Prepare Your Systems Now for a Bridge Infrastructure Work Surge

It’s coming! After decades of delays, Congress has approved funding for significant bridge infrastructure upgrades across the United States. 

Are you ready?

One of the weakest aspects of bridge construction and maintenance work has always been — and still is — the processes and systems that businesses use for: 

  • Planning and developing new bridges.
  • Getting structures approved for use.
  • Inspecting and maintaining existing viaducts.
  • Identifying problem areas.
  • Reporting to government agencies and the general public on the condition of bridges. 

In today’s tech-savvy world, cumbersome manual processes, old systems, and antiquated software are often used to do all these things.

These less-than-adequate processes and systems:

  • Waste money.
  • Prevent firms from being as efficient as possible.
  • Expose businesses to legal and regulatory risks.
  • Limit transparency with key stakeholders.
  • Hinder fraud detection efforts.
  • Make it impossible to generate or access data that could make things better.

Many firms in the bridge industry have been able to get by in this “old world” because they weren’t that busy. That’s about to change!

Building and maintaining bridges requires rigorous planning, project management, procurement, testing, and reporting processes. Staying diligent is the only way to build safe bridges that will last a long time. However, the current processes and procedures — and software and systems — used by most businesses make it difficult to efficiently develop and maintain safe structures that government agencies can rapidly approve for use. It’s only going to get worse as things get busier.

Now that the infrastructure bill has been passed by Congress and signed into law by President Biden, companies in the bridge industry must improve and upgrade their processes and systems to be able to use the infrastructure funding as quickly and efficiently as possible to repair and build new structures.

This article will go over a few of the issues that many businesses in the bridge industry will face because of antiquated processes and systems and what it will take to remedy them and be prepared for the greater demand — and faster pace — of work ahead. 

Complying with government regulations

Federal, state, and local transportation agencies all have their own specifications and requirements for construction techniques and materials that must be used to build different types of bridges. Each also has its own testing and reporting requirements and procedures. Despite the complexity of keeping track of — and staying in compliance with — all these rules and regulations, many businesses still keep this information in three-ring binders or file folders. It isn’t easy to find information stored this way when it’s needed. Also, printed materials can quickly become outdated. Using old requirements can put a business at risk of designing structures that are not compliant with current regulations. Reworking incorrect designs cuts into the profitability of jobs.

Bridge businesses that are more advanced and access information online directly from government agencies don’t necessarily increase their efficiency or accuracy that much. Many of these companies store their data on legacy systems that don’t connect, and they typically use last-generation software. Relying on old-school tech can lead to inefficiencies and errors or omissions when data is moved from one type of software to another or from system to system.

How bad is the problem? Of all the construction professionals surveyed for the 2020 JB Knowledge ConTech report, just over 60% use three to six or more software applications to conduct business. Almost three out of 10 said that none of the applications that they use integrate with each other and/or most outside sources of information. Nearly half of survey respondents get over this by using manual methods to transfer data between non-integrated applications and sources, while others leverage spreadsheets and email. Any time that data is transferred this way, it’s risky.

For example, when a business needs to demonstrate that it has met quality control and quality assurance specifications, it can require on-site sampling, lab testing, and agency validation. The reporting typically involves many companies, tools, data formats, and reporting structures that take time to navigate and increase the opportunity to introduce errors. These mistakes could result in significant fines and legal actions.

A study from FMI, a construction consulting and investment banking firm for engineers, reports that construction professionals spent 35% of their time on non-contracting activities, including looking for information, dealing with mistakes, and doing rework. Automating the processes for tracking against state, local, and federal construction and materials requirements would help reduce waste and risk by streamlining workflows and preventing confusion. 

Wasting time

Every time that data is moved from paper to software, from software to software, or from system to system, it costs businesses money, time, and effort to facilitate these transitions. For example, when companies use paper tickets to manage the transit of materials and physical bills to pay for them, it requires multiple labor hours to record and process these transactions.

Time wasted on manual activities could be better used on designing, inspecting, maintaining, and building bridges.

Hindering transparency

Everyone in the bridge development, inspection, and maintenance industries — from project owners to state labs, contractors, and project engineers — is dedicated to real-time transparency while projects are going on. It’s the only way to ensure that everyone involved can do their jobs effectively and that bridges are safe and will remain structurally sound for a long time.

Communicating to the general public about how serious the bridge sector is about keeping them safe will help it regain their trust after all the bridge collapses and failures that have made the news in recent years. However, such communications are hard to develop if data isn’t available to support them. Talking about bridge safety without statistics rings hollow and may actually lose the public’s trust rather than gain it.

Identifying data irregularities 

The disconnected structure of business systems and cumbersome reporting methods make it almost impossible to figure out the cause of data inconsistencies. Not being able to figure out why numbers aren’t lining up often results in invoicing disputes, delayed payments, or under- or over-payment. 

Here’s one example of this: The Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) overpaid road builders by more than $4 million in a single year for substandard work. A federal investigation of the incident found that people working for a construction firm, or ITD staff members, changed asphalt quality test results, which were tied to how much the state would pay the company for the asphalt. 

For several years, officials tried to figure out what caused the discrepancies. The investigation involved examining many data capture and reporting systems, some paper-based and others computerized. Despite all the effort, it was never clear whether the contractor or ITD changed the results, which people were involved, or exactly why it happened. It could have been anything, from fraud to laziness and computer system issues.

Regardless, the lack of a clear data trail resulted in the reputation of a business being destroyed. Even worse, taxpayers were forced to pay for substandard asphalt work and to pick up significant investigative expenses.

In situations like this one, an automated, verifiable, and centralized source of data would reduce the accountability issues that exist across the bridge inspection, maintenance, and development industries.

So, what can businesses do to improve their situations and plan for the future?

Despite all this negativity, there is positive news. Most bridge and road construction company owners agree that modern systems that facilitate effective and efficient data collection, analysis, movement, and reporting would improve productivity and prevent costly project delays. According to the Commercial Construction Index from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 78% of contractors agree that advanced technologies enhance productivity.

Technology that improves access to and grants the ability to search — data will streamline workflows, improve stakeholder visibility, and support a data-first approach to project planning and management. 

As we enter a period of extraordinary maintenance and development due to the new infrastructure funding, the number-one priority for companies in the bridge industry is to take a big step into the modern age. They should prioritize investing in best-in-class, cloud-based technologies to simplify the planning, materials management, and other processes that they rely on to get the job done. It’s the surest way to improve efficiencies, increase collaboration, reduce risk, and provide greater transparency and access to data to stakeholders, including taxpayers.

Firms should partner with tech experts experienced in working with construction companies. The right system, software, and equipment package varies from firm to firm, and a professional can guide you to the ideal solution for your business, help you set it up, maintain it over time, and scale it as your business grows.