Aging infrastructure, cutting-edge technology

Nov. 28, 2016
The customer being pitched is a government official and the products at the center of the discussion are roads and bridges and railroad lines.
“Historically, engineers are very bad salespeople,” says Bentley Systems’ Jeremy Shaffer.
“Having software that provides [clarity] can really help.”

In his role as senior director of transportation-asset management, Shaffer focuses on massive infrastructure projects, where the customer being pitched is a government official and the products at the center of the discussion are the roads and bridges and railroad lines we use every day.

While at Bentley’s Year in Infrastructure 2016 conference in London, we discussed how data-clarity is increasingly in demand, how transportation is evolving in the era of digital transformation, and how cutting-edge technology is being applied to aging infrastructure.

Take a look…

Smart Industry: How is digital transformation affecting transportation operations?

Jeremy: There is an enormous backlog of different maintenances that need to be addressed and states strategically decide how to allocate their funding on what to fix and when we’re going to fix things. This is where huge amounts of data can be accessed. Traditionally this is a manual process…paper-based visual-inspection data, bridge inspections, complaints from traveling public, etc. But now we’re getting smart infrastructure, like suspension bridges that have different sensors implanted into them. And departments of transportation don’t know what to do with all this information. They’re in information overload and they need software to make sense of it. The good thing is that most states know they need to be doing these things. I see early adopters saying they want to do it right now. Others want to see their colleagues do it for five years then just select the best option.

One of the best examples is Connecticut, which is a leader in adopting this technology across the lifecycle. They are aggressively adopting asset-management strategies and efficiently using the resources they have. Their department of transportation has a culture of innovation. They are adopting the latest 3D-design technology and looking at how to take models from design to operation.

Smart Industry: Is transportation on the front line of transformation or a laggard?

Jeremy: Transportation is a laggard. Transportation is risk-averse and highly regulated. It has very expensive infrastructure that takes a long time to build. If you implement new technology on a mega-project it can take six years. The solution is that the U.S. government should fund innovate pilot transportation projects and provide funding for not only physical infrastructure but also models. Infrastructure projects are highly visible—you have millions of people who can see them. And if you mess up on the New York subway, that affects the commute of hundreds of thousands of people. Reliability has improved on things but the impression is that it is dropping—people are tweeting about infrastructure problems. Everything is under a spotlight. Another issue is that infrastructure involves governments—there is a need to be accountable to policymakers. An unfortunate thing is that most engineering advancements are the direct result of disasters. Look at bridge inspections—every major enhance has directly followed a major disaster. The Silver Bridge collapse in 1967 prompted the creation of the National Bridge Inspection Standards.

Smart Industry: What elements of digital transportation come into play?  Big data? IT/OT convergence? Reality modeling? A smart supply chain?

Jeremy: All of those. We’re going to see tighter integration between suppliers and designers and governments. We’re going to see the supply chain passing information along to owners—In 2,000 cycles you need to replace the oil. Every six months you need to run this test. Managed services are becoming more popular in transportation. Departments of transportation contract with results in mind. Bentley is doing that from a software perspective.  

Smart Industry: Are aging infrastructure problems as common globally as in the US?

Jeremy: The US had a boom in 50s and a lot of that infrastructure is coming of age. We have a large wave of infrastructure that needs replacing—bridges, roads, the original U.S. interstate system. Europe has different problem—their infrastructure is more spread out over time and it’s more densely packed. Asia’s problem is just that it’s building out so much new infrastructure.

Smart Industry: How will self-driving cars affect infrastructure?

Jeremy: It is hard to understate the impact. They will radically change the way transportation infrastructure is approached. You will be able to get 2-3 times as much capacity out of existing infrastructure. You’ll be able to time routes. If look at roads you can add so much value; there are a lot of smart components to inform the cars about roadway conditions, traffic, routing them to right places, etc. Furthermore, the vehicles will be smart sensors sending data back to owners.  

Smart Industry: How will reality modeling affect transportation assets?

Jeremy: With our current infrastructure, there are no 3D models. These things were built three decades ago and these models can be very expensive to create. Now with drone-camera technology and software you can get extremely accurate models. And if you’re looking to do a construction project and want to know, say, how much right-of-way you need, you can measure within the model without sending a crew out. You can look at clearance envelopes. You can plan everything out before you go there and walk through everything you want to do.

Smart Industry: Infrastructure is complicated. How do you address that?

Jeremy: Practitioners are limited by policy makers. Practitioners must clearly demonstrate needs and consequences to get the resources they need, like dashboards to show the condition of bridges. I have seen where simple dashboards that coalesce all information can really influence policymakers. 

Want more? Download the white paper “IoT Protocols to Watch” here.