Word has gotten around — America has an infrastructure problem. From our roads and bridges to our airports and drinking water systems, most of the physical apparatuses in this country that make modern living possible receive failing grades every time civic engineers complete their infrastructure report card.
According to 2017 results, America’s rail system was the only piece of infrastructure for which we earned a “B” rating. Solid waste handling, bridges and seaports are the only C+ grades. Almost everything else is a D+ or below.
The need for passable roads is self-explanatory in any country. But why are ports, airports, railways, parks, public transportation, schools and energy-related infrastructure important? In part, because it encourages domestic and foreign investment and helps us compete globally. It’s also a matter of public health and human dignity, as we’ve seen in Flint. Citizens without clean drinking water cannot live comfortably, let alone achieve their highest potential.
Poor infrastructure also renders us unable to respond to natural disasters and other unforeseen events. When some of the levee pumping equipment in New Orleans was offline for unplanned maintenance in August 2017, it just happened to be on the day an overwhelming amount of rain fell and left the area crippled by flooding.
The stakes have never been higher. That’s why the arrival of predictive maintenance for infrastructure is such an exciting concept. Let’s take a look at the opportunities.
1. Reduce or Eliminate Unplanned Downtime
Predictive maintenance, also called “condition-based maintenance,” is a compelling step up from calendar-based maintenance, which sometimes feels like glorified guesswork. But with smarter and more predictive technologies embedded in our infrastructure, civic engineers can call upon real-time data to evaluate the health of even the smallest components in our levees, ports, bridges and more.
It works by comparing current mechanical data with known historical benchmarks. This lets engineers detect substandard performance and imminent failure before the part or piece of equipment fails. The result is an unbroken record of productivity like that of the wastewater treatment plant in Racine, Wisconsin, which hasn’t seen an incident in 45 years thanks to maintenance cycles powered by advanced analytical technologies.
Even something as seemingly minor as a loose screw can have dire consequences, but both massive and tiny parts give mechanical telltale signs that sensors can pick up on.
2. Realize Potentially Massive Cost Savings
Maintaining a world-class public infrastructure is expensive. But even though America’s tax revenue has grown reliably each year since the 1700s, infrastructure spending as a percentage of our total tax revenue has dropped off equally reliably. As of the most recent U.S. federal budget, more than half of the funding earmarked for discretionary spending is used for military-related expenses. The other half has to cover last every one of our domestic programs, including infrastructure spending.
Where does this leave us? It means we need to find new ways to ensure we’re using our limited infrastructure dollars to the greatest effect. That means turning to cost-cutting predictive technologies.
The U.S. Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Management program provide reports of their own about the cost-benefit analysis of maintaining our infrastructure more proactively: up to 90 percent. They further estimate that critical and crippling malfunctions could fall by 75 percent.
Translation: by better predicting faults and failures before they become critical, invasive repairs become both rarer and cheaper for engineers to carry out. And more than that, it also makes workers’ lives safer, since they’re less likely to be working on or around a machine that fails without notice.
3. Achieve Greater Energy Efficiency
A machine that is operated until its point of failure is a machine that has spent most of its life working inefficiently. It’s a lesson we can learn from maintenance in industrial facilities and one that applies to all of the mechanical infrastructures our country relies on.
Predictive analytical equipment, either built into our machines from the beginning or added in a retrofit afterward, can detect subtle signs that a machine is operating sub-optimally and wasting energy, such as vibrations and even ultrasonic noises. The Department of Energy identified this is an opportunity years ago and other entities have confirmed their findings since. Maintenance performed with energy savings in mind could reduce expenses by 20 percent or more.
Today’s advanced technologies could push these savings even higher. Estimates for a single manufacturing plant indicate that a combined strategy of predictive and routine maintenance could save that facility between 15,000 and 30,000 kWh of electricity annually and stop it from releasing between 7,500 and 15,000 kg of carbon dioxide per year.
4. Reduce Costs and Maintain Public Ownership
American citizens won’t actually have any stake in, or ownership of, this country’s public infrastructure in the near future if current trends continue. One of the only current points of overlap between the Republican and Democratic ethos is the belief that the only way to safeguard our infrastructure is to sell it off to private, profit-driven corporations. You’ll hear all kinds of reasons why this is to be celebrated.
In reality, one of the immediate consequences is that we (the public) won’t own our infrastructure, as is our right as taxpayers, for very much longer. Chicago sold its parking meters to a consortium of rent-seekers led by Morgan Stanley in 2008. The result was that the corporations ended up making $156 million per year ever since, just from American drivers looking for parking. The city of Chicago makes nothing from those meters now and, indeed, has to pay Morgan Stanley each time it turns off a parking meter for a street fair or another public event.
All of the advantages we’ve discussed here boil down to performing maintenance more cost-effectively, meaning it could help us reverse the worrying privatization trend. Unless you especially enjoy paying tolls to cross bridges or drive on “public” roads, this is a no-brainer: publicly owned and proactively maintained infrastructure is good for everybody. It just might not be good for private profits.