Invention & Innovation in Utility Infrastructure

innovation & invention

By Firat Sever

Invention and innovation are two important concepts in our daily lives. Without the two, there is essentially no progress in day-to-day activities of human life or even to the sustainability of the earth with the continuously growing human population and increasing number of endangered/extinct species.

Invention and innovation (from this point on I will use the acronym i&i for the concept, not to be confused with infiltration and inflow!) are related but there is a difference between the two. Webster essentially defines innovation as the “introduction of something new,” whereas invention is used synonymously with “discovery” and entails “a product of imagination.” Invention refers to the process of devising something useful that was not previously known or existing. It has been said that innovations can provide creative drivers of change in markets and society. Innovation includes the products of invention plus their commercialization and introduction into markets and practice.

For instance, polymeric membranes were invented by 1963, but they did not become an innovation until the 1990s, when the first large-scale desalination plants began to be built. This example illustrates the distinction between invention and innovation, but also suggests that defining, measuring, tracking and characterizing innovation can be a long-term process.

In a television interview I watched of him, almost a decade ago, economist and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and the host were discussing the fundamental reasons of a sliding economy (this was in the times of the great recession), unlike many others at the time — who were pointing fingers at the banking industry, federal government, and even at globalization and Americans’ consuming habits — Friedman provided insight in a grander scale: “We are not doing as well in this era, because many of our brightest minds end up in finance working for investment banks for higher wages, instead of areas of science and engineering, where they could make a real difference in improving the economy.” He then emphasized that the biggest drivers of the economy always stemmed from inventive and innovative thinking. Countries around the globe are seeking their own sources of comparative advantage in the innovation landscape. Robert Solow won the Nobel Prize in economics for, among other things, demonstrating that as much as 80 percent of GDP growth comes through the introduction of new technologies, and Boston Consulting Group, in a study conducted for BusinessWeek, concluded that innovative companies achieved median profit margin growth of 3.4 percent as compared with 0.4 percent for the median S&P Global 1200.

While one could argue about the overall impact of some of the i&i on the happiness of people (e.g., much disputed overall effect of social media and even smart phones), it will be detrimental to deny our survival as species hinging on i&i in essentially every aspect of our lives. Then, how does this translate to the more conservative utility infrastructure industry?

When it comes to engineering and infrastructure design, being “conservative” is not necessarily a prohibitive or negative concept as it entails an increased safety factor, thereby reducing risk. Nevertheless, taking this “peace of mind” kind of mindset too far can choke i&i and be detrimental to making progress for the overall industry. In fact, as a veteran consultant in utility infrastructure engineering, I have been observing this first-hand, particularly with some of the public entities. This is understandable because from a treatment plant operator’s, or oftentimes from a utility manager’s or even consultant’s perspective, the goal is usually to build or improve the utility infrastructure as much as needed to meet the regulations. Such an approach solely based on “cost cutting,” in fact, can become quite costly in the long run, and the expensive consequences that can be analyzed are three-fold:

Lowest capital cost alternatives can increase the risk of a violation (particularly environmental), which could turn out to be much more expensive (economically and socially), then initially more expensive looking alternatives with less risk (what happened in Flint, Mich., is the ultimate example of this).

Low capital cost could mean a higher life cycle cost, and that means the alternative implemented is not economical at all in the long-run, hence not a good choice for the betterment of the community.
Although most construction materials are regulated and design guidelines exist for essentially all of those on the market today, a cost-cutting mindset starting from the design phase through construction could increase the risk of a failure (example: a design plan put together in a haphazard way with multiple errors and omissions).

Another school of thought that remains an obstacle for i&i is the notion that something new will always have a higher upfront cost. This is not necessarily true. In fact, much of the new products (and services) stem from the goal of providing the same or higher level of service at a lower cost. Moreover, it is not out of line to say one will not see a substantial reduction of the construction cost of any infrastructure without coming up with something innovative, if not inventive. For example, while there may be varying opinions about its performance — it also highly depends on the type and manufacturer — without the advent in polymer science in the aftermath of World War II, we would not be able to install or rehabilitate thousands of miles of pipelines around the globe. At the minimum, introduction of a new and acceptable construction material will enforce the others to reduce their costs, thereby encouraging them to find more innovative ways of improving and marketing their products (think about the improvements in conventional materials such as iron and concrete after the introduction of engineered polymers to the construction market).

Some examples of the particular areas of innovation in the civil engineering and construction industry are provided below (quora.com). This list is an ever-growing one as new areas of innovation are introduced to the industry on a regular basis.

Innovation process: 6i-model

Innovation process: 6i-model

1. New Emergent Materials

With the advent of nanotechnology, now construction materials are designed and manufactured in micro- and even nano-scale. In the old days, “reinforcing” a material simply meant adding rebar to concrete. In today’s world, types and sizes of materials used for reinforcing the binding base material have grown tremendously with material such as carbon fibers, thereby opening a plethora of opportunities with respect to improving stiffness and elasticity of a conventional material.

