After several decades of under-investment in U.S. infrastructure, the construction industry finds itself on the precipice of a significant capital injection – a new U.S. government  infrastructure plan. Not only does the plan propose to deliver upgrades to the nation’s transportation, water, and energy infrastructure, it is a central tenet in the President’s public goal to continue economic recovery and create job growth following COVID-19.

This year, the American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card graded the nation’s infrastructure a worrisome C-. That places our nation’s roads, bridges, dams, and other infrastructure between the categories of “mediocre” and “poor, at risk,” with a rank of 13. 

Capability to Deliver

While the investment plan brings hope for a reimagined future, does the U.S. construction industry have sufficient capacity – and capability – to deliver? Funding availability is only part of the battle. If projects are delivered inefficiently, it could create a bottleneck to actual spending, jeopardizing full realization of the plan’s economic value.

The good news is that the construction industry has made major strides in delivering more predictable results. Key to that has been digital transformation, which has greatly accelerated in the past few years. Designing, planning, executing, and controlling projects has historically been a disconnected process involving hundreds of roles across numerous stakeholders, all using an array of different systems. Organizations that have transitioned to a connected, data-driven approach are already benefiting from more efficient and predictable project delivery.

For infrastructure stakeholders, connected data – the creation of a single source of project truth across all stakeholders – will be key to completing construction projects on time and under budget, as well as maintaining them in the future. Owners of assets can now celebrate the opening of a new bridge or railway with a digital model that visualizes the asset in 3D, while connecting all the as-designed and as-built data that was created along the way. Such an integrated foundation speeds the path for future upgrades, maintenance, or expansion projects, creating hope that new infrastructure will not end up in that same C- state of disrepair.

This connected approach will benefit infrastructure projects broadly, but none more so than rail assets. Often with a life expectancy in excess of 100 years, continued innovation in materials and design is stretching projected lifespans even further. The benefits of having a connected data platform to store and access critical project data in the years and decades to come are near incalculable. However, the benefits can be felt almost immediately too.

The U.S. infrastructure plan focuses heavy spending on transportation infrastructure, and significant portions of it are dedicated to modernizing public transit systems such as rail stations, expanding rail into new communities and replacing outdated rail cars. Major rail construction projects though, are notoriously hard to control, and cost and schedule overruns can have a ripple effect on projects waiting for funding. The potential impact connected data can have on project productivity and predictability is enormous. This is important as the extent to which companies can deliver new rail construction projects on time and on budget will have a direct impact on the country’s speed and success in rebounding from COVID-19. 

Why Connected Data?

The lack of accessibility and insight from spreadsheets and single-purpose systems is unfortunately something many in the industry have become accustomed to. As a project progresses through engineering and construction, the task of connecting disconnected data to create meaningful, timely reports can be a challenging exercise. However, to drive the most economic value out of new investments in infrastructure, it will be critical to ‘mine’ data from newly completed projects to create realistic, risk-adjusted plans for future projects. Data-driven organizations can leverage advancements in machine learning to do exactly that, identifying risks that might otherwise go undetected during the planning and execution stages of a project.

Canada’s $3.9B Ottawa Rail Expansion project offers a compelling example of just what a difference connected data can make to project outcomes, and outlines applicable learning for both the U.S. and the greater North American market.

Ottawa Rail Case study

The Ottawa Rail (O-Train) expansion, known officially as the Stage 2 LRT project, is made up of two massive projects – the Confederation Line Extension Project and the Trillium Line Extension Project. The scope of the Confederation Line Extension Project includes 160,877 cub yds of concrete, 220,462 tons of asphalt and 18.3 miles of double-rail track and will see the creation of 16 new stations and one light maintenance service facility, along with new and rehabilitated bridge, roadway, and utility municipal infrastructure. Thousands of construction tasks will be performed with hundreds of individuals requiring real-time data visibility across design, engineering and construction.

InEight, a project management software, was brought onboard by Kiewit – the managing partner for one of the lead contractor consortiums working on this massive project – to help bring data together and introduce connected analytics across a wide variety of discipline and department teams. Using cloud technology, a single source of truth was created to enhance user experience, increase project transparency, and improve outcomes for internal stakeholders across the board.

For the contractor project team, being able to accurately display data and key performance indicators in a digestible format was key to building buy-in across the project’s stakeholders. The data visualizations lent credibility to the customizable dashboard and metrics. Stakeholders also enjoyed analyzing their data sets and creating their own versions of pie charts, tables, and cumulative graphs, all while seeing percentages complete in real time, on a live data feed with minimal input.

Further, because the data that feeds the visuals for the dashboards is provided directly by the data owners and the experts in the field, stakeholders were confident in the accuracy of what they were working with. For Darrel Kaelber, Kiewit’s commercial manager on the project team, the value was clear: “If you need the facts and truth – whether you’re an office, cost or field engineer, or commercial manager – as long as your data is stored properly, you’re able to see it at the level you need, when you need it.”

Improvements made by introducing connected data can result in a more than 50% reduction in dashboard and report creation time, which creates efficiencies and allows for additional time for project managers to provide a laser focus on project analysis. On this project, rather than project controllers spending four hours pulling together information needed for reports, there are now 30 standard report types, which populate dashboards with a click. In addition, the entire project team can see all project-related documents in one place, eliminating hours per week searching for information.

Looking Forward

The case for connected data is evident, and while its adoption is ramping up, industry surveys show that only around half of the industry is there, or nearly there. With an outsized pipeline of infrastructure projects on the horizon, a connected approach is becoming even more important. Continued economic recovery in the U.S. from COVID-19 will be heavily underpinned by public investment in construction projects. The success of that massive bet will largely depend on the construction industry’s ability to deliver.

Brad Barth is chief product officer at InEight