Yesterday’s Infrastructure, Tomorrow’s Technology: Thoughts from Ports 2016


I had the opportunity to present at the ASCE COPRI Ports ’16 conference earlier this week in New Orleans, Louisiana. I was presenting a paper on some work we did in the Port of Tacoma for a pier upgrade. “Existing Pile Foundation Evaluation for Pier Upgrade” was the official title, the sub-title would have been “How to get the most out of your existing piles.” I enjoyed giving the talk and was pleased that the questions I received were well thought out.

My presentation really fit in well with many of the other presentations at the conference. Most of the talks I saw touched on the challenges of modifying, improving, and upgrading existing infrastructure. I think this says something about where the industry is right now and where we are as a society.

Our cities and, to be more broad, much of our civilization, have always been centered on waterways and ports. The geographic features that made areas attractive for cities centuries ago are still there and we still rely on these rivers and natural harbors. We’ve always been improving and modifying these areas to meet our needs.

What has changed recently is the rate of growth and the rate of change. Previously, port infrastructure would wear out and then it would be replaced with something a little larger. Now it seems like we’re out-growing the existing infrastructure faster than it is wearing out. We have piers with decades left on their design life that just aren’t big enough to handle modern shipping traffic.

The owners and our society won’t accept tearing down older but still useful facilities to build something bigger. So, we’re expect to make the most of what is already there. I think this dovetails well with the push for more sustainable infrastructure. One of the best ways to save resources for future generations is for us to keep using as much of the resources provided by the previous generations.

What I saw at the conference was how many unique challenges this creates for engineers. So much of what we learn from academia is focused on new techniques and materials. When working with these older structures, it’s not enough to be a brilliant analyst or engineer. You need the institutional knowledge and experience to understand how these structures were first built and how they weather the years of service. Then you need to bring the latest in technology to those improvements so it can get the performance we expect from a brand new structure.

Applying the latest technology to our years of experience (or applying our years of experience to the latest technology) is something we make an effort to do every day.

Questions? We have answers.