How Digitization is Transforming Safety, Sustainability and Digital Project Delivery in the Highway Construction Sector

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10/16/2023

Driving InnovationBy Matthew Valle, VP Industry Relations & Government Affairs, HaulHub, Inc. — 

The transportation construction sector is embarking on a transformative journey prompted by an era of digital revolution and innovation. Propelled by the sustained drive towards digitization, the rate of change is accelerating at an unprecedented pace.

The recently announced funding opportunity from USDOT known as Advanced Digital Construction Management Systems (ADCMS), enabled by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) is set to ignite a unique confluence of events: an industry-wide readiness to innovate, a workforce gap that will need supporting technology to implement future work and unprecedented investment in our nation’s infrastructure. This critical juncture serves as the perfect moment to reimagine the future of horizontal transportation infrastructure construction, leveraging the tools of today to build the roads of tomorrow.

In the digital age, enhancing connectivity is not just about people, but also about machines and systems. A foundation for the next frontier of road safety and efficiency is laid by pioneering a more connected work zone. This endeavor is a critical leap in furnishing truly valuable data that will aid the rapidly evolving sphere of connected vehicles with advanced navigation.

Nationwide, Departments of Transportation (DOTs) are in the midst of scaling out the revolutionary potential of digitization. Historically supported by FHWA’s Every Day Counts (EDC) program, great progress has been made to lay the foundation for what comes next on the construction side. EDC has focused on 3D/4D and 5D models, e-Construction, e-Ticketing and Digital As-Builts, setting the stage for a wider implementation of Building Information Modeling (BIM) for Infrastructure to provide a robust framework for better communication and coordination throughout the lifecycle of a project across planning, design, construction and asset management. The ADCMS Grants stand at the ready to catalyze additional transformation and investment across the sector to bring about much-needed change and innovation.

The initiative for e-Ticketing of construction materials, which was supported by the 6th round of EDC, was one of the most widely adopted innovations across DOTs because it was simple, scalable and added immediate value for contractors, materials producers and transportation agencies. Now that this network of construction stakeholders is set up, additional benefits across the sector start to emerge. With construction materials as the foundation and e-Ticketing as the mechanism of change, construction projects can become safer, more environmentally responsible and more automated. Over the next year, forward-thinking DOTs, contractors and producers are embarking on a journey to pilot what’s next in e-Construction by creating deeper integrations with construction equipment out on the jobsites.

Work zone safety continues to be a critical concern within the highway construction sector. Unfortunately, the number of traffic crashes and fatalities in work zones continues to climb. The tragic work zone intrusion in Maryland earlier this year that killed six workers is a wake-up call to the entire industry to accelerate the work toward finding solutions to keep our teams out in the field safe.

When roadway users, especially those utilizing connected vehicles, are informed in almost real-time about work zone activities, they can make safer and more efficient travel decisions, leading to significantly reduced work zone incidents. For communities residing near construction zones, this means a palpable enhancement in daily safety and mobility. As we strive to rejuvenate our aging infrastructure, the capacity to extend this safety advantage across all road works exponentially magnifies the beneficial ripple effects for local communities.

Many states are now working towards leveraging connected devices to accurately warn motorists of active construction projects ahead. The ability to get this data to the traveling public is largely made possible by FHWA’s Work Zone Data Exchange (WZDx), which is an open standard that allows approved data feeds to seamlessly flow into apps like Google and Apple Maps and Waze.

Furthermore, the convergence of safety, construction and traffic data, coupled with advanced AI technology, offers a new frontier of insights. These insights, previously hidden in siloed datasets, now emerge as powerful tools for community safety and convenience. Residents aren't merely passive beneficiaries of enhanced safety measures; they actively experience a futuristic, informed and responsive transportation ecosystem. With an eye to the horizon, efforts today promise a harmonious, sustainable and interconnected transport landscape for our communities.

The milling machines and pavers rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure are now, more than ever, capable of transmitting machine data to enable a connected worksite and improve project performance. At the end of this season, Delaware DOT is taking the initiative, working with their industry partners from associations to general contractors in connecting Caterpillar pavers and Wirtgen milling machines to their e-Construction portal. This critical data connection will, in turn, provide the WZDx with real-time insights into which projects are active, immediately alerting the traveling public to the hazards ahead through in-vehicle navigation apps. Additionally, the Iowa DOT is pioneering the process with concrete pavers further enhancing the capability to offer insights into active work zones.

