Even in a year of massive uncertainty, investment continues to pour into infrastructure projects across the country. The job of leading these projects largely falls on the shoulders on the states’ local Department of Transportation (DOT) and other government agencies, where new ideas are pushing the industry forward. For Dakota Clifford, Civil Engineer at the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT), and Jesus Sandoval, Construction Liaison Engineer at the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT), innovation is vital to the future of infrastructure construction.
In a recent webinar, Dakota and Jesus discuss the issue of innovation in infrastructure construction, including what to expect when infrastructure construction is used to stimulate the economy, how public projects will be different in the rest of 2020 and beyond, and how Autodesk customers can use technology to alleviate site restrictions and project challenges during the pandemic. We caught up with Dakota and Jesus to talk about all things innovation and infrastructure. Read on for their stories and insights on how Departments of Transportation and other government agencies are innovating in infrastructure construction.
The construction industry has been through significant change in the last six months. What have your experiences been like?
Dakota: This is something that’s actually really interesting with COVID. We’re not letting our staff into the office almost at all.
When COVID came around, we were within two months of the finish line of implementing PlanGrid and tablets. We accelerated the implementation as quickly as we could. We were working probably 70-80 hour weeks for a little while there in March and April to get everything rolled out. We accelerated implementation, and that enabled us to go 100% remote. I think our team comes into the office maybe once every three to four weeks now, and they can be on their jobsite almost 100% of the time, which previously was unheard of. So that’s been a, huge change in our program from an ROI perspective.
We also lifted a lot of our lane closure restrictions. We do interstate work primarily, and with that we have time of day restrictions—we can’t have contractors closing down lanes during rush hour and things like that. Combined with the technology piece of it, the state of Virginia was actually able to lift the time of day restrictions on our highways and accelerate construction, and being able to have inspectors on site the whole time was a big piece of that. All of that fell into place all at the same time, and because of the reduction in traffic, it certainly made it easier to get our jobs done and get our projects moving ahead of schedule as a result.
Jesus: The idea of going fully electronically excites many project offices within the department and contracting community but until there is a written policy to go fully electronically, some are reluctant to try something new. It’s a horrible thing what is happening to the nation and around the world with COVID; but on the plus side, it makes it a lot easier to implement or try some of these tools, from doing web based meetings, electronic construction management to pushing the use of cloud services.
Our projects are mostly horizontal in rural areas. For an inspector, just to go back to the office to do their DWRs or to pick up a revised plan sheet, it’s anywhere from a 30-minute drive one way to maybe an hour to an hour and a half driving back and forth. Using PlanGrid, inspectors reduce the time they spend in an office updating their daily work reports and as a result, they spend more time in the field while maintaining social distancing. It makes it so much easier for contractors and inspectors to submit RFIs and paperwork without having to drive to the office.
Can you share some of the key challenges you’ve faced on public infrastructure construction jobs?
Dakota: I’ve been an engineer with the Department of Transportation for probably four years, now. I worked on some of our megaprojects down in the Hampton Roads area, our coastal regions, on some of the tunnels and things like that before coming up to our central office in Richmond. For the last two years, I’ve worked with our eConstruction program. We realized that we needed a team with an engineering background to actually champion our technology initiatives in the field. For the longest time, we’ve had IT professionals supporting us on the periphery, but no one actually taking the ball and running with it. That’s where we put together our eConstruction program.
It was myself and a coworker, a bridge engineer. We built this program out as a way to try and actually implement technology. We would recognize that there were a lot of good opportunities out there. There were tools that could serve us well if they were implemented correctly, but there was no one to actually make it happen. That’s what our task was, to basically just find ways to fix what’s broken, find ways to innovate, and figure out how to make it happen.
Jesus: The primary reason I became the Co-Chair of eConstruction was because I noticed that there was room for improvement for doing everyday business. Some of the meetings such preconstruction or PS&E were mandatory to be in person. In the field, a lot of project management involved paper documentation, plan prints, contract books, specifications, and a lot of traveling to just look at those files. That was part of the reason why I was so interested in implementing eConstruction with the DOT.
How has adopting technology helped you to overcome these challenges?
Dakota: We’ve spent about 18 months in a pilot with PlanGrid. We knew after about eight months into the pilot that we were going to be going with it, that it worked extremely well, and that it was the solution we wanted to pursue. Starting in January of this last year, we rolled it out to the state, so we trained 450 inspectors and construction staff on the use of the tool, got the contract procured and in place for all of our staff, and then equipped everybody with iPads and the equipment that goes with it and taught them all how to use that as well. That’s been my job for the last few months here.
In our program, one of the big things we’re proud of is, when we look at technology, we try as an innovation policy to make sure that we are changing the process and using off-the-shelf software as much as possible as a means to implement. A lot of folks try to build these archaic, customized, old softwares around their process, and something that we’ve really tried to encourage is to meet the technology where it’s at and recognize that these solutions were built the way they were for a reason. We try to adapt to their process instead of totally customizing the software to the point that it no longer functions correctly.
Jesus: I don’t know if other DOTs have had the same issue, but there’s a lot of IT security concerns when it comes to switching from what we know, Windows, and trying something new like iPads. For our department, it was like, “Well, we’re already using Windows, we’re not going with iPads.” So it was a bit of a struggle, and it took quite a bit of time to get those and to convince IT and upper management that we needed to at least pilot a couple of projects. Right now, we started piloting three regular projects with PlanGrid and one 3D model using BIM 360 docs going electronically as much as possible. Not everybody carries a tablet in the field but I think that, with COVID, that might change soon. Having the right tools makes it easier for field inspectors to perform their job more productively and auditors/engineers/supervisors can review the work/documentation in real time. This allows them to be more proactive as issues arise without having to travel.
Looking toward 2021 and beyond, what do you think is in store for infrastructure projects?
Dakota: Without a doubt, I think that infrastructure seems to be an easy source of stimulating the economy, for lack of a better way of saying it. There is always a demand for it. The state of Virginia has a backlog of projects years long, so we’re going to continually be trying to catch up with our backlog of projects. I think from an infrastructure perspective, we’re only going to see dramatic increases in it. And regardless of the political landscape, infrastructure always seems to be a place to stimulate the economy, and something that can be capitalized on. I mean, it’s recognized as a real and solid capital investment in our communities, and so there’s no reason to think that that’s going to change anytime soon.”
Jesus: Looking forward toward 2021 and beyond, I can see the NMDOT moving forward with the adoption of new technology and mobile devices for design submittals and construction management. This would allow for faster RFI responses, real-time documentation, and would minimize repetitive documentation by having all contract documents, plans, and specifications stored in one location. The adoption of new technology allows for better partnering between NMDOT, contractors, and other stakeholders by increasing transparency of contract documentation transmission, distribution, and storage, while saving time and money in a paperless environment.
Why are you looking forward to speaking at this webinar?
Dakota: In Virginia, we have really been able to accomplish a lot in terms of technology innovation and implementation in the last couple of years. I really am excited to be able to share that with other DOTs, and help try and point them in the right direction of making similar changes to their own programs. We’ve been able to save dramatic and impressive amounts of money here, and that’s allowed us to do a lot more in terms of our construction programs, and will continue to allow that. I think that type of innovation could be a lot more widespread than it is.
Jesus: I’m looking forward to speaking at this webinar hoping that our story helps other states to overcome some of the challenges government agencies face when trying to implement a new process or an easier way of doing business through technology and software applications.