Shall we Innovate more in Infrastructure Maintenance?

When it comes to maintaining our transport infrastructure, road users could be forgiven for thinking that the industry culture is: ‘that’s how things are done, it takes as long as it takes.’ I doubt that they would see minimising disruption and inconvenience as one of our priorities.

The traditional value equation is governed by cost, alongside issues such as quality, safety and environmental impact. When prioritising cost, compromises must be made elsewhere, typically resulting in longer durations of work and greater disruption to road users. Within an era of austerity this problem has become all the more acute. Not enough attention has been given to applying innovation or to how we can find alternative methods that create less disruption to the transport network.

This needs to change. The people who use our transport infrastructure are important stakeholders. Their experience needs to be increasingly part of the value equation. R&D effort needs to be directed, not just at how we can work more efficiently or improve durability, but also how we can use better methods to reduce disruption.

Part of the answer lies in how we collect and use data. Data could relate to traffic flows or to asset condition. By understanding better, the configuration and condition of assets, and the specifics of how they are used, we can plan and make intelligent decisions that maximise capacity on increasingly crowded networks. With better data we can understand risks and focus resources on carrying out work that is really needed, when it is needed.

Some solutions are more straightforward and simply need a different way of thinking.

Take, for example, what happens when structures such as highways over-bridges need to be inspected or repaired. The current solution would be to erect scaffolding, together with traffic management and lane closures. Disruption extends well before and after the period needed to carry out the work because scaffolding takes a long time to erect and dismantle safely.

If continuous closures aren’t an option, it means working overnight using cherry pickers. All the plant, equipment and materials then need to be installed and removed every night. This is highly inefficient.

The Infrastructure sector is fairly unique, in that there are very few customers who invest for the long term, instead looking at Infrastructure in a short-sighted manner. Contractors are often on such small margins that they cannot afford to invest when there is the risk that they might not win the work.

This is the culture that must change and is starting to change as we have seen with long term DBFO (design, build, finance, operate) maintenance contracts such as the M25 where over a significant period the capital costs of R&D are recovered many times over through increases in quality and reduced costs.

One solution to the issue of safe access to highway structures is being pioneered by Osborne. It involves using a flexible scaffold structure mounted on a flatbed trailer.

The trailer can be configured offsite to suit the required work. It can then be quickly positioned within a lane closure to provide a safe working platform for activities such as painting, grit blasting, hydrodemolition, repairs and inspections.

As our roads become more congested and budgets get tighter, a culture of ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’ is simply not good enough. The future belongs to the organisations that recognise the needs of all stakeholders and are dedicated to finding better ways of working to deliver the greatest all round benefit.