Geotechnical engineering isn’t just another sector that is ripe for a digital transformation. It now just so happens that building is done in and on the ground, and geotechnics is the starting point. Because the soil is never the same in the Netherlands, every building requires a unique solution. Every project starts with a blank sheet on which the substrate must first be properly mapped. That sounds easy. Nevertheless, it is difficult to analyse the entire subsurface on a construction project on the basis of a number of drillings and CPTs (Cone Penetration Tests) and to make a responsible prediction of the foundation. This requires a lot of expertise and complex calculations. Partly because of this, the geotechnical aspects in projects are often a risk. The fact that more information about the subsurface often only becomes available later in the project further increases this risk.
Although the data that geotechnical consultants work with is always different, the process is the same every time. That is why the activities in this field of expertise lend themselves well to the automation and digitisation of process steps. Of course, a frequently heard counter-argument is that geotechnical consultancy is work that can only really be done by a person with a lot of knowledge and experience. Yet a mind shift is visible. And there is a reason for that.
Consultants do a lot of repetitive work, while a computer with an algorithm performs complex calculations quickly and more reliably. During the construction of a tunnel, the base can vary every 100 meters and mapping it adequately requires a chain of new calculations. These analyses are complicated and very labour-intensive. Because of this distance between the measurements on a construction site, its tedious, and sometimes impossible to get a good insight. Even if the analyses and soil map are correct, design changes, optimisations or unexpected influences often surface during a project that require new calculations. There is often no time for these changes later in the design or construction process. If it is possible to map out this new situation quickly and integrate it with the existing data, the quality of the advice will improve considerably and the risks will decrease.
Human and computer
By automating the geotechnical process on the basis of existing domain knowledge, humans and computers can reinforce one another. Automating process steps offers the opportunity to process and analyse more data in a shorter time. This contributes to better interpretations of data and decision-making for the individual process steps, and for the whole. In practice, insights and advice are obtained by combining different partial solutions within a multidisciplinary team. A change in one domain in turn triggers a chain of changes in other disciplines. The challenge is therefore not only to automate these (digital) islands, but also to connect and integrate them.”The work of engineers is heading towards cloud computing, machine learning and artificial intelligence. There is no doubt about that and it would be foolish to ignore this. The VIKTOR platform is an indicator of what our computing tools will look like in the near future.”
To combine forces
Digitisation is less effective if all partners in this chain of disciplines pick up and implement this process independently. This applies to consultants, designers and construction companies. Although construction companies compete, the process steps for projects are largely generic. By jointly developing applications for the digitisation of the design and construction process, speed and efficiency in the sector will increase. At the same time, the error margins and failure costs decrease.
This realisation has now reached the construction world. BAM Infra Nederland, Ballast Nedam and Heijmans recently jointly developed an application for automating the design process of soil bodies. The application, which is based on the VIKTOR platform, links various data sources and software packages together. In addition, they generate more design solutions at a quicker pace. Although the construction companies are competitors, they nevertheless work together because the distinctive character of the developed application is limited in itself. It is about how the individual companies integrate this application in their own process. They are therefore not afraid of competition, but see the added value of combining knowledge and investments.
Rob van Putten, from Waternet, thinks government agencies should adopt this model too. “Water boards – that have the task of testing all flood defences geotechnically – could develop modules in collaborative ventures and make them accessible via VIKTOR. In this way we can prevent the wheel from being re-invented over and over, and we can work much more efficiently. “
Investing in GeoTools
VIKTOR believes in the power of digitisation together. That is why the company invests in the development of a toolbox for geotechnical engineering: GeoTools. This toolbox consists of building blocks that individually or in combination provide full functionality to allow the geo-technician to work more efficiently. These blocks, together with all multidisciplinary building blocks, form the puzzle pieces of the total design of, for example, an infrastructural project.
In order to guarantee a toolbox with building blocks of the highest value, the platform for the development of the blocks works together with geotechnical consultancy CRUX Engineering and knowledge institute Deltares, among others. Within this initiative, CRUX’s sister company CEMS (CRUX Engineering MicroServices) realises so-called microservices for specific geotechnical calculations. For Deltares, which develops calculation models, it is important to be able to link these models more easily and integrate them with other tools. VIKTOR then offers these building blocks integrated and on a pay-per-use basis via its platform. In this way, geotechnical consultants, construction companies or other parties can use or build professional applications more quickly.
Soil layout available digitally
GeoTools is the first geotechnical standard application for automated interpretation of CPTs and drilling. Stijn Jansen, head of application development at VIKTOR, explains: “A construction project starts with mapping the ground. If you consider a geotechnical consultant’s work process, he receives the data from CPTs and drillings in separate files that sometimes also differ in format. These are often printed for comparison. It requires a lot of manual work to get from the CPT to a soil structure.”
