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Meeting the Challenges of the Infrastructure Industry: Labor Shortage and Deteriorating Infrastructure (Low Supply and High Demand)

Metals such as steel, and more recently aluminum, are essential to infrastructure and are a sign of economic growth because they are the foundation upon which all industries are built on – roads, cars, airplanes, buildings and computers all have been built with these elements.

Due to the deterioration of buildings, bridges, and roads in the U.S., as well as cybersecurity threats, infrastructure is one of the most in-demand industries. Automated machinery is not a cost-saving mechanism that replaces labor shortage, it is an essential element that is needed because of the rate that the economy and its infrastructure is deteriorating in front of our eyes. Along with this, software infrastructure systems must be upgraded as well, to decrease cybersecurity risks, data leaks and make systems in machinery, and the internet of things (IoT) work.

Infrastructure Challenges in the U.S.

Transportation systems, such as highways, roads, rail roads, harbors, and waterways, need not just money to be spent on them, but in an orderly and predictable way to meet demand. Meeting demand for short-term fixes such as potholes is great, but transportation systems to expand into rural territories and offset traffic congestion, as well as withstand natural disasters, are a different ball-game. The 2021 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure shows that there will be a $1.2 trillion gap in surface transportation investment by 2029 and money from the federal, state, regional, and local governments will be needed to fix America’s transportation system. If investments aren’t made soon in surface transportation infrastructure, these costs will likely go up significantly. The American Society of Civil Engineers’ Failure to Act Report says that because of problems with the transportation system, the country will have lost almost $472 billion in GDP and 378,000 jobs by 2029.

With H.R. 3684 – Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act – passage in late 2021, the U.S. planned out to spend $1.2 trillion (the equivalent of the reported gap) on infrastructure development to boost the economy. In addition to automated machinery, technological advancements and security systems were also part of the bill. In other words, both hardware and software systems are bound to be updated to meet increasing levels of demand and security threats. 

Costs of Infrastructure Development

The U.S. must now not only spend $1.2 trillion on infrastructure, but change how it designs, delivers, operates, and maintains its infrastructure. Building a new railroad track in the U.S. costs between $1 and $2 million per mile. A high-speed rail system like the ones in Japan and Europe cost more than $150 million per mile. To put this into perspective, even though $1.2 trillion has been set aside with H.R. 3684 for infrastructure, $39 billion was allocated to transportation alone, of which 45% of Americans do not have access to, but this bill only covers 260 high speed miles. 

Besides railroads, 42% of all bridges in the U.S. are also at least 50 years old, and 7.5% of them have problems with their structure. Bridges already close more often because of structural issues, weight limits, and larger boats floating by – all of which affect the economy’s productivity. Any new bridge must have a service life of at least 75 years. This means that bridges today must be built to last longer with the best available materials we have today, such as high-performance steel used to make airplanes. Another $17 billion was allocated for ports and waterways, which make up 67% of the U.S. economy and logically should be receiving most of the allocated funding but are not.

How Automated Machinery Solve These Problems

With the labor shortage in the most demanding part of the economy getting worse, automating the process of cutting, welding, moving, and drilling metals allows tried-and-true technology to make the most of the few resources it has. COVID-19 is still causing project delays and problems in the supply chain. However, the demand for roads, bridges, rails, and public transportation hasn’t stopped, and almost no one is working in this sector. COVID-19 not only put a lockdown and travel restrictions in place, but it also slowed down the economy with a lot of demand and insufficient supply. By limiting how many people can work, COVID-19 has hurt all businesses, but heavy machinery affects more industries today than it ever has, along with transportation, getting around and the entire economy as a whole.

How Software Development Solve These Problems

For purposes of automating tasks and time being of a critical element to the infrastructure industry, information technology not only protects users from cybersecurity threats but it allows for real-time communication on critical tasks. In other words, the faster you know something, the faster it gets done and software allows for this and the programming of the heavy machinery to do the tasks required to get the economy going into the right direction. It also eliminates risks associated with mistakes from exhaustion on the job, at a time where the rate of deterioration is higher than the rate of it being fixed.

Alternative Metals – Steel vs. Aluminum in the Building Sector

Grand View Research, a research study done by a market and research company out of Ireland, stated that by 2028, the global market for structural steel will be worth $146.41 billion. This growth is due to high demand for steel in both developing economies and economies that are already doing well. With the world’s population expected to reach 11.2 billion by 2100, more money will be spent on building homes and businesses. 

For example, in 2021, India said it wanted to spend USD 1.35 trillion on infrastructure development to boost economic growth and development in their country. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Mexican government announced a plan to invest $14 billion in infrastructure as part of their Economic Recovery Agreement. The Asia-Pacific region dominated the global steel market because it needs more infrastructure to build skyscrapers, and steel is an essential material.

Experts anticipate that demand for steel will double by 2050, but at what cost?

