Talking Rapid Adoption Technology with Bechtel’s Stephen Spoljaric

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Learn safe, learn fast, and learn forward as it applies to technology for the industry

A familiar face at Breakbulk Americas, Stephen “Spo” Spoljaric, Bechtel’s corporate manager of global logistics, will lead the upcoming webinar “Could Remote Expert Technology Be the Next Big Thing?” on Wednesday, Nov. 4 as part of Breakbulk Americas: The Digital Special. He has put together a diverse panel representing several big sectors in our industry: project forwarder Jake Swanson, Global Head, EPC Project Sector - DGF Industrial Projects, DHL Industrial Projects; insurance expert Capt. Andrew Kinsey, Senior Marine Risk Consultant, Allianz Risk Consulting; and Nathaniel Leis, Director of Safety, ATS Trucking, to examine not only the technology, but the benefits and potential risks associated with using remote experts. 

To understand the background before our deep dive into remote experts, we had a question and answer session with Spo, who is doing well in Houston. 

Leslie: Bechtel has been on the forefront of technology applications in the engineering, construction and procurement field. How has early development, testing and adoption of technologies benefitted Bechtel? 

Spo: Bechtel as an organization feels very well positioned. We've been innovating for a long, long time and we've taken those years of experience to accelerate, discover, develop and deploy some of those leading industry innovations we've had over the years. We believe the key is to learn safe, learn fast, and learn forward. If it's not a good idea, we try to expire it before it gets too far along. If it is a good idea, we want to make sure we have established good internal processes to test the assumptions we have, to try to integrate it into the business, and then ensure there's a steady stream of diverse ideas—it's not all focused just in any one area. 

The more opportunity we have to integrate across disciplines, the more rewarding it is. We have taken our goal to try to be as rapid as we can to mature innovation, but we only really want to put things on the projects that we feel are mature enough to work.  

Lastly, having the ability to talk the language of innovation around some of this technology, not just internally, but with some of the tech companies, client organizations and suppliers that we work with to really, truly understand the benefits, costs and constraints of these new technologies becomes all the more important to our ability to deliver them on projects. 

Leslie: Certainly, over the last several months we have seen the role of technology expand in just about everyone’s life. Has this led to a drive for more rapid tech adoption at a company level? 

Spo: The last couple of months have been unprecedented for how we've been disrupted and the uncertainty of the supply chain since the COVID-19 pandemic started. What’s amazing to me is how quickly people have responded to some of these challenges. Individuals and companies and organizations are embracing these new concepts. How do we find creative ways to socialize from a distance and then scale some of these ideas into larger projects? The collaborative nature of required to do that is also important. 

The other question to consider is how to you get things adopted? Sometimes it's out of necessity, and sometimes it's an interesting cool subject that people are interested in. Our colleagues across the world have tried to discover, develop and deploy not only high tech, but low tech, and in some cases, no tech solutions to some of these constraints we've had with COVID.  

For instance, travel restrictions were probably the key area that really started to get people to think about how we deal with these issues and remote expertise is one of the ways to do that, which will be the subject of our upcoming panel. This has an impact on insurance and an impact to shippers. How do you go look at the critical lift if you can't access the port or can't even travel to the country it's in? The subject becomes extremely important to try to figure out ways to do it, and we feel remote expert is one of them that should be discussed because now it has a real reason to get implemented. 

Leslie: And the good news is that the technology is available. 

Spo: Yes, whenever there's a demand for something you know the ingenuity of, how it gets delivered becomes welcomed by everybody. And in this case, the cause for the acceleration becomes the catalyst. Now we see cameras being used not just for remote experts, but also for things like taking temperatures and smart tracking of people. I think we're probably just scratching the surface of how remote expert technology helps us as an industry; it potentially opens many other doors for different solutions to be developed. 

Leslie: How will remote expert technology impact different sectors? 

Spo: As a company, we've seen it used for from a safety perspective already, where a simple concept of an engineer who historically maybe had to go look at something that was high in a structure would have to be fitted with a safety harness and go through training on how to climb to the top of the structure. And now in many cases, they are able to fly a drone up and have someone stationed on the ground viewing the same thing they would see if they physically had climbed up.  

So, we as an industry have started to introduce it already. Now it becomes a challenge within the logistics industry. How else do we use it? I think another area that becomes important to consider is liability. Do the ports fit structures in place that would support remote experts so that instead of everyone having to develop their own solution they could tap into solutions at fixed points in fixed locations. These are topics that I'm sure will have different opinions, but we can all agree that the more efficient and safer we can make things, the better. 

While there’s costs and sustainability benefits that come from not traveling so much, it also creates some downsides. We call it “remote expert,” but how do we develop tomorrow's experts 10 years from now if they've never been to a port to see situation up close and in person? Because that’s how you learn: you get out into the field and see things first hand. We need to discuss these topics as well and recognize that we may go down in one area, and increase somewhere else.

Join Spo’s industry discussion on Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 10:00 am CDT.
See the full interview with Stephen Spoljaric