The Age of e-Construction
State DOTs are transforming their approach to highway projects to keep pace with today’s changing, mobile work environment. Check out these tips on how to go paperless.
In the United States, many aspects of daily life—for purposes of both business and pleasure—involve cell phones, tablets, laptops, and other mobile devices. Today you can do just about anything online, from ordering lunch to applying for a mortgage. However, some aspects of highway construction and program implementation have resisted this evolution of “going electronic”—until recently.
Known for having lengthy delivery times, highway projects historically involve paper plan sets, paper documentation, and wet-ink signatures for contract documents and other approvals. Even with the introduction of computer-based management systems in recent decades, transportation agencies and contractors still print much of the documentation that is developed originally in electronic format simply because it is standard procedure.
Recently, the highway industry started revolutionizing how it does business to deliver projects more efficiently. The Federal Highway Administration and State departments of transportation are adopting e-Construction as a tool to reduce paperwork and associated costs, improve communication and environmental sustainability, and facilitate more efficient project delivery.
“We took a look at inefficiencies with the traditional paper-based system and quickly realized things can be done better and faster,” says Tom Everett, associate administrator for the FHWA Office of Infrastructure.
Why It Works Better
e-Construction is a delivery process for construction management that includes electronic submission of all construction documentation by all stakeholders, electronic document routing/approvals (e-signatures), and digital management of all construction documentation in a secure, paperless environment. The process enables distribution and access to all project stakeholders through mobile devices.
“It’s doing all of this in a real-time environment,” says Everett. “The contractor has portions of this electronic process that they interact with, the material suppliers also do, and the State does as well—all in a secure environment. So you know where all of the documents are, and you have reliability associated with them.”
e-Construction employs many tools, technologies, and practices. Examples include mobile devices, software, and applications for field inspection and data collection; data hosting services such as data clouds, share sites, and virtual review rooms; and communications tools such as email, text, social media, Skype™ and FaceTime®, and other smart technologies. Practices include the transfer of electronic plans and electronic contract specifications and special provisions; electronic review and digital approval processes with transparency; real-time tracking using resources such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, quick response (QR) codes, and bar coding; and asset management including electronic as-built drawings and quality assurance.
e-Construction has piqued national interest because of its many benefits. State DOTs are realizing time and cost savings, enhanced quality, and improved data availability from e-Construction. States are mainstreaming many e-Construction system practices and showing significant returns on investment. Through enhanced awareness and promotion of benefits and examples of e-Construction application, the highway industry is ready to reap the benefits of program-level implementation.
|Benefits of e-Construction|
Upon successful deployment of e-Construction solutions, agencies can expect to experience the following:
Moving From Innovation to Practice
Recognizing the significant potential benefits to States, FHWA chose to include e-Construction in its third and fourth rounds of Every Day Counts (EDC). In EDC-3 (2015–2016), FHWA promoted this innovation and encouraged the use of readily available technologies—including digital and electronic signatures, electronic communication, secure file sharing, mobile devices, and Web-hosted data archival and retrieval systems. At the start of EDC-4 in February 2017 approximately 13 States have institutionalized e-Construction practices and the majority of other States were demonstrating, developing, and assessing.
In the fourth round of EDC (2017–2018), FHWA is promoting e-Construction with a focus on how it enhances Construction Partnering among stakeholders, while improving communication and workflow to streamline the delivery of projects. These efforts are based on the belief that the full value of e-Construction is only realized by the use and implementation of effective Construction Partnering. Collaboration through e-Construction technology elevates the basic principles of Construction Partnering to a standard practice. (See https://partneringinstitute.org for more information on Construction Partnering.) FHWA’s goal is to have 21 States institutionalize e-Construction and 13 States implement e-Construction and Construction Partnering by the end of 2018.
In addition to these efforts, FHWA led and completed a research project on e-Construction to collect detailed benefit and cost data. From this research, FHWA created a benefit-cost analysis template to capture cost data using the varying e-Construction tools over a 7-year timeframe. The template provides a framework for States to complete cost-benefit analyses, which help agencies understand their starting point and then chart their paths on the e-Construction journey. To view the research report, visit www.fhwa.dot.gov/construction/econstruction/hif17028.pdf.
According to this research, the documented 7-year return on investment for construction management, project collaboration, mobile devices, and electronic bidding tools ranges from 200 to more than 700 percent. Time savings with e-Construction have averaged 1.78 hours per day per inspector, and inspectors have collected up to 2.75 times more data. In addition, DOTs have reported cost savings up to $40,000 per construction project per year.
FHWA Tests Mobile Devices
FHWA division offices work closely with their State DOT counterparts, which presents an opportunity to provide seamless project delivery and enable electronic integration, including electronic approvals by FHWA personnel. To assist with implementation of e-Construction, the FHWA Investment Review Board approved a pilot project in April 2015 to test tablet devices in several division offices.
