There’s a lot of talk about the potential for e-Construction to deliver time- and cost-savings benefits and improved communications in transportation construction. Despite many examples of private industry taking the lead on alternative delivery methods, the key question remains:
How effective is e-Construction, in practice?
On March 22nd, Dr. Steve Muench, Associate Professor at the University of Washington, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, sought to answer this question as he hosted a one-hour virtual peer exchange with professional engineers David Brown, Vice President at Parsons Corporation; Mark Holmes, Construction Engineering Supervisor at Perteet, Inc.; and Ryan Forrestel, President of Cold Spring Construction, to discuss the impacts of e-Construction.
The motivation for using e-Construction, as well as the specific challenges and tools used, might be different for private industry versus owner agencies, as discussed by P.E.’s Roxi Garcia and Derek Case during our January Peer Exchange with WSDOT and TxDOT. When considering how the industry as a whole is adopting these technologies, it’s useful to consider multiple perspectives.
To briefly introduce the idea of e-Construction, we are talking paperless construction administration and delivery, as defined by the joint FHWA-AASHTO initiative with the same name. This includes electronic submission of all construction documentation by all stakeholders, electronic document routing/approvals (e-signatures), and digital management of all construction documentation within a secure environment that enables easy access to data for all project stakeholders through mobile devices.
Following are are the top five highlights from the peer exchange. A video showing its entirety is also available.
Questions #1: What e-Construction solutions does your organization use already?
Mark: “The first e-Construction tool that we went to was just using Windows tablets with digitizers on them.” The new Microsoft service allows people to write directly on the screen. Pairing that with the Bluebeam PDF editing program has allowed for paperwork to be shared electronically. Documents that would normally be generated in Word, printed, reviewed multiple times, and scanned can now be stored as PDFs to be reviewed and signed; a massive time-saver.
Last summer, Perteet also began using Pavia System’s Headlight for digital project inspections. Headlight is an iPad compatible app that stores data, photos, text and video observations, density readings, and other information on a central server with the location, weather and timestamps automatically programmed into it.
“Inspectors are able to stay out in the field throughout the entire construction day monitoring the work and then, as soon as the contractors are done for the day, Headlight allows them to automatically generate an organized IDR in the same format that we were putting together otherwise.”
David: In 2008, David’s team was working on a project where automatically capturing physical locations with work verifications would have been a great asset. The decision was made to move to Trimble data collectors when the company’s first tool was launched, and the database system used today was built around this foundation. Parson’s system is focused on extracting and condensing requirements from contract documents and making the verification process quite simple while also allowing the bare minimum of forms and documents to be used.
Ruggedized tablets that work as a desktop unit when plugged into a docking station were implemented next. The devices have a handle for carrying and to make it easy to enter on-site information. With a GPS card, exact location of data points can also be obtained. Cameras, barcode readers, and ID tag readers capture data that is synced back at the office into a database where performance observations can be generated. The data is also integrated into a CAD model. Connecting the schedule and pay on a work breakdown structure makes monthly pay requests simple operations.
Ryan: “Our earliest experiences with e-Construction were in relation to GPS survey and machine control.” Digital models of projects are produced and then exported to the field where they are used to layout and construct the job. The use of iPads allows the team to generate reports, record key points as they occur, and quickly upload information to the office, which provides more accurate and timely information.
A “home-grown” system of document management and electronic documents has also been implemented to track submittals and RFI’s, which grants remote access.
#2: Do large projects drive you to use a data management system?
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David: Design builds for projects that run from 100M to 1-2 billion are extremely fast and complex, which means that many things need to be recorded. “You need to go to an extremely sophisticated approach to capturing data and you can’t be filling out forms, you can’t be trying to organize forms into a box or a filing cabinet. You’ve got to collect data once at the source and have it all interconnected so you can run reports based on a quick analysis.”
According to David, useful data and work can be collected with only half the inspection staff granted clear requirements are defined and the right tools, data structure and backend are used.
#3: How do you deliver the data?
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Mark: With Headlight, clients can be given a login and they can watch for themselves. Through the use of a 4G card, field data is collected in real time and automatically uploaded to the server which clients can monitor through their own read-only login. “One of my clients regularly pulls photos and specific information from the system into reports that she gives to her board of directors. The fact that she has the ability to pull the information on her own gives her a lot of freedom and access she wouldn’t normally get.”
David: “Collecting data is one thing, but you have to have to analyze it for it to be useful. You have to have a way of getting it out and viewing it and seeing the trends of the data. That to me is the big powerful usage of a sophisticated system.”
Daily reports and summaries of performance based upon discipline of work, areas of work, or by time frame can be generated along with field data that is collected. Additionally, PDF reports are published and stored in a document management system as well as monthly, quarterly, and end-of-project reports summarizing all the data for that time period.
At the end of a project, the data is compiled into a massive Excel spreadsheet which provides links to attachments, photos, images, and verifications that is provided back to the agency or firm.
#4: Has anyone ever asked you to quantify the benefits you get from these things?
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David: “On some projects, our system to deploy and to get people engaged — the cost of the hardware and software — runs about one half to one percent of the contract value. But looking at the cost savings and reduction of inspection staff, and speeding the close out of a project are extremely valuable. “We’ve gone through and estimated savings of between four and five percent versus a traditional approach of having inspectors filling out forms and trying to manage all those paper or documents.”
Mark: “We’re saving probably an hour to two hours a day with the Headlight application. It does not necessarily always reflect in a savings in our billing or how much time our inspectors are on the job. There likely is some savings there. But the bigger benefit is that it allows our inspectors to do a better job, staying out in the field and collecting more data in a more organized, useful format.”
Ryan: “We’ve done more specific quantifications of the savings on some of our earlier e-Construction processes, particularly the machine control type work and the 3D modeling and survey applications….When it comes to things like document tracking and tracking RFI’s, the biggest value of everybody having access to that information from anywhere, at any time, is avoiding mistakes caused when somebody doesn’t have that information in the field. The cost is astronomical compared to the cost of this kind of an e-Construction system. So there’s a huge return on investment there.”
Also, the ability to track submittals throughout and push them through the process without scheduling consequences is where the real value comes in.
#5: Is it getting to the point where e-Construction is a must-have?
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David: “I relate what we’re doing in the digital data collection side of things to the transition from ink and Mylar for drawing plans to going to CAD.” Get rid of all those 11×17 sheets of paper and many books of specifications and standards — digital tablets house the plans, GPS and WBS linkages, and they collect the data. This is the way the world is going and the industry has to accommodate that.
For the most part, e-Construction is used by CEIs and contractors because of its inherent value, and not because the tools are required. There are certainly kinks to work out. There are changes, and change management is definitely in order. But e-Construction is clearly the way of the future in transportation construction delivery.