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Geotechnical software survey: Analyse this

Competency in geotechnical numerical analysis has been placed under a spotlight by a worldwide survey of geotechnical engineers that hopes to find new training solutions.

Ever more technical projects and value engineering demands, combined with more widely available software and capable hardware, means that demand for geotechnical numerical analysis is growing. While the trend is driving demand for better quality parameters to deliver higher quality outputs, the competency of engineers undertaking such analysis is also now being questioned.

Late last year geotechnical engineers from around the world took part in a survey to benchmark use of numerical analysis tools by the industry with a specific focus on competency. The survey was the first part of the EU-funded
Competency in Geotechnical Analysis project (Cogan) and the results are being used to shape the deliverables of the initiative to help ensure training matches the future needs of the sector (see box).

The online survey was completed by 619 participants located all over the world, including 50 from the UK. Respondents represented a good cross section of geotechnical numerical analysis users with the majority describing themselves as engineers (29%) or senior engineers (25%), while a significant number of project managers (7%) and directors (8%) also took part. About half the respondents held a master’s degree and 40% had reached doctorate level, leaving only 9% at bachelor degree level, which reflects the need for postgraduate study in order to effectively undertake geotechnical numerical analysis.

In contrast with some fields of engineering, where whole teams of engineers specialise in geotechnical software analysis and simulation, only a quarter of the Cogan survey respondents spent over half their work time involved in geotechnical numerical analysis, even at large organisations. Furthermore, most organisations have only a small number of engineers engaged in numerical analysis (45% said their organisation had five or fewer engineers using such software).

Analysis areas in most need of definition of competency

Analysis areas in most need of definition of competency

Therefore it is reasonable to characterise the application of geotechnical numerical analysis software in many organisations as by small numbers of part-time users of the software. In such circumstances it can be difficult to improve and maintain competency levels.

The extent to which university education covers the knowledge needed to apply numerical analysis can play a key role in competency. However, even among those with a PhD only a third felt that their formal education related fully with their current use of geotechnical numerical analysis, so there is clearly a need for further work-based learning in geotechnical numerical analysis following completion of academic studies.

Respondents were asked to rate issues concerning the use of geotechnical numerical analysis software in industry in terms of seriousness, with zero being not an issue and three being a serious issue. The four highest ranking issues were validation of analysis results; obtaining soil/rock parameters; lack of money/time for training; and poor access to in-house experts or no mentoring system.

The first two relate to bridging the gap between reality and the computer model by obtaining parameters from real-world tests for idealised soil models and by checking that analysis results are a sufficiently accurate representation of reality. These issues place the heaviest demands on the competency of engineers because they need to understand both the computer model and the background geotechnical engineering.

The lack of funding or time for training is a problem for many organisations and can be addressed by more high-quality and engaging e-learning courses that can fit around people’s workload. Lack of in-house experts and mentoring is of particular concern and probably arises as a result of the small number of numerical analysis software users in many businesses leaving organisations unable to establish a critical mass of expertise to provide in-house mentoring. Perhaps external mentoring could provide a short-term solution here?

To help prioritise which analysis areas to include in the competency tracker (see box), respondents were asked to rate the importance of defining the required competences in a list of analysis areas. The two highest ranked areas were obtaining parameters and validation, which were also flagged up as the most serious issues, reaffirming the need for improved competency in these areas. Respondents also wanted the competence tracker to focus on background geotechnical knowledge, geotechnical software when performing geotechnical numerical analysis.

Ranking of issues concerning the use of geotechnical numerical analysis in industry

Ranking of issues concerning the use of geotechnical numerical analysis in industry

Consequently, the competency tracker will include modules on the background geotechnical knowledge required to perform numerical analysis. Usefulness of various learning methods was also rated by respondents and on-the-job training or mentoring was ranked as the most useful. This makes the lack of access to mentoring that was ranked as a serious issue all the more important.

Cogan’s targets will help deliver more structure to on-the-job learning and hopefully providing a bigger pool of competent engineers to provide mentoring. The project will also develop two e-learning modules and it was interesting to note that a high proportion of respondents had no experience of such learning methods in geotechnical numerical analysis.

While the Cogan project is only in the early stages, the survey has provided a valuable insight into the issues that have led to the development of the project and aims to improve the competency of geotechnical numerical analysis
software users. The survey results are now being used to guide the development of the competency tracker and e-learning courses that hopefully will take a significant step in the right direction to addressing this need.

Andrew Lees is director of Geofem and coordinator of the Cogan project.

Cogan project: Lifelong learning

The Cogan project is funded by the European Commission’s Lifelong Learning Programme as well as partners that include International association for numerical modelling Nafems, Mott MacDonald, Skanska, TU Graz, Geofem,
Terrasolum, Wesi Geotecnica and Enginsoft.

Cogan recognises that the field of numerical analysis is too broad and evolutionary to be covered only by a university education and teaching must be shared between university and the workplace. While university education
covering the fundamentals of numerical analysis and background geotechnical knowledge is well-established, work-based training is typically less structured and ad-hoc, leading to inconsistent implementation of analysis tools. So Cogan aims to facilitate work-based training through two initiatives - a competency tracker and e-learning courses.

The competency tracker will be a web-based system for managers and trainees alike to look-up and record achievement in around 1,000 competences in 15 different analysis areas, including background geotechnical
knowledge. Each competence statement will contain a link to a learning resource for private study.

Development of e-learning courses will provide affordable, accessible training that can fit around an engineer’s workload, two state-of-art e-learning courses will be developed entitled “Setting up a geotechnical numerical model”
and “Structural elements in geotechnical numerical models”. Not only will these courses provide valuable training to anyone who can access the internet, they will also provide a model for other training providers to develop e-learning courses in other areas.


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