In-house versus Commercial Bridge Inspection Software
Should your agency adopt commercial bridge inspection software or in-house inspection systems to investigate your state’s bridge structures?
First, DOTs must have bridge inventory and inspection management software that, at a minimum, allows them to:
Store bridge inventory data
Collect inspection data
Generate annual FHWA submittal files
As of April 2022, the following ten state DOTs use in-house systems as their inventory and inspection management software:
California: Structure Maintenance Automated Report Transmittal System (SMART)
Colorado: System for Inspection and Management of Structures (SIMSA)
Illinois: Bridge Inspection System (BIS)
Massachusetts: Bridge Inspection and Management System (BIMS)
Missouri: Bridge Management System (BMS)
North Carolina: Wearable Inspection and Grading Information Network System (WIGINS)
Pennsylvania: Bridge Management System 2 (BMS2)
Wisconsin: Highway Structure Information System (HSIS)
Other DOTs use off-the-shelf or commercial bridge inspection software such as BrM, inspectX MultiAsset, and AssetWise.
This blog compares commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) and in-house software system options to help you decide which option can be better for your agency or DOT.
We’ve used the following seven criteria to compare these two options:
A snapshot of the comparison between in-house and commercial bridge inspection software
Let’s dive in.
Cost is one of the most important factors on our list, if not the most important one. To compare the cost of these two options, we divide the life span of the software systems into the following 3 phases:
This phase involves the initial design, development, testing, deployment, and training. As part of this phase, all historical data should be migrated to the system and the system should be integrated into other systems in the agency.
This phase starts after the system is implemented in production and is stable. During this phase, developers work on fixing bugs and sometimes develop small functionalities.
Occasionally, the system should undergo major changes or upgrades. These upgrades occur primarily when
(1) there’s a change in regulations, or
(2) libraries or technologies used in development get deprecated.
For example, there have been two major changes in regulation in the past few years, related to (1) element level data collection on NHS bridges and (2) Tunnel Inspection and NTI data submittal.
Additionally, the Specifications of National Bridge Inventory (SNBI) has been launched recently.
In the case of older technologies, some applications were relying on Windows XP, Internet Explorer, Java Applets, and Microsoft Silverlight. These are either not usable anymore or require unsafe workarounds.
Cost of In-house Systems
To develop in-house systems, DOTs either hire in-house software developers to develop the software system or hire outside consultants to do so. So, the cost can change depending on the life span phase.
The cost of initial development and implementation of the system is usually very high, because the agency must design and develop the system from scratch and then spend lots of resources on testing and bug fixes. This process usually takes years and is very costly.
For example, Colorado DOT is paying more than $2.5 million to a consultant to develop and implement SIMSA. This figure doesn’t include the internal CDOT resources used for the project.
However, once the system enters the maintenance mode, the cost is relatively low. It should be noted that the agency still needs a part-time in-house developer or a maintenance contract with a consultant agency, so the cost is not zero.
In the case of major upgrades, depending on the upgrade size and type, the agency typically needs to dish out a lot of money. For instance, upgrading an in-house system to adapt to the SNBI can cost DOTs over $1 million.
Cost of COTS System
In contrast, when choosing a commercial bridge inspection system, DOTs pay an initial implementation cost which covers the deployment of the system, along with historical data migration and integration with other agencies’ systems.
This implementation cost is far less than what the DOT spends on the development of an in-house system.
After the initial implementation phase, COTS suppliers usually charge a fixed annual cost which ranges from $20K to $250K depending on the supplier, functionalities, the number of assets or the number of users.
Agencies don’t need to worry about any additional cost related to major upgrades, since suppliers sell their software to multiple agencies and can absorb such costs.
The table below compares the cost between in-house and commercial bridge inspection software for the three phases:
If your agency has an in-house system in place, we recommend sticking with it if it doesn’t require a major technological change. Otherwise, if you’re planning to develop the system from scratch or undergo a major upgrade, it’s better to look at a commercial bridge inspection system.
There are bound to be risks associated with complex and costly programs like bridge inspections and management. So, managing and lowering such risks is always a crucial factor for agencies.
Below, we’ve listed the risks associated with each option:
Risks of In-house Systems
Losing the in-house developer (Low-Medium)
Losing the consultant in charge of development (Low-Medium)
Losing support for the technology used (High)
Security holes in the software (Medium)
The quality of the software is not on par with that of COTS (Low-Medium)
Price forecasts for major upgrades are lower than in reality (Low-High)
Risks of COTS Systems
Sub-optimal support quality (Medium-High)
Price increase in scenarios such as major upgrades (Low-Medium)
The supplier goes out of business or stops supporting the product (Low)
Adopt workarounds for some workflows due to limitations of COTS (Low-High)
There’s no clear winner here. However, if you’re choosing COTS, make sure you pay attention to the support quality and talk to the clients of the supplier to understand their support level.