As construction equipment becomes increasingly connected, the need for standardization becomes paramount. The AEMP 2.0 Telematics Standard is at the forefront of this movement, providing a unified data format across different equipment manufacturers. This ensures that machinery communicates seamlessly, no matter the manufacturer, enhancing work zone insights and project efficiency. By streamlining data exchange, AEMP 2.0 is integral in transforming how to understand and manage our active work zones, ushering in a new era of data-driven decision-making in construction.

In addition to improving work zone safety, environmental responsibility and sustainability is an important task that will take the focus of stakeholders across the sector to tackle. The latest round of EDC provides funding for DOTs, producers and contractors to explore ways to quantify the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) associated with construction materials and the highway construction process through the use of environmental product declarations (EPDs), which are essentially “environmental nutrition labels” for construction materials.

InnovationOver the remainder of the 2023 construction season, DOTs and their construction partners will be working together to streamline the process for reporting EPD information into their e-Construction portals, removing manual reporting and tying into the emerging ecosystem of digital EPDs. Major construction materials associations like the National Asphalt Pavement Association and the National Stone Sand and Gravel Association are working quickly to educate their members on navigating the journey to net-zero and how EPDs play a critical role in monitoring, measuring and driving toward zero. The tie between e-Ticketing, connected machines and EPDs allows for owners, producers and contractors to have a real-time view into the GHG emissions associated with projects and provide insights into ways to reduce their environmental impact. The next logical step is to start providing an understanding of the environmental impact of the material haul, and placement on the jobsite to provide a holistic view of the emissions impact across the various phases of a project.

As the plants and construction equipment across the U.S. become more connected and integrated, the benefits beyond safety and environmental stewardship become clear. According to McKinsey, over 41% of the construction workforce is set to retire over the next decade. Couple this sobering reality with the challenges of attracting new talent into the industry and the deployment of technology at scale, along with the automation and integration of construction sites, will play a critical role in how the projects of the future are built. Many DOTs use a suite of tools known as AASHTOWare to manage how their projects are built. This includes everything from Disadvantaged Business Enterprise reporting, materials testing and daily work reports for field inspectors that flow into this toolset to provide DOT teams with a holistic view of the project portfolio.

DOTs are working hard to migrate these systems to the cloud and are starting to open up access points to where additional innovation and enhancements will benefit the project delivery process. Once inspectors in the field can approve delivered materials, this information can flow directly into the backend systems to facilitate speedier payments, which adds critical and necessary transparency across the supply chain. Now, producers and general contractors can have near real-time pay requisitions being built as the project progresses. Additionally, as the equipment at the job site becomes connected and data flows into e-Construction portals, the reporting for equipment types and usage hours becomes automated and starts to relieve the reporting requirement burden on the foreperson or inspector out in the field. Eventually, coupling the digitally connected machine with the material flows coming from the plants provides crews and inspectors with a mechanism to control the flow of production to optimize material placement and enhance the quality of the project.

This is certainly an exciting time of innovation and exploration as DOTs, materials producers and general contractors start to realize the power of scalable and open frameworks to accelerate e-Construction enabled by the shift towards BIM for Infrastructure. As this shift accelerates, it will take input from stakeholders from across the industry to shape the future of construction and develop integrated solutions that work across the lifecycle of a project.

AEM's Construction Equipment Technology Leadership Group stands at the forefront of this transformation. With its objective to determine the overall direction for AEM’s CE Sector related to digitization and drive awareness and adoption of technology within the industry, this group is pivotal in guiding the course of digitization in the construction sector. Engaging with different AEM councils and committees, this group delves into areas from disruptive future technologies to sustainability initiatives. This collaborative approach, bringing together representatives from various member companies engaged in the technology space, ensures diverse perspectives and holistic solutions. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to become involved in AEM’s Construction Equipment Technology Leadership Group to help shape the future and develop the innovations and policies that will shape the future.

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