On the other hand, materials do not have to be even “manufactured” at a conventional facility any more. A new group of materials are grown, biologically. Thanks to biomimicry and opportunities discovered in organic materials that react to the changing environmental conditions the way we would like structures to adapt. This is an area at its infancy, but opportunities seem to be endless with respect to producing green materials that not only are in harmony with the surrounding environment, but is capable of changing to adapt to its environment for improved performance.

2. Generative Design

The role of computers in designing structures has been getting bigger and bigger since the 1980s. The term generative design refers to automation of design by computers utilizing the past design projects. As engineers, we experience that already to a limited extent by applying standard drawings to projects. Nevertheless, at this stage we yet tell computers what to do in the design process, but more automation is in the foresight, particularly for repetitive projects, thereby increasing accuracy and reducing the design time and cost.

3. Laser Scanning with Point Clouds

Laser scanning enables owners and designers to acquire 2D and 3D images of existing structures and their surrounding environments for accurate “as-building” and design purposes. Laser scanning can provide immense opportunities with respect to design and can be a great tool for design-build projects where flexibility to the design during construction is more pronounced. It is also perceived as the future of site surveying practices. The deliverables from 3D laser scanning can be converted to CAD compatible files and be incorporated into a design.

4. 3D Printing

Also referred to as Additive Manufacturing (AM), 3D printing refers to processes used to create a three-dimensional object in which material is joined or solidified under computer control to create an object, with material being added together (such as liquid molecules or powder grains being fused together). AM has enabled manufacture of various objects and mechanical parts that would be almost impossible to build using the conventional processes of industrial production in short time frames. The technology utilizes a computer aided design model to make an object of essentially any shape with various materials. It has been embraced by a number of industries including automotive, aerospace, biomedical engineering, and clothing. Of late, the technology has made inroads toward the infrastructure as well, and it is possible to utilize conventional construction materials in addition to emerging ones to build infrastructure elements using AM. Recent examples include a bridge made of concrete in the Netherlands, on-site pipeline manufacturing using fiber reinforced polymer in the United States, and homes partially built by AM in China.

5. Robotic Prefabrication

This is essentially implementing the robotic manufacture technology — which is quite established in many industries such as food, automotive, and aerospace — in construction. Robotic production has the potential to substantially reduce the labor costs and time spent on making prefabricated infrastructure and building elements such as beams, columns and pipes generally built offsite.

ASCE Grand Challenge

Unfortunately, America’s infrastructure is no longer a posterchild for the rest of the world due to a number of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) has been a primary advocate to emphasize the needs for more investment toward the infrastructure, and has been releasing its Report Card for America’s Infrastructure since 1998. Based on data collected from all 50 states, those report cards have not rated the overall infrastructure with a grade higher than a D+. In the latest report card, wastewater and drinking water infrastructure received got a D+ and D grade, respectively. As such, the problem is well defined, but the solution is not quite there.

This is apparent in the substantial gap between the investment needs identified by the ASCE to bring these grades to a minimum B and the funding available from the federal government, despite the recent rhetoric used in Washington, D.C., about boosting the funding levels. ASCE says the total gap is currently at $2 trillion, and even if the $1 trillion-plus investment comes to fruition — though it is not clear how those funds will be allocated and in what timeframe — the gap will still be at $1 trillion over the course of next decade. Accordingly, the ASCE initiated the Grand Challenge, which initially set the goal of reducing the infrastructure life cycle cost by 50 percent by 2025. This sounds somewhat ambitious, and 2025 is only seven years away now. Nevertheless, it is not impossible, and can only be achieved by innovative design and implementation, and that is the main focus of the Grand Challenge initiative. The program encourages innovative design and cost reduction measures by communicating example projects from around the country (and globally) to its followers and awards projects that stand out with respect to innovative thinking and economical design.

At the core of seeing more i&i in the infrastructure is a cultural shift in the way utility owners, engineers, and managers conduct business. Such a cultural shift would reward innovative thinking for the benefit of the society versus just trying to keep the status quo and get by without getting into “trouble.” While many public and private utilities have also embraced an institutional culture of innovation (some of them even have departments and full-time employees exclusively working on innovative processes for treatment as well as best practices for conveyance systems), the majority of them — particularly smaller utilities — are in need of the aforementioned cultural shift. This will not happen overnight, but with more education and emphasis on how embracing the “new” can benefit them by presenting “real world” examples would be a good start.


V. Firat Sever
Pipeline Division Manager | QuakeWrap, Inc.

Firat Sever, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE, has worked as a consulting engineer for the past 13 years in the water infrastructure industry and recently transitioned to technology development and installation at QuakeWrap, Inc. His past experience spans a wide variety of projects including small and large conventional, design-build and high profile international research projects.

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