The toolbox speeds up this process and makes it more accurate and standardised. Jansen: “The data files of a CPT are loaded into a web application and the soil structure is immediately available visually. The calculations and analyses are automated with algorithms. Subsequently, the consultant quickly has a good idea of the soil structure. And if additional drilling or CPTs follow, this data is integrated and processed in the soil structure. This forms the basis for further calculations, such as, for example, of the pile foundation. This can then be done with other building blocks, such as the microservices from CRUX or the D-series from Deltares.”
Accelerate the process
Jacco Haasnoot, director at CRUX, explains why his company is participating in this initiative. “VIKTOR is a driver of digitisation in the construction sector. We too must and want to participate in this. We still use (VBA) Excel a lot for our consultancy, but there is clearly a need for further automation of the design process. Our people also spend a lot of time processing data. With an algorithm we can calculate more variants more quickly and monitor the quality better. Process steps are then more transparent and the number of errors decreases due to less manual work.”
“VIKTOR is a driver of digitisation in the construction sector. We must and want to participate in this.”Jacco Haasnoot, director at CRUX
Different business model
This step does mean a shift in the business model of the consultancy and engineering firm. Haasnoot: “Presently we mainly sell the hours we spent to conclude our consultancy to our clients. Our knowledge and experience is recorded in good Excel sheets. These are our crown jewels, which we do not want to give away just like that. By developing microservices, we translate our knowledge into software that others can also use. They enter data and receive output that is paid, which gives them a new revenue model. The intelligence required for this remains our property. We currently have around 30 to 40 Excel sheets that we can potentially offer as a microservice.”
Van Putten identifies that digitalisation is creating new business opportunities for small businesses or freelance specialists too. “As a small entrepreneur, VIKTOR offers me a platform to unlock specific domain knowledge via apps to an audience that is difficult to reach without this platform. The development of such a platform would normally take years of development time and is now being taken care of”
Solving the puzzle
“With such standard building blocks, complex projects can be efficiently converted to a good end product.”Ritchie Vink, co-founder at CEMS
CEMS was founded to further develop the skills for software development and AI. This sister company develops and supplies microservices or cloud-based tools that can be part of a design process via an API. Ritchie Vink, co-founder of CEMS: “People are not scalable, so it is easier to automate repetitive calculations. Then people can focus on control and advice. We have specialist knowledge of and software for geotechnical engineering and use it to automate our own processes more efficiently. But we can also help others in the construction chain with that. For example, if we consider an algorithm for a pile calculation that we offer in a subscription form. With such standard building blocks, complex projects can be efficiently converted to a good end product.”
The focus of CEMS is on microservices and data analytics, and the company does not want to be bothered with the user experience or front-end. Vink: “That’s where VIKTOR comes in. They make our microservices accessible to others via GeoTools. We use this toolbox to supply standard building blocks with which companies can build their own applications. If other specialists also develop building blocks, they enrich the toolbox and together we build proven standards. We are still at the beginning of this development, but by investing together, we are taking the most important first step.”
The advantage of GeoTools is not only the availability of a wide and complete range of building blocks and solutions. The toolbox also facilitates the integration of different process steps based on the same data, which is shared along the way. All VIKTOR building blocks are web-based and use one database. This gives all disciplines access to the same data. There is always one version of what is considered the truth. Vink: “A microservice for a pile foundation can be built up from our algorithm in combination with structural design software. This however still needs considerable work. We can facilitate this faster with our microservice. And if multiple pile types are required, we can quickly calculate all variations as a basis for multiple scenarios. This directly contributes to a better end result.”
Creating a community to share knowledge
Currently, the first versions of GeoTools have been developed and tested. The feedback from geotechnical consultants is continuously collected and used to further improve and expand the functionality of the building blocks. Peter Madlener, CCO and co-founder of VIKTOR concludes: “It is important to involve the end users as early as possible in the development process. We are indeed the initiator, but of course benefit from a wide and complete range of building blocks.”
According to him, the challenge is to build the GeoTools building blocks together with the market. “The ultimate goal is an app store that engineers can easily use and adapt so that the tools are even better suited to the specific wishes of organisations in the chain. That is why we also call on other parties to join. By making domain knowledge accessible and cleverly combining it with digital technology, we achieve better results faster. Together we can also fulfill the promise of digitisation in the Construction and Infrastructure sector.”
Van Putten agrees, “I can imagine nothing better than an app store for geotechnical modules and applications. It is the only logical step to keep up with the rapidly changing world of cloud and artificial intelligence.”