Impact of Metals and Machinery on the Environment

Making steel releases carbon dioxide, which climate experts say should be cut to 0% in the same time frame. How do you do this? By investing into automated machinery and software development. By eliminating the chance of making mistakes, automated machinery and compatible software makes more accurate and better products with less steel and fewer carbon emissions.

Today, more than it was 100 years ago, it is important to prioritize projects that will improve public safety, quality of life, the environment, and the economy. The U.S. government encourages these purchases through Section 179, which lets companies in these sectors deduct the total cost of this equipment from their taxes – demonstrating how vital this equipment is to the economy.

Is Aluminum a Better Building Material Than Steel?

Aluminum is the second-most abundant metallic element on Earth after silicon, yet steel is the most common alloy worldwide. Cost and pricing of the raw materials used to make infrastructure directly affects how much the final product costs in the end.

Properties of Steel and Aluminum

  • Corrosion Resistance

Even though the ability to be shaped is more critical for production, the best thing about aluminum is that it doesn’t need any additional treatment after being spun to make it resistant to corrosion. Aluminum will not rust or corrode. Aluminum does not need extra protection from the weather, so it does not need to be coated. In the metals business, steel is usually called “carbon steel” instead of “stainless steel.” After being spun, it is generally covered or treated to prevent rust and corrosion. This rule is broken by stainless steel. This is important to remember if the steel part will be used in a harsh or corrosive environment.

  • Sustainability

Aluminum and stainless steel are two of the most popular building materials. With people becoming more aware of the need for green design and building, aluminum is being used due to lower carbon emissions. 

  • Malleability

Steel is solid and lasts long, but aluminum is much more elastic and flexible. Aluminum can be spun into exact and deep patterns because it is soft and easy to make. When steel is turned, it can break or tear if it is stretched too far. Aluminum is the best choice, especially for parts that have straight, deep walls. Steel is a solid and brutal metal, but it can’t usually be spun to the same extreme limits as aluminum without cracking or ripping.

  • Strength

Steel is more likely to rust than aluminum but is more robust than aluminum. Even though aluminum gets more assertive when it gets colder, it is still easier to dent and scratch than steel. Steel is less likely to change shape when put under pressure, heat, or weight. Because of its resistance, it is one of the most durable industrial materials.

  • Weight

Steel is still stronger than aluminum, even if it starts to rust. Most aluminum alloys and tempers are more accessible to dent, scratch, or damage than steel. Steel is strong and doesn’t change shape easily, even when it’s under a lot of stress, heavy, or hot. Steel is more robust than aluminum but much more prosperous and denser. This is the price for its strength. On average, steel is 2.5 times as thick as aluminum. 

Application Areas That Are Unique to Aluminum and Steel

You can tell which metal is better for a specific job by looking at how steel and aluminum are used today.

  • Construction

Steel is used for building parts because it lasts a long time. Steel is a common building material for places that get a lot of use, like airports, skyscrapers, stadiums, railways, motorways, and stairways. Steel is also used to make many of the tools used for these activities. Aluminum is excellent for building stairs and other shapes that can’t be made of steel or wood because it is strong and can be shaped differently. Aluminum is an ideal material for building tall buildings because it is light and robust.

  • Energy

Steel buildings are significant to the nuclear power, natural gas, wind power, and electric infrastructure industries. Steel is also used to make tools like cranes, forklifts, transmission towers, transformer cores, and electromagnetic shields, all used in the extraction and production of steel. Aluminum is an excellent material for building electric transmission lines because it is lightweight and has high thermal conductivity. It is easier to shape into wires and conducts electricity better than copper, but it costs about half as much.

  • Transportation

Steel is used for a wide range of high-strength transportation parts. It is used in rails, jet engine parts, marine vessels and anchor chains. Aircraft and spacecraft contain a lot of aluminum alloys (up to 90%), and the aerospace industry is the primary market for aluminum in transportation. Over the next ten years, the amount of aluminum used in modern cars is expected to rise by more than 60%. This is due to people wanting vehicles that use less gas.

  • Merchandise and Packaging

Steel makes up more than half the weight of most home appliances, like stoves, refrigerators, and washers. Steel is also often used to make metal stair railings, screws, nails, and other hardware for building structures. Aluminum, which is not poisonous, is often used for packaging medicines, vitamins, and drinks. This is not to be confused with acute aluminum phosphide poisoning (AAlPP), a large, and under-reported problem in the Indian subcontinent. Aluminum is integral to many modern products, such as cell phones, TVs, laptops, and light bulbs that use LED technology. It is also widely used to make foils and cooking tools.

Today, it is less expensive to buy steel than aluminum. Aluminum is an instrumental metal because it can be bent and stretched more than steel. Aluminum can go places and make shapes that steel can’t, and it can often make deeper or more complicated ones. Simply put, the best metal for a job is the best metal for that job. When choosing the best metal for your project, you have to think about how it will be used and then decide what you will do to pay for it.