The Cutting Edge: Innovation, new technology and moving the industry forward
There is an adage that goes: “If you do what you always did, you’ll get what you always got.” And while that may be a zone of comfort for some, history shows that it typically leads to stagnation, at best, and demise, at worst. Others might rally to the cry of “change and grow or die,” or “evolution is the natural progression.” Wherever you may stand in the spectrum, it’s hard to argue that innovation, in its many possible incarnations, has made the industry what it is today. Further, innovation has increased the competitiveness of tunneling with other alternatives such as those built on the surface or at elevation.
So, where do we go from here … and how quickly?
It seems clear that the element of risk, particularly in terms of cost, is the primary headwind against innovation. I don’t think anyone necessarily innovates for the sake of it but rather because, with different approaches or implementation of new technologies, they visualize a better future state. One should always measure the potential benefit against what could go wrong … but not be paralyzed by it. Fortune also reportedly favors the brave and, for some like the British Special Air Service, it becomes their motto (They who dare, win!). So, by all means, evaluate and mitigate risk but do not reject innovation. You will pay a price in the long term.
A decade ago, the UCA took the innovative step of partnering with Tunneling Journal and creating the annual Cutting Edge Conference, a forum conceived with the intent of showcasing novelty, innovation, current issues and future visions in the tunneling industry. I have had the privilege as Chair to be a part of the organizing committees of the last two conferences (2021 in Dallas, TX and 2022 in Long Beach, CA). The feedback received for this two-day, single-track forum has been overwhelmingly and effusively positive. If you have not yet attended, I encourage you to do so in 2023 and beyond. It feels like real momentum is building behind this event.
In 2021, it was my honor to moderate a panel, comprised of one owner, engineer, contractor supplier and academic, to discuss the state of innovation in our industry. We discussed how good or bad we thought we were, what obstacles needed to be removed to foster innovation, and how did we measure innovation and its effects. The discussion was brisk, with great input and perspective from the audience. While celebrating that the industry has moved forward, there was also acknowledgment that our industry tends to be a technology adoption laggard, that cut-and-paste specifications are completely counter to innovation and adoption of new technologies, and that owner bodies tend to be against things that have not been proven somewhere else.
Hey, somebody’s got to be first; and then there is the rush to lead the way to be second. In the 2022 conference, there was an engaging panel of owners, with four representatives willing to sit and comment on tunneling from their perspectives, and to entertain questions from the audience. It was asked whether owners would be supportive of first-time innovation on one of their projects. One respondent stated confidently that if it was in respect to means, materials and methods, they would, provided a requisite risk analysis had been completed. A second panel member had a different take with the response being along the lines of “we can only do so much,” elaborating that there would be reticence to try things that were not already applied elsewhere.
Contractors tell me that they want to innovate more, particularly where efficiency, cost and/or safety benefits can be realized on their projects at-hand, but that their hands get tied if it’s something “new.” Engineers may be open to evaluating new tech but, somewhere between avid interest and convincing their client that it is the way to go, enthusiasm gets lost. Suppliers, while happy to provide the tried-and-true, also keenly understand the need to innovate or their business will suffer when the next best mousetrap comes along from a competitor. But there also must be a receptive audience. Does this illustration strike a chord for anyone?
All industry participants have a part to play. Coming full circle, where do we go from here? It seems that in terms of stakeholder awareness (infrastructure owners, society-at-large), our industry is in the public eye more now than ever. We have the opportunity to show how the industry has innovated and got us to where we are now. We also have a burden to continue innovating, enabling the building of safer, bigger and better underground infrastructure, in lieu of alternatives at the surface.