While digitalisation has made inroads into several sectors, its adoption in the construction industry has been slow. This is despite the fact that the industry contributes 8-9 per cent to the country’s GDP. Currently, the penetration of digital planning tools in the construction industry is barely 6 per cent. Also, less than 1 per cent of the industry’s revenue is used for research and development towards developing technological solutions. The successful adoption of modern innovative processes, with the associated improvements in productivity, is likely to have a major impact in terms of time and cost savings.
Meanwhile, organisations in the country have begun to digitalise their internal processes. Many construction companies are moving towards a common data environment and contractors are collaborating for expediting project delivery. While private organisations are going digital at a fast pace, progress has been slow in the public sector.
India Infrastructure hosted a special interactive event in association with Bentley Systems on “Advancing Transportation Infrastructure – Roads and Highways” in New Delhi on January 18, 2019. The event focused on the National Highways Authority of India’s (NHAI) perspective on technology adoption, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation’s (MSRDC) Nagpur-Mumbai super-communication expressway project, contractors’ viewpoint on digitalisation and the role of technology in the road sector.
The major emerging technologies in the engineering and construction segment include pre-fabrication and modular construction, augmented reality and virtualisation, cloud and real-time collaboration, 3D scanning and photogrammetry, and building information modelling (BIM). The adoption of these technologies for highway construction will offer several benefits in terms of risk reduction and increased efficiency. It will also enable a smooth transition to the operations and maintenance stage and better monitoring of project progress in the design and construction stage, thereby ensuring that the project is completed within the scheduled time and the stipulated budget.
NHAI has already adopted some of the highway construction technologies that are being deployed globally. For better planning of projects, it is in the process of implementing geospatial network planning and plans to deploy traffic analysis and simulation in the future. For the project preparation stage, the authority has successfully adopted remote sensing for topographic survey/mapping, radar-based subsurface utility mapping, auto traffic counter classifiers and digital cadastral mapping while 3D modelling is currently under implementation. For the construction stage, it is exploring the use of advanced construction technologies and materials as well as supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems and geographic information system (GIS)-based land asset management. NHAI has also launched the project monitoring information system (PMIS) mobile application which will facilitate close, in-house monitoring of its projects on a mobile phone. Recently, the authority signed an MoU with the Indian Space Research Organisation, as per which satellite images of 423 under-construction national highway projects will be taken on a monthly basis to keep track of project progress. With regard to maintenance of highway projects, NHAI is in the process of using network survey vehicles, mobile bridge inspection units, falling weight deflectometers and reflectometers. While electronic toll collection is already being undertaken, it plans to adopt the “pay-as-you-use” tolling system going forward. This will be a GPS-based tolling technology for which a pilot project on the Mumbai-Delhi highway has already been launched. In the near future, the authority will use geoanalytics for identification of black spots. Plans to use automated loop detectors, weigh-in-motion systems and lane control systems for better safety are also on the anvil.
The MSRDC is involved with the improvement and development of integrated transport infrastructure in Maharashtra. One of the most ambitious projects being undertaken by the MSRDC is the Nagpur-Mumbai super-communication expressway. The 701 km expressway, passing through 10 major districts, is expected to entail an investment of Rs 550 billion. All the packages for the project have already been awarded. The MSRDC plans to adopt an intelligent highway management system for traffic surveillance on the expressway and set up toll stations on connectors to enable seamless traffic movement. Further, provision of pipelines for compressed natural gas/piped natural gas as well as a dedicated corridor for optic fibre cables/network cables will also be put in place. In addition, 5D BIM to ensure efficient monitoring of operations will also be provided.
Since the conceptualisation of the project, the MSRDC has faced several challenges. However, it has come up with innovative solutions to deal with them in a timely manner. To facilitate land acquisition, the MSRDC set up the Communication Planning and Management Office at the inception of the project. It was the first such global initiative to establish a strong rapport with the farmers. As a consequence, 90 per cent of the land acquisition for the expressway was completed within 12 months. Further, over 50 per cent of the alignment of the expressway passes through drought-prone zones in Maharashtra where contractors are prohibited from using groundwater. Therefore, the MSRDC introduced an innovative mechanism wherein the contractors will create farm ponds using materials excavated during road construction to enable natural storage of water during the monsoon. Meanwhile, the corporation is also in advanced stages of a tie-up with the Maharashtra State Power Generation Company to utilise fly ash in the construction of the expressway. Approximately, 0.6 million metric tonnes of processed fly ash will be utilised as a replacement for cement and around 32.5 million cubic metres of pond ash will be used for embankment works.
Advancing infrastructure in collaborative project delivery: Design, construct and manage
Companies have adopted various digital initiatives for increased efficiency and transparency. Larsen & Toubro ECC, for instance, extensively uses a digital platform for project monitoring. It is using a 3D automated model in its motor grader operations for controlling the required levels of and specifications for material handling. Besides, the company also shares an interface on the digital platform with its subcontractors for quantifying the latter’s works and imparting training.
Private companies use digital platforms widely and most of their internal operations are carried out digitally. However, organisations that deal with the government still rely on manual documentation due to strict guidelines of submitting hard copies. Digitalisation is limited to monitoring works of vendors and subcontractors. Therefore, there is a need for the government to relax such guidelines to reduce cumbersome processes and accept soft copies for ensuring speedier operations/transactions.
Implementation of digital initiatives is not an issue. However, changing the mindset of people towards digitalisation is important. The technology must penetrate to the lowest echelons of the organisation. Processes should also be refined in a manner to ensure that they can be digitalised. In a span of five years, many organisations have become digitally mature. In fact, the government is also gradually adopting the technology. Going forward, there will be complete digitalisation of processes as it simplifies business operations.
For collaborative project delivery, the use of digital technology helps save time. As an example, suppose a road project consists of two segments – a bridge and a highway section. If there is a change in the design of the bridge and this is communicated digitally to the highway team, it will not only save time but also increase efficiency in project delivery. In a collaborative structure, there is involvement of multiple stakeholders and organisations, each with their own set of responsibilities and limitations, which need to be factored in for successful project implementation.
In India, the level of collaboration has improved significantly. Companies are moving towards a common data environment. In fact, there is collaboration among various contractors as well. One such example is the Eastern Peripheral Expressway project wherein coordination and collaboration among contractors and authorities expedited the process thereby completing the project in 500 days vis-à-vis the initial target of 900 days.
Focus on technology
Many infrastructure projects witness schedule overruns due to lack of digitalisation. This affects the project cost and productivity of the organisation. Bentley’s ProjectWise enables a digital collaborative environment within an organisation. The product helps shorten approval cycles and increases accountability with the enhanced collaboration that is required to decrease risk for comprehensive project delivery. For the first time in India, the 5D BIM technology, powered by the Bentley suite of applications, has been used in the Nagpur metro project. Besides, big-ticket projects such as the Mumbai Trans Harbour Link and the Mumbai-Ahmedabad high speed rail also are using ProjectWise.
In a nutshell, technological interventions will help in creating a common data environment for enabling smooth flow of information from one end to the other. This data can be optimally utilised to ensure that projects are carried out in the most cost-effective and time-efficient manner.