06.04.2017 : Vaclav Hirsch

1200 bridges in 365 days

When our team was faced with a request for the rapid inspection of Fiji’s national road network – including over 1200 bridges, crossings and culverts – an innovative solution was needed.

For some projects, the manual process of using pen and paper to record data is still perfectly fine; it’s flexible, simple and requires no training. But what if you’re tasked with inspecting 1200 bridges in a completely unique geography, climate and infrastructure over the course of a single year, with little more than coordinates for historical data? That is going to entail a great deal of information, time and organisation, not to mention ink and parchment.

The objective of the inspections: to proactively identify defects in order to enable the prioritisation, planning and funding of repairs. It certainly wouldn’t take Jimmy Cliff to tell us there would be ‘many rivers to cross’.

But Fiji, well known for its harsh environment, is akin to many developing nations in that the maintenance of bridge assets had been hampered by a lack of capital and skilled resources on the ground. Until recently information held by the national roads authority had only been high level; focusing on locating bridges and assessing primary qualitative risk levels. The reality was that due to the harsh environment and maintenance deficit, many bridges were in poor condition, and the data that was held was understandably incomplete.

An innovative solution was needed, and there was little or no guidance on technologies or systems for collection and management of inspection data. Collaboration was going to be key and while we bridge engineers and asset managers are used to working with complementary technical disciplines such as transport and geotechnical services, this project was going to require some out of the box thinking. This meant utilising the services of our applied technologies advisors to find, configure and integrate existing and new digital technologies to increase the quality, and reduce the cost of our bridge and general site inspections.

By adopting innovative digital tools and working together with the technological advisors from within the business, we could do this quickly and cost-effectively, and improve our collection, management and presentation of data for our clients.

Collaboratively the teams configured cloud-based applications to facilitate collection and management of site data. This allowed our bridge inspectors to collect and manage inspection data using their smartphones, and automatically generate inspection reports and data insights for our clients. Pen and paper become history. All data collection, review, management and presentation was carried out via advanced, yet easy-to-use cloud based tools accessible from anywhere.

We found we could tailor a bespoke data collection tool, with an added development of a dashboard to provide real-time insights into our bridge inspections progress and status. This helped manage the inspection using data visualisation software which automatically extracts data. Utilising the cloud online service allowed us to securely share a real-time interactive dashboard with the client, for unsurpassed visibility. By giving our clients the ability to drill into the details of the bridge inspections, as well as a high level summary, we provide an engaging deliverable. This helps us present new insights to our clients, creating opportunities to offer additional services.

What did we learn?

The interesting thing that we found about this project was that the process of change brings people together. Through using this new technology the whole team enjoyed the experience more. Our shared involvement brought us together and we found it far more engaging than the old manual route. Less senior members were instilled with a new level of confidence given the opportunity to develop and use state of the art tools remotely, knowing full well they had the backing of the whole team from any location. And ultimately having a new set of eyes on the project from our technologies team gave us a different perspective and streamlined the whole process. We also found that engineers equipped with modern tools were not only more productive in producing results, but more importantly were far more engaged and satisfied.

Organisations can be forgiven for hesitating about the transition to more sophisticated systems. There are concerns over teething problems, training, compatibility with existing data/processes and security. However these systems have come a long way from the clunky computerised systems of old.

Lifecycle management for us had a mini revolution. Adoption of modern technologies for bridge inspections has provided significant benefits for Beca and our clients, and has also raised industry standards. Over time, analysis of our bridge inspections is also likely to reveal further insights.

To see a more in depth analysis of the project and its benefits you can view my entire paper “Beyond Data Collection – Bridge Inspections in the Digital Age”.

About the Author

Vaclav Hirsch

Associate - Engineering

Vaclav is passionate about Fijian infrastructure. For the past three years he’s been based in Suva, Fiji, using his structural design leadership skills and significant experience in bridge and marine structures on a number of civil infrastructure projects.

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