk associated with it? How do we make trade-off decisions based on risk?”

It also helps the agency channel its resources to its most pressing needs.

“When maintenance operations says, ‘Hey, we have a barrier that’s been hit or we have drainage that needs to be reset, what are our priorities? What should we be doing? It’s all based on asset management principles, and it’s all based on knowing what’s happened historically, responding, and being more proactive.”

Looking to the future, Stefanski is focusing on interoperability, utilizing asset data for design, and sharing it throughout the MnDOT system. She’s also looking to leverage LiDAR as well as 3D design and modeling in the field. This will allow them to track data in real time.

“The future’s bright,” Stefanski said. “There’s a lot of equipment with new gadgets and GPS. It’s amazing, remarkable, I think, how efficient we’ll become.”