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Information highways and byways In this month's special focus Ground Engineering takes a look at the important role of computers and information technology in geotechnics.

Civil engineering as an industry spends only 1.5% of its turnover on information technology, compared with 2% for general industry, according to a recent study.

The survey, commissioned by the organisers of AEC Systems, an IT exhibition for the architecture, civil engineering and construction industries, identified communication as being the biggest growth area. Almost half of respondents said that the Internet and e-mail had helped to 'significantly improve the way companies of all sizes do business,' in particular through sharing of work and transfer of data between engineers working remotely from the office.

The AEC survey found that the most common forms of information technology used by civil engineers were computer aided design (CAD) software packages and PCs (60% of respondents use them).

Ground Engineering recently carried out its own survey to see if these results were reflected in the geotechnical industry. Questionnaires were sent to a wide range of companies including consultants and contractors as well as manufacturers and suppliers. While it is likely that the response was higher from companies with a strong interest in IT issues, it is clear that information technology has become an important part of modern geotechnics over the last few years, with the increase in affordable and user-friendly computing power.

Ground Engineering's survey revealed that it is not just design that is computer-based but reporting, data management, project management and quality assurance as well as general accounting and administration.

However, while firms are heavily reliant on computers for the day-to- day running of the business, not all of them are willing to give their engineers their own machine. Nearly a quarter of engineers do not have a computer for their sole use, instead using a 'pool' of equipment.

Data management and typing up of reports is still handled by secretaries and 'technical typists'. One IT manager says that because engineers work in open-plan offices, they can 'hot desk on strategically positioned computer workstations'. He adds that 'all typing is dealt with by a dedicated typing pool'.' Another says that because engineers are usually out on site, 'most IT is more effectively (in terms of time and cost) handled by technical typists'.

Cost is one of the major reasons for not providing computers for all. On average, only 28% of engineers in these companies have their own computer and there are no plans to buy any more in the near future.

The Internet has been hailed as one of the most important advances in technology of recent times, giving hitherto unrivalled access to information across the world. A visitor profile carried out at the Civils 98 exhibition last year showed that 57% of the 6000 visitors, drawn from across the civil engineering industry, had access to the Internet.

Our survey agreed closely, finding that some 60% of geotechnical engineers have access to the Internet, and 90% of these are able to use it for looking at the World Wide Web and for e-mail.

For some, especially junior engineers, Internet access appears to be restricted. Some say it is a problem of cost and logistics, while others hold security as a major consideration. The majority simply believe that uncontrolled access is not a good idea. 'There is a lack of adequate control,' says one contractor. Company-wide access is 'unneccessary and expensive with questionable use compared to cost', says another.

As a result, companies have provision for Internet use on a small number of computers. Some are more stringent than others. 'We have one computer dedicated for web browsing,' says one contractor. Access is limited to 'control time and focus data retrieval,' says one; 'www access is controlled and given only to those who have a professional need to use it,' reports another.

Intranets are seen as a way of making effective use of networks to share data. As they are internal, companies can more easily control access and, obviously, the information stored on them, effectively removing the risk of employees wasting valuable time searching for information unrelated to work.

Over two-thirds of firms replying have an intranet. Some are in their infancy and others are planned but yet to get off the ground. The more established ones appear to be veritable mines of information, including contract details, schedules, technical information, project summaries, CVs, newsletters, databases, QA, safety, business development and training as well as debate forums and social events.

The noticeboard could be an endangered species.

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