The purpose of the pilot project was to evaluate the use of two types of mobile devices (Apple® iPad® and Microsoft® Surface® Pro tablets) and provide recommendations on the potential for agencywide implementation. Division offices in Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Texas, Utah, and West Virginia participated in the initial phase of the pilot. Each office tracked and reported performance measures (for example, reduction in paper use and reduction in processing and approval times) using predefined data sources.
The pilot agencies also reported information on the pros and cons of each device, the differences between shared and individually assigned devices, and the security and durability of the equipment in the field. In addition, pilot participants tested some mobile device applications for possible inclusion in USDOT’s common operating environment.
The enhanced mobility and real-time access to information proved effective for FHWA. Users reported benefits from both devices tested compared with traditional processes and activities performed without the tablets. The Texas division office, for example, deployed six devices for use by area engineers, which resulted in an estimated reduction of 47,815 pieces of paper and 655 hours saved between August 17, 2015, and January 18, 2016 (5-month period). In 2015, the Iowa division noted a reduction in printing needs for 51 plan sets through use of the iPad and also captured 100 photos on the devices for use in inspection documentation and reporting.
According to the Texas division office, the greatest benefit it realized during the pilot was the ability to do various tasks anywhere because of the mobility of a tablet. The Texas participants reported increased efficiency in general, but significantly in field inspections with photography for reports. Likewise, the Utah division reported benefits such as access to real-time information, a large reduction in paper resources, and time savings because of access to current information. Utah also noted the user-friendly benefits of tablets compared to laptop computers, including lighter weight, small size, and touchscreen capabilities.
On March 9, 2016, the FHWA Investment Review Board approved the expansion of the pilot to include other FHWA division offices in Missouri, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The pilot was completed in March 2017, and agency implementation has been recommended through the annual computer refresh cycle.
|Technology Used by Each Participating FHWA Division Office|
|FHWA Division Office||Device||Number of Devices||Activities|
|6||Used routinely on project inspections and program reviews to load electronic inspection forms and for training for shared users.|
|7||Used routinely on field inspections and compliance assessment program reviews and to access Iowa DOT’s document management system.|
(individually assigned and 2 replaced computers)
|7||Obtained access to MDOT sites outside FHWA’s firewall through a policy exception.|
(3 individually assigned and 3 in shared pool/platform)
|6||Not using applications, rather using tablet as the main interface to capture information and data.|
(individually assigned and 2 replaced computers)
|4||Laptop replacement with Microsoft Surface Pro. Primary benefit cited as greater mobility as compared to laptop. Microsoft operating system enables uses similar to a laptop but with extra portability.|
|West Virginia||No devices assigned. Serves as the control for comparison to others.||0||Using laptops and working with the State Division of Highways to implement electronic signatures for change orders and other documents.|
Leading the Way: Michigan
Many State departments of trans-portation are working diligently to implement and refine e-Construction technologies and processes. The Michigan Department of Transporta-tion (MDOT), for example, is one of the lead States. MDOT started using e-Construction on several pilot projects in 2012 and implemented full statewide paperless construction for all trunkline contracts starting with its October 2014 letting. Today, MDOT’s trunkline construction operations are 99 percent paperless.
MDOT estimates cost savings of $12 million annually and savings of 6 million pieces of paper per year from e-Construction. It also estimates an average reduction in the processing time for complex change orders from 30 days to 3 days. The agency is seeing inspectors spend less time on paperwork, as well as increased employee and stakeholder engagement.
“This has really driven some enthusiasm from our employees,” says Brad Wieferich, director of MDOT’s Bureau of Development. “And they have really taken ownership in the process and have been the ones to help advance the ideas and make the process even more efficient.”
MDOT is leading the way also by participating in peer exchanges. For example, in June 2016, MDOT hosted a peer exchange with the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) in Lansing, MI. FHWA sponsored the event, the seventh in a series of peer exchanges designed to assist States with implementation while enabling peers to network and share information. In addition to staff from MDOT and Caltrans, the exchange included representatives from FHWA headquarters, the Resource Center, and each participating State’s division office.
The peer exchange kicked off with discussion of the need for e-Construction technologies and associated training requirements, and maintenance of tools and technologies. The second day included demonstrations of software for project collaborations (such as SharePoint® and ProjectWise®), discussion of tools for labor compliance management (such as LCPtracker and AASHTOWare Project Civil Rights & Labor), materials management, and mobile devices. The day also featured contractor perspectives on e-Construction from the Michigan Infrastructure and Transportation Association, a statewide construction trade group.
On the final day of the event, participants discussed information technology security, enterprise-wide asset management, and e-ticketing concepts. The peer exchange concluded with discussion of key concepts for implementation and the future of e-Construction in Michigan and California.
PennDOT Goes Mobile
In 2015, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) adopted its first two mobile construction apps that the agency estimates will save more than $22 million in 2 years through improved efficiency. The apps further PennDOT’s commitment to e-Construction by giving inspectors access to electronic forms while at project sites.
PennDOT has nearly 400 inspectors on staff and 1,200 under contract to check on the agency’s roughly $2.5 billion worth of construction work underway each year. Prior to the app, inspectors had to consult paper documents and spend time traveling between their offices and construction sites to submit the reports. Now, inspectors use the software on their mobile devices to perform the same tasks directly from the field.
