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Gathering speed

Geotechnical engineers are beginning to value their information and to invest in systems to access it quickly. Fiona McWilliam reports.

What started as a labour of love for Tim Spink has, by his own admission, snowballed over the past few years.

Spink, an engineering geologist at Mott MacDonald, established his online Geotechnical & GeoEnvironmental Software Directory (www. ggsd. com) in early 1996. Its success - the site now receives about 110,000 hits a month - reflects the industry's rapidly growing interest in specialist software and systems.

'The civil engineering industry has been a bit slow to get up to speed in this area, ' says Mark Zytynski, managing director of specialist geotechnical software developer MZ Associates.

'However, there's been a real burgeoning in the past two years, and companies are trying in earnest to get to grips with the latest developments.'

Spink's main interests lie on the design side where the trend is towards numerical analysis.

'There is a growing number of numerical ana lys is prog rams , but I'd l ike to see more too ls for handling the geotechnical engineer's everyday, simple tasks, like designing piles, foundations and footings, 'he says.

He notes a recent growth in the availability of software to help manage the design process - combinations of project and document management tools which are particularly useful for multidisciplinary and multicompany projects.

Roger Chandler, director of Key Systems, says: 'People are beginning to value their information and to invest in systems that can access it quickly.'

His company markets Key GeoView, a document archive and retrieval system for site investigation data. It allows users to archive projects either as scanned documents or as live computer files, and to locate stored data using a GIS map interface, either locally or over the Internet.

'Archiving tools for the Internet are very much a trend and will develop rapidly over the next two years, ' says Chandler's co-director Mike Rothery.

AF Howland Associates has recently linked its GEODASY geotechnical database system with a GIS.

'We haven't been asked for it by our existing customers, ' says Dr Al Howland, 'but as large organisations are realising the value of collecting data, there's an element of us trying to lead the way, rather than merely responding to market forces.

He adds: 'We completed an extensive GIS program for the Docklands Development Corporation before it was disbanded and in light of current legislation on contaminated land, we've identified a need to integrate such information with a ready means of access.'

More and more companies are now using the Internet for serious business, not just promotional purposes, says Andrew Bond, managing director of Geocentrix.

His company has developed software for reinforced slope design (ReActiv) and retaining walls (ReWaRD) and has designed websites for, among others, the British Geotechnical Society and the International Society for Soil Mechanics and Geotechnical Engineering.

'There's already a move towards sharing information between offices and people on the move; between employees and between companies, 'Bond says.

'As most engineering companies are starting from scratch in this area, the growth potential is massive.

But he warns: 'As hardware becomes more capable, and able to do calculations that were impossible only a couple of years ago, there is a danger that we won't be able to keep our minds around these calculations.'

Bond predicts this will create a need for simpler interfaces with software. He also predicts greater integration between software and the Internet, with users updating software and data from websites and doing calculations in real time.

On another cautionary note, Tim Spink expresses concern that because new, generally Windows-based programs, are easy to use -and therefore become more widely used - training is not keeping up with technological developments.

'We have to ask the fundamental question: are the people using these programs knowledgeable enough to use them. Can they look at the results and say 'that's right', or 'that's not right'?'

'People must realise that the initial purchase price of a program is only the start, ' Spink says.

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