TEAM EFFORT. Given the political realities, I see little chance of any such increase in funding for civil infrastructure at this time. But I do think that we could convince Congress to make better use of current levels of infrastructure funding. With congressional help, we could improve construction processes as well as reduce infrastructure's life-cycle costs. To make that a reality, the industry's professional and trade associations should lobby Congress to create a fund for "innovative construction-and-information technology." We could advise earmarking 1 to 2% of all monies budgeted for federally funded construction projects.
Already, the federal government and cities such as Phoenix earmark a certain percentage of public works monies for public art, so why not do the same to stimulate and improve how the design and construction industry operates? The public would save in the long run if, for example, the designers, contractors, specialty subcontractors and product manufacturers on every large civil works project could share information by working off the same documents electronically.
When you consider that approximately 85% of all the firms in this industry employ fewer than 10 people, you begin to realize just how desperately our industry needs an information integration process. According to some experts, up to 50% of the total cost of a construction project can be related to the inability to transfer information between various companies on the project team. Due to a lack of interoperability standards for computer software, most companies within our industry still cannot exchange information readily.
But thanks to networked interconnections between laptops, Palm Pilots and pocket-size cell phones, rapid improvements are being made in the ability to transfer large complex drawings and documents electronically. Already, other industries are using new software and technologies to make collaboration easier. In Detroit, transaction costs used to account for as much as 45% of the cost of a vehicle. General Motors and others are trying to reduce that by as much as 90% by using Trade-Xchange, an Internet-based supply-chain management tool.
Similarly, Boeing is using CATIA software, an extensive paperless collaborative supply chain that links hundreds of piece-part suppliers. CATIA is being used now as well in complicated facilities, most notably in the works of architect Frank Gehry, whose complex designs could not be fabricated without the use of such integration software.
Gehry's efforts are a start for our industry, but we need the industry in its entirety to do something similar. Given our fragmentation, however, we need a process that integrates all levels of participants, large and small. After all, large constructors invariably rely on smaller local and regional players and specialty groups that must come together and share information about specifications, techniques, drawings, documents, schedules, client requirements, methods, regulatory demands and more.
But I am not aware of any one entity that represents our industry in this information arena. Groups such as the International Alliance for Interoperability and FIATECH, however, are trying to define process changes and to establish common standards for software developers to provide industry-specific computer tools for interoperability. And the Civil Engineering Research Foundation is trying to bring these groups together to explore ways to improve the construction process.
PAROCIAL AIMS. In my 12 years as CERF's president, I have watched various organizations focus more on parochial interests than on the overall needs of the industry. Clearly, we need help crafting and adopting interoperability standards. We also need the federal government to set aside monies to create a special fund from which to match private contributions for such a collaboration.
From my experience, I have found that the private sector can be rallied only if matching public money is made available. Government officials who assume that better and more durable infrastructure will be developed by industry alone are mistaken, as the D+ on our infrastructure report card proves.