Through use of the mobile app, inspectors are in the field an additional 1.5 hours per day, or nearly 300,000 additional person hours each year. In the first year of use, PennDOT saw $11 million in productivity savings and estimates an additional $11 million in fiscal year 2017.
The National Association of State Chief Information Officers recognized the technology application as a 2015 finalist in the category of Improving State Operations.
PennDOT uses a Project Collaboration Center, a Web-based document management system, on all new construction projects to manage submittals and provide additional collaboration resources. During the construction phase of projects, the agency uses paperless submissions, except for material delivery tickets and material certifications. For the 2017 construction season, PennDOT is piloting electronic ticketing and working toward electronic material certification for the 2018 construction season. Construction staff throughout the State uses tablets to collect field data.
PennDOT’s first mobile application enables field inspectors to access and download all documents and contracts to their devices, including specifications, drawings, and submittals. The second application enables the field inspector to complete a daily diary of the work performed by the contractor, including work item quantities ready for payment, and then synchronize that data to PennDOT’s Engineering and Construction Management System for further workflow activities and document retention.
PennDOT has developed several additional mobile construction applications and is evaluating the cost savings from improved efficiencies.
Iowa Reaches Paperless Milestone
Over the past few years, the Iowa Department of Transportation has added pieces of the paperless process to its standard procedures. But in summer 2016, with the implementation of electronic bidding and contract execution, Iowa DOT reached a major milestone: 100 percent paperless on construction projects from the pre- to post-construction stages.
The Iowa Legislature paved the way for digitally signed contracts in 2004 by authorizing the process of signing legal documents online. However, because of the complexity of a construction contract, it was difficult to incorporate a digital signature. Adding to the complexity was the fact that the Iowa DOT was forging the way, as no other State had created a process to incorporate digital signatures into the contracting process.
In addition to this breakthrough, Iowa has piloted electronic ticketing to track resources. Beginning in 2015 and continuing through 2016, the pilot projects tracked asphalt shipments online using GPS capabilities. In 2016, the agency also began tracking concrete loads delivered to the pilot location and collected data about them electronically. The electronic ticket data is then accessible to the State DOT for quality assurance of materials, source of supply, and payment.
For the 2016 portland cement concrete pilot, each driver had a tablet computer, and each concrete truck had a QR code. The driver would scan the QR code using the tablet, which connected the driver to that truck. Each time the truck was loaded, all relevant load data was automatically entered into the system and then passed to the tablet in the truck. With that information, inspectors could track the location of trucks through a mobile app in the field. It also provided the ability to access e-ticket numbers with the cubic yardage and certified material type. The traditional process required more time-intensive efforts with the inspector having to collect each paper ticket manually from the driver and then key it into a contractor pay spreadsheet.
With the pilots successfully completed, the agency’s next step is to develop a standard specification. The agency also is working on a return-on-investment summary to quantify its expected savings from e-Construction.
Charting the Course To Full Deployment
FHWA will continue to support and promote the use of e-Construction across the country through ongoing efforts in EDC-4 and by facilitating additional peer exchanges between States.
In the next phase of deployment, many States will move from pilot projects to statewide institutionalization of e-Construction tools and technologies. States are also integrating components into single-interface, cohesive systems that move users from documents to data. Additional efforts moving forward include State DOTs expanding e-Construction to local agencies for local Federal-aid projects, extending access to contractors (several lead States currently do this, but not all) and consultant inspection staff, and archiving digital data for asset management and to meet Federal and State requirements for document retention.
EDC-4 efforts will focus on increasing awareness of how e-Construction tools and technologies facilitate increased partnering opportunities among all stakeholders—enhancing communication, transparency, coordination, and collaboration.
Within FHWA, the Investment Review Board will consider a pending recommendation from the pilot program for deployment of e-Construction mobile devices.
“There is no one way to deploy e-Construction, and there is no one technology to meet all your needs,” says Everett. “But by starting with small steps and building strategically, States can revolutionize how they approach construction projects and reap the benefits of the efficiency and transparency of e-Construction.”
Kathryn Weisner, P.E., is a construction and contract administration engineer in the FHWA Resource Center. She started her career as a co-op student with FHWA’s Eastern Federal Lands Highway Division, worked for the Maryland State Highway Administration Office of Construction, and has held several positions in multiple FHWA offices since returning to Federal service. She has an M.B.A from Frostburg State University and a B.S. in civil engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. She is a licensed professional engineer in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
Bryan Cawley, P.E., is the division administrator for the FHWA Wyoming Division Office. Since joining FHWA in 1997, he has held a variety of positions in multiple FHWA offices. He earned an M.B.A. from the University of Nebraska, an M.S. in construction engineering from Iowa State University, and a B.S. in civil engineering from the University of Utah. He is a licensed professional engineer in North Dakota.
Alicia Sindlinger is the associate editor of Public Roads.