The power of connections in the UCA

by Erika Moonin, 2023- 2024 UCA Chair

The world is changing quickly with new innovations and technology. No doubt, these changes will impact the underground industry. We have seen and will continue to see changes — at a more rapid place I foresee — through innovation and new technology in future years. The areas of rapid growth include new technologies to increase production rates, streamline operations, and improve sustainability and carbon reduction.

Examples include the use of digital twins to understand and optimize operations and the use of artificial intelligence to optimize tunnel boring machine (TBM) operations, and to reduce the overall carbon footprint using low carbon source materials. Great strides are being made in Europe to reduce carbon materials and these practices are being implemented on major tunnel projects in Europe.

These were among the interesting topics covered at the 2023 Cutting Edge Conference in Austin, TX, Nov. 13-15, co-sponsored by the UCA and Tunneling Journal. The conference was well-attended with the highest number of attendees to date. Attendees include owners, contractors, designers, suppliers and students. We will dive into these topics more through UCA’s continuing education efforts and other resources in the future.

With that in mind, my question to you is, are you excited about being part of this industry during this time of transformation and innovation? I know that I am and the UCA is the place to stay connected on these changes. As we continue to discuss topics like innovation and technology, the UCA of SME provides resources to our membership to advance the industry, stay ahead of these changes, and network with colleagues who are as interested as you are about the industry. In addition to the conferences, we have technical working groups, training sessions and webinars.

You can get involved in the technical working groups where you can gain insights on these advancements and influence the guidance documents for the implementation of new trends in technology across the world. The UCA technical working groups organization and focus topics align with the International Tunneling Association (ITA) technical working groups and work to collect the best practices and expert advice within the United States. The groups then coordinate with other member nation delegates on the ITA working groups. It is so inspiring to learn and share the best technological advances around the world and give back to the industry at the same time.

Attending conferences is an excellent way to stay in tune with technological advancements, get connected to your colleagues and grow your network. Our conferences are packed with the latest and greatest information and attending gives you an opportunity for a quick stop to talk between sessions or at lunch. It is a great way to stay in touch with your colleagues. UCA and SME hold different types of conferences and training sessions throughout the year for members and nonmembers. The Cutting Edge Conference is a smaller, more topic focused conference designed to provide the ability for participant engagement using a questions and answers session at the end of each panel of speakers. With one track of sessions and a smaller attendance it provides a unique opportunity to talk more with folks, get to know each other better, and dig deeper into technical topics.

Lizan Gilbert, from Kiewit, commented that the thing she likes best about the Cutting Edge Conference is “the single-track where everyone is in the single spot, not frantic. And quality connections.”

This year, the Cutting Edge Conference had two special topic panel sessions – one for owners and one for contractors. It was very interesting to hear what the contractors had to say about alternative delivery and some of the challenges we are experiencing in changing the way we develop and deliver projects. The consensus was that early contractor involvement can help increase innovation if done right and the full project team is committed to the process. This provides an opportunity to evaluate alternative approaches for construction, materials, and design of the project. There were some very serious topics and a few laughs as well. My favorite take away that made everyone laugh is “engineers should stick to doing what they are good at – doing what they are told to do.”

Kimberly Wilson, LA MTA, said she “really liked the Contractor Panel to hear that they agree more than disagree” with some of the challenges that owners face on major underground infrastructure projects.As a prior owner, I agree.

Based on the record attendance this year with some new faces, the fairly relaxed mood, the longer coffee breaks, this year was a great conference. A big thank you goes out to Joe O’Carroll, Mott MacDonald, as the conference chair and the planning committee for an outstanding conference. If you have not attended a Cutting Edge Conference, I recommend you do so.

Matt Koziol, from Schnabel Engineering, said “this was my first time attending the Cutting Edge Conference, and I was blown away by how well attended it was and by how much everybody loved celebrating each other’s work and the industry in general. I would highly recommend it.”
The UCA will next host the George A. Fox Conference on Feb. 7, 2024 at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City, NY.

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