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Civil & Structural Engineer: Filling the Gaps in the DOT Data Flow

A steady stream of new and innovative technologies have poured into the construction space over the last decade, including machine control, 3D modeling, and collaboration tools. For many infrastructure contractors, the value has been tangible in the way of improved safety, quality, efficiency, and productivity. 

For transportation agencies, however, the value of emerging tech can be more elusive. Agencies often struggle to see the value promised by the next great technology to streamline or simplify communication and collaboration that should drive project efficiency and quality. These organizations lack the tools or platforms to bring various data from surveying, design, construction, and operations together into one source of truth. Additionally, one of the biggest problems in today’s project delivery process is the effective sharing and transmission of invaluable constructible project data.

Typically, the owner and engineer build the design model, which they pass to the contractor, who has to re-enter and re-work that data to make it useful for facilitating the technology used during the physical construction process. Design data and models today are incomplete construction data sets and not readily utilized by a machine control system to construct a road, for instance. 

Constructible data requires additional work, typically called data prep, to allow the design data and models to flow through contractors’ technology in the field. Examples of constructible data elements include adding more breaklines in a design model for the contractor’s machine control systems, or adding in rebar and concrete details to a bridge design model for contractors and their vendors to accurately estimate steel and concrete. 

How can DOTs fill the gaps in this critical data flow and streamline their digital project delivery? Pioneering DOTs have begun to rethink business processes and technology adoption to better align with project partners, thereby delivering projects with greater efficiency, accuracy, and fewer errors and issues. 

The Constructible Model

Detailed and data-rich constructible models are central to connected construction workflows and are ultimately the foundation of a more efficient and collaborative construction process that helps contractors build better and accelerate project delivery. Constructible models are designed, detailed, enriched, and shared by all project members, providing collaborative advantages throughout the entire lifecycle. Small changes to design models can greatly reduce the time and expenses of the data-work contractors have to take on to leverage construction technology. Cloud-based and open collaboration platforms provide readily available, manageable, and reusable data to stakeholders, shared and updated in real-time, which allows for better decision making at every step of the construction life cycle resulting in 15-20 percent improvements in the overall project delivery process.

While the 3D model is the foundation of a successful construction process, it’s what stakeholders do with all of the information in the model that is driving transformation in the construction industry. Rich with metadata that can include everything from a highway’s design details to the composition of the asphalt to the temperature when it was poured, constructible models serve as constructible plans, with a plethora of both current and historical jobsite information that can be shared and acted upon by all. 

With sophisticated machine control and robots in the field, for example, models developed by engineers in the office can direct earthworks and layouts on the jobsite. Civil contractors no longer need to recreate project plans because the instructions for the work to be performed are driven directly by approved and shared models. Project information flows easily from the field to the office and from machine to machine, and the shared model is updated as fieldwork progresses.

While this may sound more utopic than realistic to some, it’s not only possible but has been implemented in transportation agencies in other parts of the world.  In the U.S., the development and adoption of 3D constructible models for the lifecycle of an asset is beginning to take place beginning with innovative State DOTs who recognize the cost and schedule benefits of streamlining their project delivery process.    

The Utah Department of Transportation has long been a leader in 3D modeling and is a shining example of how transportation agencies can utilize technology to help contractors build better. The agency has made a focused effort to move away from familiar 2D paper plan-sets that are advertised and delivered to the construction contractor. By 2016, large efforts such as the I-215 resurfacing project were leveraging 3D models in the hopes of limiting the time and resources needed to rework models and, potentially, get better bids and pricing from contractors.  

Other pioneering transportation agencies are following suit. 

Colorado contractor Zak Dirt relied on drone data to track progress and share updates with the Colorado Department of Transportation for a recent highway improvement project.

Advancing the use of Digital Construction Technologies

With an eye on redefining its business model and achieving full transparency with its contracting partners, the New Mexico Department of Transportation (NMDOT) implemented a pilot project built as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Every Day Counts (EDC) e-construction initiative.  

NMDOT defines e-construction as the collection, review, approval, and distribution of highway construction contract documents in a paperless environment, which helps meet the goal of making the data flow from the design side to the contractor for machine control and survey. 

“Our goal is to assist our contractor partners in working towards one common goal of quality project completion,” said Priscilla Benavides, Central Region Design Manager for NMDOT.   

Today, she is helping to deliver the state’s first e-construction project for the reconstruction of I-40. As part of the pilot program, NMDOT had Trimble perform a digital design review of the data with a focus on suitability for construction model purposes against the typical needs of a contractor for earthmoving, grading, and paving purposes. The study also identified potential improvements that could be made within the design model to reduce the time needed to bring the model into the contractor’s field technology. For instance, the study found that the NMDOT design model didn’t contain superelevation data, which is data needed by the contractor in order to build accurate paving models. Bold leadership recognizes the role of technology to effectively streamline the delivery process.   

