Engineering Firms Boost Earnings and Profits by Using Modern Technology in Bridge Inspections
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American writer and Professor of Biochemistry Isaac Asimov, speaking at the Newark College of Engineering in New Jersey, once said, “I discovered, to my amazement, that all through history there had been resistance … and bitter, exaggerated, last-stitch resistance to every significant technological change that had taken place on earth. Usually, the resistance came from those groups who stood to lose influence, status, money as a result of the change.”
Professor Asimov’s comments are astute in observing bridge inspections in the US. One could even say truer words were never spoken. As the world’s only superpower, the US is expected to set standards for the rest of the world to follow. So it seems incredulous, even shocking, to observe antiquated methodology still used extensively in inspecting the country’s vital bridges.
Why? And even as technology advances, bridges are still being inspected manually. Why?
And it is certainly not for want of a viable alternative. President of Infraspect said, “Modern technology greatly empowers Inspection and Engineering staff today. Traditional infrastructure inspection methods are over 50 years old and quite outdated. The new technology provides quantitative data that makes the inspection far more effective, and also allows DOTs to better allocate existing funds within their current maintenance budgets.”
The Federal Government awards contracts to large Engineering firms. The Engineering firms already have the funds in their hands when the projects are delegated to the different divisions within the companies. Bridge Inspection Departments blithely continue assigning tasks to Inspectors according to “billable hours.” This is the way things happened all these years. And they continue unchanged despite the numerous red flags frantically waving at them.
The collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge over the Mississippi River during rush hour on August 1, 2007, which killed 13 people, injured 145, and destroyed 111 vehicles, was later attributed to a serious flaw in the original bridge design. Manual inspections never caught this because focusing on design aspects is outside the scope of manual inspections. The bridge was weakest at the point it should have been the strongest, and everyone was blissfully unaware of a disaster waiting to happen. Technology may well have averted the disaster as scientifically obtained data is accurate and consistent and would have indicated an anomaly that went unnoticed in the manual inspection.
We recount how Infraspect recently inspected a small bridge in Florida using BridgeScan®, which is an effective tool to determine the condition of aging bridge decks quickly. The engineering firm awarded the contract to repair the bridge suspected a problem, but the Department of Transportation had to schedule a repair through manual subjective information that appeared to be the priority. The data provided by Infraspect’s BridgeScan™ identified several issues which had not even been suspected, and it resulted in immediate action being taken for the engineering firm – and more revenue earned in the process.
“Therefore, to reject employing technology of smaller firms in the mistaken belief larger engineering firms will make losses is an absolute fallacy.”‘
Most of America’s bridges and highways were built in the 1950s, and they are consistently compelled to carry more traffic than they were originally intended and designed to do. Also, modern vehicles are significantly heavier than the vehicles of earlier times, which provided the guidelines for weight on bridges when blueprints were made.
Federal and State guidelines for manual inspection of bridges are also about fifty years old, with significantly subjective methods. However, about 15 years ago, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) admitted, “For more than 30 years, inspectors relied largely on visual inspections to evaluate the condition of bridges.” FHWA also admitted that Nondestructive Evaluation (NDE) technologies were not being used as widely as they should be. Even 15 years ago, FWHA realized, “New NDE technologies increasingly seek to solve difficult inspection challenges beyond the capability of normal visual inspections.”
FHWA, on the instruction of Congress, set up a Nondestructive Evaluation Validation Center (NDEVC), which, in 1998, engaged in researching the accuracy of the bridge inspection process. During its study, the NDEVC found that In-Depth Inspections conducted manually may miss detecting many deficiencies for which such Inspections are used.
Infraspect has trailblazed new frontiers in nondestructive technology (NDT), with robotic systems that can identify deterioration in concrete and other structural material at the initial stages and recommend repairs before deterioration spreads and compromises the safety of bridges.
Infraspect inspection technology, which automates the inspection of bridges through low-cost drone and robotic systems, will strengthen the prospects of engineering firms to engage engineers and technical staff in enhanced maintenance work on bridges. These firms can thereby shore up their earnings and profit in ways they never anticipated.
Thus, engineering firms need to change with the changing needs of the day. However, clinging to outdated methods will not only cost the nation precious lives and property. Still, it will rob engineering companies of valuable opportunities to enhance their capabilities and profit margins.
American philosopher Wayne Dyer once said, “If you change how you look at things, the things you look at change.”