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Engineering a Digital Bridge: What’s Your Role?

Engineering a Digital Bridge: What’s Your Role?

By Ed Shappell

The advantages of using technology and digital workflows are well documented when it comes to productivity improvements, faster issue resolution and overall project efficiency—and now those capabilities are increasingly built into contractual requirements.

As an example, the $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (formerly known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) includes money for advanced digital construction management systems and related technologies. One of the key objectives of this program is to maximize interoperability with other systems, products, tools, or applications. In fact, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law calls out 3D modeling and digital twin technology specifically, as does the Every Day Counts (EDC) program, an initiative of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) to encourage states to deploy proven technologies and processes that boost safety and efficiency.

As infrastructure spending ramps up, engineering firms – particularly civil and structural engineers – are uniquely positioned to drive digital ecosystems that significantly streamline infrastructure projects. Today’s digital focus is an opportunity for engineers to collaborate more efficiently with other project stakeholders, improve the way the infrastructure of the future is built, and even open up new digital workflows and services opportunities.

Owner Perspectives

Any engineering firm that works in the public space is likely familiar with the FHWA’s EDC program, the initiative designed to help owners deploy and benefit from digital solutions. The latest initiative, EDC6, spotlights data, or more specifically digital as-builts.

Already, digital as-builts have been shown to save time and improve safety. Digital information, such as 3D design models and other metadata, enhances the future usability of as-built plans for operations, maintenance, and asset management. According to FHWA, the number of state transportation agencies attaining the demonstration, assessment or institutionalized stages of digital as-builts is expected to grow from 10 in early 2021 to 27 by end of 2022.

The focus is on improved data creation, collection and integration throughout the project, resulting in a complete and accurate digital twin at project completion/project delivery. While the value of these digital practices and digital information is clear, the process to achieve full success is a bit more complex.

In recent years, the focus on developing digital as-builts has been on surveyors and contractors. However, engineers play a critical role in the process to communicate designs to owners and bridge the gap between engineering models and constructible models.

A familiar pain point for the engineering community is the mix of different design solutions on any given project, each with proprietary restrictions, which makes it difficult to deliver a coherent and error free dataset to the owner, surveyor and contractor. Version control, particularly during the planning and design phase, is also a challenge and source of risk for all project parties.

Connected Ecosystems

Software interoperability has long been a topic of discussion in the industry, which has led to new data standards, application programming interfaces (APIs) and other efforts to provide common ground across platforms. However, the disconnects between engineers, owners, contractors, and other project stakeholders are considerable, and often lead to project delays and budget overruns.

Organizations such as national engineering and consulting firm WSB are looking to resolve these disconnects. WSB is pioneering an improved digital pathway with a common data environment that eliminates many of the conventional digital disconnects, including engineer to-and-from owner and engineer to-and-from contractor. Called WSB’s Digital Plus ecosystem, the pathway is transforming the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s “Highway 169 Redefine” project for the public, designers, and the construction industry.

To develop the model collaboration platform, WSB and Ames Construction, the general contractor on the project, teamed with Trimble and Bentley to assure the smooth transfer of data, largely with the use of Quadri, an integrated data model collaboration platform that drives BIM-based workflows from one design file to streamline collaboration and eliminate rework. For example, with this connection and data, Ames has the ability to perform quantity takeoffs and estimates earlier in the design phase, and, ultimately, send models to survey and machine control solutions during construction. In one case, the engineering team sought to raise one of the bridges by six feet. WSB and Ames collaborated around the design model to balance earthwork quantities at the different stages, reduce the number of retaining walls and even minimize noise.

Further, Peter Muehlbach, Principal and Senior Director of Transportation Program Management at WSB and project manager for the Highway 169 Redefine project, said, “Through this cohesive and collaborative workflow, we were able to move the noise wall closer to the highway and reduce it in size by half.”

That same Digital Plus ecosystem has become the platform to submit the first 3D digital paperless plans to MnDOT for approval and helped achieve MnDOT maintenance buy-in on the design. The team has documented over $12 million in savings and moved the construction schedule ahead by four months.

Stewards of Sustainability

A digital workflow initiated and enhanced by the engineering community has benefits across a project lifecycle. In Norway, engineers relied on a digital workflow, namely parametric design, to design the Randselva Bru, a 634-meter long concrete box girder bridge near the city of Hønefoss, The complex bridge has a main span of 200 meters and six piers that range in height between five and 42 meters. At its highest point, the bridge deck will stand 55 meters above ground level. The largest hammerhead will be 21 meters long, eight meters wide and 14 meters high, which is about the same height as a four-story building.

Sweco, a leading architecture and engineering company in Europe, developed a BIM-model that carries all of the necessary information to design the bridge and collaborate digitally without the need for drawings. The BIM-model contains over 200,000 rebars and 250 post-tensioning cables—and, more importantly, 95 percent of all information was transferred to the contractor with IFC files. The model and attribute data workflow cut down on risks, RFIs and potential change orders.

This is just one example of the value of technology in the infrastructure space. Now imagine extending that digital ecosystem such as WSB did with integrated data model collaboration platform.

The Value Stream

Today’s integrated solutions deliver a multitude of benefits for engineers as they look to capitalize on the historic spending made available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

First, these tools have access to a single source of truth for design and as built data. Aggregating data and allowing project teams to access the most current information at the right time, collaborate more easily with other members of the project team and communicate better with contractors helps assure traceability and transparency, and helps solidify the engineering team’s role throughout the project lifecycle.

The digital delivery of infrastructure construction projects also gives engineers a more prominent role as good stewards of taxpayer dollars. This is an opportunity for engineers to have a lasting impact on our nation’s infrastructure and to help ensure a more sustainable future for the projects the U.S. government is investing in today.

Also, importantly, the digital delivery of projects can help open doors to new revenue opportunities for engineers. WSB has already seen several new opportunities emerge as a result of moving to digital processes and they expect to find more as they expand their use of technology. Having access to intelligent models and data helps pave the way for engineering consultants to provide ongoing operations and maintenance support for major infrastructure assets. Add 3D laser scanning or similar technologies to the process for real-time as-built data gathering and the value grows exponentially.

Rebuilding our infrastructure, particularly with challenges that range from supply chain to workforce challenges, will take everything we as an industry have learned about building productively, efficiently and safely. Technology will certainly continue to be more widely adopted on projects—and engineering firms that find a way to bring it all together, and build the digital bridges that benefit the customer, the contractor and their own current and future business, will most certainly drive the future of our industry.

Ed Shappell is Director of Trimble Consulting & Digital Services. He can be reached at ed_shappell@trimble.com.