“Oh God, I don’t even want to think about that,” said Kristina Rhine, Director of Purchasing at Bowling Green State University, when I asked her the question in this article’s title. I explain that this is more about reflection than prediction, a way to look back at all the technology adoption trends driven in part due to the pandemic. After a second to think, she responds in the affirmative.
“We have way more tools than we had back in 2019.”
It’s been over three years since the world was initially rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. President Biden boldly declared that the pandemic is “over” roughly one year ago on a 60 Minutes news special. Then, just a few weeks ago, the CDC recommended a new vaccine to “protect against the potentially serious outcomes of COVID-19 illness this fall and winter.” From these diametrically opposed instances, we can draw two conclusions; that the world is more or less operating as it was before the pandemic, but that the illness itself, and the changes it necessitated are not going away anytime soon.
From the rise of remote work to the dawn of our new Zoom/Slack/Microsoft Teams overlords, those changes have been discussed and debated at length. But in this article, we’ll take a specific look at technology adoption trends in construction, and how they’ve inadvertently led to a more connected, collaborative, and resilient industry.
First, some numbers
Let’s look at some of the growth trends for technologies that were specifically brought on by the pandemic and social distancing requirements; e-Ticketing, e-Bidding, equipment and personnel tracking, automated data collection, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). All data courtesy of Dodge Data & Analytics’ The Civil Quarterly, which regularly surveys 150+ civil contractors and engineers for industry insights.
e-Ticketing usage grew by 5% from 2020 to 2023, with an additional 23% considering usage
e-Bidding usage grew by 7% from 2020 to 2023, with 29% of civil engineers expecting to expand their use in the future
Equipment and personnel tracking grew from 11% from 2020 to 2023, with an additional 24% considering usage
Use of drones for data collection grew 19% from 2020 to 2023
While only 4% of surveyed engineers report using AI to analyze worker behavior, the market is expected to grow by 25% over the next five years
When I dove into these numbers, I certainly expected to see larger growth numbers across the board. Perhaps it’s a matter of sample size, as it’s hard to imagine that only 7% more organizations are using an e-Bidding platform as bid openings across the country were overhauled to be entirely remote. These statistics paint a picture of an industry that took a small step forward during the pandemic, but not a giant technological leap. It poses another question - did agencies adopt new technology permanently, or did they think temporarily, making do with a makeshift email/shipping solution during the pandemic before reverting back to the old way of doing things?
In an in-depth study by the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute (MPDI) that dives specifically in to the use of digital technology for communication during the pandemic, it’s noted that some technology usage hit its peak during the thick of the pandemic, then regressed to levels that were still higher than 2019. This regression could account for the lower than expected growth numbers in The Civil Quarterly. Anecdotally, we found no shortage of examples of organizations who made significant changes to their technology and process during the pandemic, and would feel well-equipped if similar restrictions were ever put back in place.
Blessings in disguise
I spoke with two folks who described their adoption of an e-bidding platform in 2019 as a “blessing in disguise” because of their ability to seamlessly continue operations once social distancing restrictions were enacted. Kristina Rhine, mentioned earlier, was one of them.
“March of 2020, the pandemic hit, everyone had to go home… we wouldn’t have been able to continue operations. We were able to continue operations because it was all virtual and we’d used 2019 as the transition year. So, we had a month where we said ‘this is coming, we no longer accept paper,’ and when 2020 came it was seamless to convert the construction process that was in-person straight to virtual,” said Rhine.
During the pandemic, Rhine and her staff at BGSU were able to act as a resource for other organizations in the area that needed to quickly adapt.
“We had the University of Toledo right up 75 from us, and they were interested. We had a meeting with myself and my team and a roundtable with University of Toledo to discuss how our processes are the same and how we made it work.”
