Whether you complete work in the public sector or not, you're affected daily by its long-suffering issues—even if it's only so much as navigating congested roadways and airports for frequent travel. While the entire world has had its mind on other issues (such as a global pandemic), and the country has also been dealing with a fluctuating economy, the nation's need for widespread infrastructure improvements hasn't disappeared.
With a 2017 score of D+ from the American Society of Civil Engineers' Infrastructure Report Card, funding and plans for various projects that will build or repair roads, bridges, waterways and more will likely continue to play a significant role in conversations leading up to the November presidential election.
While many states and local municipalities have pushed forward with plans and projects of their own, there is still a distinct need for a federal plan of action—and soon. But with increased opportunity for projects in the public sector comes another need for contractors to have the correct systems and technology in place to take on these projects successfully.
In the following article, CBO spoke with Jim Lynch, vice president and general manager of construction solutions at Autodesk, about the prospects of a bipartisan bill coming to fruition this year, what should be included, what public projects will look like in the future, how Autodesk end users are working to navigate 2020 in all its infinite surprises, and more. See his answers below.
CBO: The Trump administration is preparing a $1T infrastructure program & the House recently released a $1.5T proposal. What should Congress & The White House consider as they develop an infrastructure stimulus program?
JL: Hurricane Sandy caused tens of billions in damage along the East Coast of the United States, with a substantial cost of the damage levied against 'hard' assets such as the power grid, transportation and infrastructure. If Sandy taught a lesson about the resiliency of hard assets, today’s challenges with COVID-19 teach us about the resiliency of “soft"’ assets—workforce flexibility and project continuity.
So while Congress considers investments for hard assets—concrete, asphalt and rail—it’s important to remember that investing in cloud solutions to digitize the design, construction, and operations of next generation infrastructure projects will also support resiliency for soft assets and help drive continued productivity in the infrastructure segment.
Cloud investments are proven to help get the most value from each federal dollar invested, which is why so many state and local agencies are moving to digital project delivery. For example, beginning in March 2019, Tennessee Department of Transportation instituted a policy requiring the use of a construction management platform to improve collaboration between offices and field workers, and reduce the risk of mistakes that could lead to costly rework and overruns.
In addition to saving time and money, digital tools make the industry more resilient. Over the last few months, we have seen Autodesk Construction Cloud customers in the infrastructure segment rely on virtual collaboration in the remote work environment to keep their projects on track.
To complement investments in new technologies, policymakers should also invest in workforce training. This is critical to ensure that we put people back to work with the right skills, including digital skills, for the infrastructure jobs of the future.
CBO: What are Autodesk customers doing right now to combat the effects of going from not being able to find enough labor to (for some) not needing the volume of workers they were employing previously?
JL: Minimizing footprints on-site can make the labor shortage more manageable in some cases. But on average, the need for skilled labor is just as critical. Construction is still happening, and the demand for infrastructure remains. In a remote work environment, finding workers who know how to use or are open to learning how to use cloud collaboration tools is also important.
Currently, talent across the industry is learning to use new technology and becoming more comfortable with it. The time and money savings cloud technologies offer are significant, especially on projects that employ tax dollars—so we expect enthusiasm to remain in the workforce after work-from-home policies are lifted.
Another long-term effect will be the adoption of new construction approaches such as prefabrication. The recent need to stand up hospitals quickly and reliably via controlled work environments has propelled the popularity of prefabrication methods beyond the health-care industry, which has been ahead of other sectors in adoption.
Prefabrication can bring major benefits to infrastructure construction as well—building processes can happen concurrently and off-site to deliver more cost certainty and reduce project timelines. Off-site manufacturing in controlled environments can also improve worker safety, increase productivity and reduce disruption on the jobsite itself. Of course, technology and skilled labor are central components of prefabrication’s viability as well.
The surface transportation bills in both the House and Senate include measures to promote adoption of cloud collaboration technologies and we hope they remain part of any enacted legislation. Congress is also looking to support workforce training as part of an infrastructure program. As noted above, we think it’s critical that this includes training on digital construction skills.
CBO: How will public projects be different in the rest of 2020 & beyond?
JL: Recognizing that we—the collective, global, we—are facing consequential challenges, public projects have shown a little bit of brightness. We are hearing form our customers and seeing across media that reductions in air, train and road traffic are in some cases helping speed up infrastructure projects. Workers can flex or extend their hours to take advantage of diminished traffic and complete projects on time, within budget and with increased safety.
The forecasted U.S. infrastructure output growth rates for 2020 and beyond have understandably decreased, but our hope is that there will be more investments in infrastructure development in due time, especially as we combat the broader economic impacts of COVID-19. If we are also able to invest in technology and workforce training and development, we can drive more productivity on public projects to offset some of the forecasted slowdown.
CBO: How are Autodesk customers using tech to alleviate site restrictions & project challenges during the pandemic?
JL: We’ve seen customers use Autodesk Construction Cloud to manage a variety of workflows throughout the last few months. BIM 360 and PlanGrid specifically are being used for on-site logistics planning, safety checklists, permit verifications and inspection reports. We launched an integration between BIM 360 and Zoom so teams can stay connected and review project details to keep work moving along schedule.
Assemble and BuildingConnected are helping teams manage project starts and changes virtually. A few teams are even using a collaborative virtual reality (VR) approach to host multi-user VR meetings for model reviews and site walk-throughs—made possible by our partnership with InsiteVR. Others are looking across our partner ecosystem and leveraging integrations with Triax and Smartvid.io, for example, to view workers’ locations on jobsites and maintain compliance with social distancing.
In the long run, adoption and training will remain an important priority. We live in an age of very rapid technology innovation so in order to boost productivity on infrastructure construction and make the most of every federal dollar, we'll need to stay on the pulse of the solutions driving time and money savings.
CBO: Anything else worth mentioning?
JL: The infrastructure program itself can also increase resiliency by focusing on technology and skills training investments. Adopting cloud solutions that connect construction teams and training workers to use them in trade can deliver an incredibly robust and accurate data set yielding valuable analytics.
Future leaders can reference historical project data to dig into what worked well and what didn’t during each phase of the building lifecycle to advance infrastructure maintenance, operations and development in various economic circumstances.