Another challenge faced was the discrepancy between design standards and field requirements for linework. 3D linework, for example, should be provided with defined intervals that meet the minimum requirements to develop a purpose-built surface model. For instance, design data might provide stations every 100 feet, but the contractor has to re-build that model to every 20 feet to meet contractual and technical requirements for use of machine control.  In order to meet the specifications for a surface with 0.05’ accuracy, the model data provided has to be better than that by at least 50 percent, if not 75 percent, in order for machine control to operate within acceptable tolerance.  In this case, the Trimble team recommended improvements to the existing design model to make it easier for the contractor to use this data in their machine control solutions.  

When the study was complete, NMDOT met with their contractor, FNF Construction, Inc., to ask if it would derive benefit by making recommended adjustments to the design model. FNF said yes, and the edits were made. Benavides said, “It is my personal goal to move all of our projects towards this future through e-construction.” 

Similarly, leaders at the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in Sacramento have worked closely with its contractors to provide comprehensive civil 3D models. What used to be simple finished surface models with alignments and as-built conditions from a drone survey, are now becoming comprehensive 3D site models. The contractor no longer has to build all the base layers and add utilities to prepare for construction. 

For DOTs, the ability to deliver constructible models and digital as-builts to contractors reduces risks and improves project transparency. Accurate data eliminates many cost and schedule risks for the transportation agency and the project team. It further provides DOTs and owners with more transparency into everything from bidding to handover. 

Digital Roads to Digital Operations and Maintenance

The ability to share data and drive improved workflows in today’s environment is much easier than even just five years ago. MaineDOT recently transitioned to laser scanners to complete as-built surveys faster and cheaper. A team of three surveyors used the Trimble SX10 and a Trimble R8 to scan and survey a damaged 100-year old I-95 overpass, process the LIDAR data, create true 3D models—and extract precise data to deliver clearance reports—all in two days. That’s a job that would have taken two survey crews a full week to survey and several more expensive pieces of survey gear. This type of technology provides the DOT with a digital twin asset that now can be tracked as it changes over time, allowing for optimized maintenance and inspection activities.

Contractors can also contribute and benefit from the process. Heavy civil contractor, Zak Dirt recently completed the $31 million Colorado 119 Boulder Canyon Improvements project, which involves the repair of a 15-mile stretch of flood-damaged Colorado Highway 119 between Boulder and Nederland for the Colorado Department of Transportation. The one-year project required the tracking of approximately 41,000 cubic yards of material among other tasks. 

The team needed topo maps to help track progress and calculate volume quantities, but conventional survey methods in the steep canyon terrain were too dangerous and difficult. With drone data, the project team was able to track quantities, compare cross-sections with design intent, and measure and revise blast slopes as needed. The data from the platform was shared among project managers, surveyors, superintendents, engineers, and others within Zak Dirt. Just as importantly, the project team was able to provide the Colorado Department of Transportation project updates and relay progress reports to owners for complete transparency. Without the data, the Zak Dirt team would have to measure volumes by manual truck counts and coordinate with the Colorado Department of Transportation. 

“We pulled it up with them in the room and showed them cross-sections, or we could print the reports,” said Angelo Mancina, Zak Dirt’s corporate treasurer, who also handles GPS surveying. “Then, we were able to print the DXF CAD files and hand it over to the customer to maintain transparency about the project progress.”

The Quadri Connection

The challenge for the DOT is to bring that data together into a visual and near real-time digital space. That is where an integrated common data model platform such as Trimble Quadri can help.

More than just a digital twin, Quadri is an integrated common data model solution that is a proven collaboration platform that serves as a constructible plan and drives BIM-based workflows. 

With this platform, designers are able to design in the tools they are most familiar with and share the data with others who may not be as skilled in those design tools. It’s a straightforward next step to leverage this integrated common data model in the field to maximize the value of 3D models from concept and construction to operation and maintenance. Connecting data from multiple sources, the data flow to and from an integrated common data platform is simplified through open formats, apis or import/export capabilities. 

The significance of an integrated common data model for transportation agencies will become increasingly important as more state and federal government groups require 3D models for digital delivery of projects. FHWA’s EDC-6 program now includes an e-Ticketing and Digital As-Builts initiative that emphasizes the use of digital information, such as 3D design models and other metadata, and enhances the future usability of as-built models for operations, maintenance, and asset management of highway project data. 

EDC-6 will change the way transportation agencies and contractors work together—and that’s just the beginning, said Norman Anderson, Chairman and CEO of CG/LA Infrastructure, a firm focused on global infrastructure project development, in a recent presentation about reviving U.S. infrastructure for the Trimble Dimensions Spotlight Series.

“Over the next 10 years, infrastructure assets will transform into intelligence assets. This is as big a transition as you will see in your lifetime. It’s the biggest transition in 120 years, since the advent of the internal combustion engine,” he said. “From my point of view, the public sector – states, municipalities, localities, the federal public sector – are absolutely critical in leading this transition of our infrastructure into smarter assets we can manage efficiently.”

The effective sharing and transmission of constructible project data, the ability to use that data to work smarter, faster, and greener throughout the construction lifecycle and the technology solutions that help bring those plans to life on the jobsite are all part of the digital transformation underway in construction. For transportation agencies, this allows the ability to stretch taxpayer dollars further on infrastructure projects that are better quality and built to last.