The geotechnical sector is in good health, with some exciting challenges ahead, as Atkins ground engineering operations director tells Margo Cole.
When geotechnical engineers are in demand, it is a sure sign that an economy is on the up. So the fact that Atkins is currently looking to add 50 new people to its ground engineering business in the course of a year indicates that the sector is well and truly out of recession.
The company currently employs 300 people in ground engineering, split evenly between three teams: tunnelling and underground spaces, infrastructure, and energy and specialist services. But this picture is considerably different to before the recession, when the business’s main area of strength was in infrastructure geotechnics, mainly in roads, rail and water.
“The thing that really got cut was the infrastructure side, because of government spending cuts and nervousness in the market,” explains Atkins operations director, ground engineering Paul Coney. “At that time we had to make a decision about what we were going to do, and we refocused on the energy sector and overseas markets.”
“We’re technical people, and what gets us out of bed is the excitement of solving technical problems”
Five years ago the overseas market accounted for around 10% of the ground engineering division’s work. After deciding to focus on winning more work outside the UK, the business now does around 25% of its work overseas, in what Coney describes as an “eclectic mix” of locations, including North Africa, Angola, Kazakhstan, Trinidad, North America and Azerbaijan.
Much of this overseas work, he says, has come from “following” clients - particularly in the energy sector, which has been the division’s biggest growth area in recent years. The consultant is now working successfully in geotechnics across a range of energy markets, including new nuclear power, underground gas storage, offshore and onshore oil and gas, and offshore renewables, and has grown its team in this area from 30 people five years ago to around 100 now.
Meanwhile, as the UK has emerged from recession, the infrastructure market is also picking up, as a result of increased government spending and confidence from the sector. “We’re in quite a nice position,” says Coney, who explains that having the three strands to the business helps provide a range of opportunities for geotechnical experts.
The new markets and modern infrastructure are creating new, exciting challenges for ground engineers. “Things are becoming more complex technically, and clients are asking for things that create different problems to be solved,” says Coney, giving the example of high speed rail. “We want to travel faster, but high speed loadings load the ground in different ways, and the ground behaves in a different way.”
The offshore renewables sector is also at an exciting stage for geotechnical experts. “Most [offshore] wind farms have been in fairly shallow water and on a modest scale,” says Coney. “[In future] they will have to be in deeper water and larger, which requires different foundation techniques.”
Atkins’ ground engineering business is working closely with leading universities to ensure it has access to - and is at the forefront of - research that will help its experts develop their understanding of the challenges created by these new markets. Staff are being sponsored to undertake part-time PhDs that will benefit not just the individual, but the business as a whole.
In offshore renewables, for example, one of the key issues is how foundations in deep water will behave over 50 or 60 years of continuous operation, while the sand around the base shifts constantly. And to ensure it is leading the field in geotechnics for the nuclear sector, Coney says: “We’ve spent money in properly understanding the ground under a nuclear power station in an earthquake event.
“Our main focus has been about getting things right technically - rather than [offering] a commodity product,” he adds. “We’re technical people, and what gets us out of bed is the excitement of solving technical problems, so our key focus is getting things right technically; and it takes investment to support that.”