The Hidden Cost of Materials in Transportation Infrastructure Construction

Streamlining materials planning, sampling, verification, and tracking

George White / January 19, 2022 / 4 minute read
business costs

The careful management of materials in transportation construction is critical to ensuring the quality, integrity, and longevity of our roads and bridges. Still, the processes we currently use for materials planning, sampling, reporting, and validation are often manual and cumbersome. 

These unwieldy systems and procedures complicate the materials acceptance process, limiting productivity, preventing visibility among stakeholders, and restricting access to critical data.

Complex doesn’t have to be complicated

Building and maintaining transportation infrastructure involves a rigorous planning and testing process because the quality of materials used on roads and bridges relates directly to the safety and longevity of those assets. 

Federal, state, and local transportation agencies all maintain independent specifications and requirements for materials used to construct transportation infrastructure, mandating different tests and discrete reporting procedures. Traditionally these specifications have resided in three-ring binders, which can become outdated quickly. Some agencies have the information available online as PDFs.

This inconsistency across agencies extends beyond specifications and requirements to the systems these organizations use. Some states have moved to automate their processes by turning to digital solutions, but these may be legacy systems that do not communicate seamlessly with other entities. 

Of construction professionals surveyed for the 2020 JBKnowledge ConTech report, 63% use three to six or more software applications, and 27% said that “none” of the applications they use integrate. 

Nearly half of survey respondents used manual methods to transfer data between non-integrated applications, while others used spreadsheets and email. 

For example, workflows to meet quality control (QC) / quality assurance (QA) specifications—with on-site sampling, lab testing, and agency validation—can involve several tools, data formats, and reporting structures that take time to navigate and increase the chance for error.

A study from FMI found that construction professionals spent 35% of their time on non-productive activities, including searching for project information and dealing with mistakes and rework. Automating the processes for tracking against state, local, and federal materials requirements would streamline workflows and eliminate confusion and resulting errors. 

Streamlining systems improves efficiencies 

The process of materials planning, sampling, reporting, and validation in infrastructure construction is necessarily detailed, and each step may have its own system, both paper-based and digital. As an example, paper tickets used to manage and pay for transporting materials can require additional labor hours to process and limit productivity due to data entry delays or errors. 

These inconsistencies across platforms make sharing information difficult and labor-intensive, creating roadblocks and limiting visibility and transparency. For instance, if the tools used to collect data for QC/QA specifications and the systems used to share it are not interconnected, each time the data is communicated, there is a risk of error and potential delay to the project, resulting in fines or claims. 

Modernizing systems, to allow for effective and efficient data collection, analysis, and reporting would improve productivity and save costly project delays. According to the Commercial Construction Index from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 78% of contractors agree that advanced technologies can increase productivity.

Visibility and transparency

Countless players—from the project owner to state labs, contractors, and project engineers—dedicate much of their time to ensuring real-time transparency during projects and creating materials quality control and acceptance plans, tracking against those plans in the field. 

These processes are critical to ensuring that transportation agencies, and ultimately the traveling public, have confidence in the quality of the construction. Reporting to various stakeholders in multiple organizations can be time-consuming and difficult if partners use different systems. 

The disconnected structure of these systems and cumbersome reporting methods can also make it challenging to identify or determine the cause of data inconsistencies, resulting in invoicing disputes, delayed payments, or even overpayment. For instance, it is estimated that accountability gaps led the Idaho Transportation Department (ITD) to overpay road builders $4.3 million in a single year for substandard work.

A federal investigation determined that people working for contractors and ITD staff members changed asphalt quality test results, some directly tied to how much the state would pay the contractor for the asphalt. 

Years of research to uncover the discrepancies involved examining multiple data capture and reporting systems, methods including paper forms, spreadsheets, and digital platforms. Because ITD tests showed more changed results than those belonging to the contractor, it was ultimately unclear why the results were altered. 

According to the Idaho Capital Sun, an ITD manager proposed reasons such as fraud or laziness, while the CEO of the Idaho Association of General Contractors suggested that it could be a problem within the ITD system. 

In situations like this, an automated, centralized, verifiable source of truth could shore up these accountability gaps, which likely exist across the industry.

Better access to data

Materials planning, sampling, verification, and tracking require collecting immense amounts of data and detailed documentation of the circumstances of the data capture. The current mix of systems and procedures for capturing, storing, accessing, and analyzing critical data can slow down the construction process and silo the data, making it difficult to leverage. 

Due to system incompatibility, field sample data may need to be stored in one system and submitted to multiple partners in different forms to satisfy state, local, and federal requirements. 

Navigating these processes requires more time and coordination by field personnel than if information captured was automatically integrated and stored in a central repository, providing secure access to stakeholders. 

Technology that improves accessibility and searchability of data would streamline workflows, increase visibility, and support a data-first approach to project management and planning. 

Modernizing by integrating best-in-breed, cloud-based technologies to simplify the management of materials in the infrastructure construction process would improve efficiencies, increase collaboration, and provide greater transparency and access to data. 

With an open architecture, these innovative solutions would integrate to form a rich network where each component could evolve to meet new challenges as they arise, well into the future.

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White is co-founder and CEO of HeadLight.

About the Author

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