Inspection management software usually house sensitive data and having continuous access to them is critical for any bridge inspection program.
With the recent rise in security threats in the government agencies, it’s vital to take security into account when deciding.
This is one of the areas where commercial bridge inspection software usually have an advantage over in-house software.
COTS are developed by software development companies who hire professional software developers, comply with industry standards while developing the software, and constantly upgrade libraries to avoid security issues.
Some COTS suppliers perform frequent security tests on their software. At AssetIntel, we perform annual vulnerability and penetration tests to ensure that our software systems are safe and secure.
In contrast, in-house software systems generally don’t follow the same standards as COTS software when it comes to security.
If you have an in-house system, we recommend performing a vulnerability and penetration test on your software to learn about potential security flaws.
In case you’re choosing a commercial bridge inspection system, ask the vendor to provide the Penetration testing report. If you want to go a step further, require an SOC 2 compliance from the vendor.
SOC 2 is one of the most crucial compliance reports that ensures the vendor cares about the security of the software and the client data.
4. Adherence to agency workflow
When it comes to inventory and inspection management, each agency has different workflows and processes.
These differences are related to hiring consultants for inspections, the type of data collected from each bridge, inspection review processes, and inspection QA, among other things.
For example, Georgia DOT collects span-by-span element-level data from all their bridges and detailed data from each pile and column. Arkansas DOT has different maintenance workflows for state and local bridges.
Utah DOT performs a detailed electronic review process in which reviewers go through every data item and mark them as “satisfactory” or “not satisfactory”. North Dakota DOT has different review processes depending on the bridge owner and whether a consultant performs the inspection or not.
In-house software systems are usually developed with these specific requirements in mind and can provide a more natural experience for users (if the agency spent enough resources to ensure the software has a good UI/UX).
On the other hand, COTS systems are developed for a group of clients rather than just one client. It’s possible to customize COTS systems to address the specific needs of an agency, but sometimes, such customizations can cost a lot.
Moreover, off-the-shelf bridge inspection systems might provide a certain functionality. But that functionality might not exactly follow the client’s workflow, and instead, might affect the user experience.
Over the years, COTS have implemented dynamic and configurable functionalities that allow the system to be configured to an agency's needs with little or no code changes. But some requirements still need major code changes.
If your agency doesn’t have a very specific way of doing things or doesn’t follow very specific workflows, then choosing a COTS shouldn’t be a problem.
However, if this isn’t the case, you should consult with COTS providers to make sure they can provide what you need without requiring you to spend lots of money or sacrificing the user experience.
5. Advanced functionalities
Every inventory and inspection management software provides a set of functionalities to let managers and inspectors perform their task.
Some of these functionalities are basic ones that are required for functional inventory and inspection management software. Others are more advanced functionalities that, although not required, can improve your inspection efficiency and make the task easier.
Basic functionalities include, but aren’t limited to:
(1) Storing bridge inventory data,
(2) Scheduling inspections,
(3) Collecting inspection data,
(4) Generating annual FHWA submittal files.
Both in-house and commercial asset inspection systems provide basic functionalities.
Advanced functionalities aren’t necessary for running an inspection program. But these can save time for inspectors and managers, making the process more efficient.
Some of these advanced functionalities include:
Dashboards for inventory and inspection to enhance visibility
GIS for inventory and inspection
Advanced search functionality for inventory managers
Offline tablet data collection for inspectors to avoid manual data entry back in the office
A change log system to view detailed changes for each inspection
Automated alert functionality to notify managers after significant changes related to data
Commercial bridge inspection systems have a clear advantage when it comes to advanced functionalities. These systems usually cover all or most of the advanced functionalities we’ve stated above. For example, inspectX MultiAsset is an off-the-shelf product providing all these functionalities.
If it’s important and convenient for your agency to have these advanced functionalities, COTS systems are a better choice.
Conclusion: Weighing the pros and cons
In this blog, we compared different aspects of COTS and in-house systems from various perspectives. Depending on your requirements and situation, one can be better than the other, so there’s no clear winner.
Here are some situations where in-house systems are better than COTS:
If you already have an In-house system that is in maintenance mode and meets your requirements
If your agency has very specific workflows or requirements that are different from those of most of the other agencies
On the other hand, commercial bridge inspection software are better than in-house systems under the following circumstances:
If you’re choosing between developing the in-house system from scratch and a COTS system, it’s better to pick a COTS system because it will cost much less
If having advanced functionalities such as tablet-based field data collection is important for you
If security is your focal point, choose a COTS supplier with SOC 2 compliance
So, are you ready to pick the right software solution for your bridge inspection needs?