Their use of an e-Bidding platforms came with a number of essential benefits:
Encrypted, lockbox technology keeps bids secure prior to bid openings, building vendor trust
Bid openings can be conducted entirely remotely
Vendors don’t have to wait around for hard copy bid tabs
BGSU has a complete audit trail of submissions and reasons for non-responsive bids
Above all, the simplest benefit to the University was that they were able to continue routine operations in a time of turmoil. Adam Fricke, Deputy Engineer for Clinton County, Ohio, shared a similar sentiment. His team began using an e-Bidding platform in January of 2020, timing that couldn’t have worked out better for his team.
“When COVID hit, they sent us all home. I just kept cranking out projects. We bid projects where I’m sitting at home, the Commissioner is at the office, my boss is at his house, and we’re doing Zoom calls where I share my screen, and we open bids. We never missed a day from COVID. I’m glad we got [an e-Bidding platform] when we did.”
Fricke mentions the benefits of Zoom, which were echoed by Rhine. Similarly, a September 2020 survey from the Associated General Contractors of America and Autodesk showed that 21% of respondents increased their use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and similar platforms for virtual communication and training. As we look at adoption trends for advanced technology like rovers, drones, AI, etc., it’s important to remember that one of the biggest impacts to efficiency, communication, and effective social distancing was good ol’ video chat and instant messaging, technologies that have been around for decades.
DOTs lead e-Ticketing growth
In addition to e-Bidding, e-Ticketing was the other technology that came up frequently in the conversations I had to inform this article. I spoke with Infotech’s own Ron Gant, who shared a story about how the Alabama Department of Transportation traced a COVID-19 to a truck driver using hand-held tickets. They were already piloting an e-Ticketing program, but this incident prompted them to accelerate their adoption. “They showed how they could take the inspector out of harm's way,” said Gant.
Indeed, that sentiment was echoed by State Construction Engineer Skip Powe, detailed in an article by Equipment World. “With the COVID-19 pandemic, we discontinued the practice of accepting paper tickets when materials are delivered to the site, and requested our contractors and suppliers to accelerate their implementation of e-Ticketing.”
Alabama was far from the only state to mandate some sort of e-Ticketing program during the pandemic. A 2023 report from FHWA details adoption practices in Pennsylvania, Iowa, Delaware, Utah, Nebraska, Minnesota, Tennessee, and Washington, in addition to Alabama. Similarly, an “e-Ticketing Synopsis” by the National Asphalt Pavement Association (NAPA) reports on e-Ticketing developments for all 50 states. Some adopted a cloud-based platform for recording and tracking digital tickets, while others merely instituted a hybrid method involving cell phone photography - but the vast majority had some sort of plan to grow their e-Ticketing process.
If a pandemic were to recur, it’s clear that, at least on the federal level, the transportation industry has either a plan or practice in place for handling e-Tickets. Those who continued their e-Ticketing requirements after pandemic restriction loosened are enjoying the benefits of improved tracking, record-keeping, and enhanced job site safety due to the removal of a physical handoff.
The next wave of remote technology
e-Bidding and e-Ticketing both experienced growth during the pandemic, but it’s worth mentioning that both were nearing a state of mature industry adoption before the pandemic. Many of the folks who came on board during the pandemic were laggards, not early adopters. So, what about the technologies that have emerged more recently? How will the early adopters of these technologies be more prepared in the event of another pandemic?
Organizations using drones will be able to empower their inspectors to conduct inspections from safe distances. Site safety tracking platforms are beginning to incorporate AI to analyze worker behavior and scan for personal protective equipment (PPE). Companies leveraging remote sensing and reality capture tools may be able to automate every risk-incurring aspect of the construction inspection and administration process.
The possibilities are endless and the benefits range far beyond pandemic response. So, while we couldn’t agree more with the sentiment Rhine expressed at the start of this article, we feel confident in stating that the industry’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic drove tech adoption and adequately prepared the industry for any similar disruptors that arise in the future. And that knowledge, as Rhine points out, is something you can’t put a price on.
“We were able to navigate the whole pandemic, which was priceless, really. To keep going.”
As a 46+ year solutions-provider for the transportation industry, we’ve helped organizations work through a number of historic disruptions. If you’re interested in future-proofing your construction bidding, administration, or inspection process, feel free to reach out.