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Digital data: Leveraging the benefits


Greater use of digital data has the potential to improve productivity, reduce risk and enhance collaboration in geotechnics but are we using this information effectively?

Ground engineering has long been working towards operating in a digital environment – the Association of Geotechnical and Geoenvironmental Specialists first developed the AGS data format to transfer ground investigation data in 1991. Yet over a quarter of a century later, the data gathered during many ground investigations is still sent inprinted or PDF format, so has to be inputted again and again.

GE undertook an online survey and interviewed a number of industry leaders to find out how digital data was being used by the industry. More than 80% of respondents reported an increase in use of digital data over the last five years.

Nonetheless, more than half of respondents said that the transfer ofdata, and knowledge sharing were still among the biggest challenges presented by this growth in digital data use.

Big data has revolutionised the commerce, insurance and financial markets, but will it ever have the same impact on the ground engineering market? According to Bachy Soletanche managing director Chris Merridew, there are some fundamental differences in this sector.

“If you look at other industries, such as the financial industry, it’s the algorithms and analysis which are important and not the individual data points,” says Merridew. “Within geotechnics, we are looking at much smaller data sets and the data is more factual and therefore carries more responsibility than it would in a much larger data set.”

Although there are clear differences,there are still significant benefits to begained in terms of efficiency.“

Anyone who is not using digital data, should be using it even if the client isn’t asking for it,” says Bam Ritchies divisional director Alasdair Henderson.

“We find that the efficiency improvements it brings to work processes is significant. We can see a clear 10% efficiency improvement from not having to transcribe things to a digital form. By recording data digitally first time you are saving an engineer’s time for other work rather than dealing with administrative tasks.”

Some businesses in the ground engineering market, such as Ritchies and Keller, have started to use digital data in a building information modelling (BIM) model on every project.

“We believe the market will go that way and we wanted to be ready, and it helps with our internal processes too,” says Keller UK managing director Jim De Waele.

Sharing this information is still a challenge though, according to Aecom director of ground engineering for the UK and Ireland Stephen Beales.

“The biggest issue with using digital data is the lack of consistency across the industry,” he says. “While we have established the AGS format for ground investigation data, we are still suffering from not having an agreed format to develop and take that forward and exchange information with clients and other parts of the supply chain.”

Keltbray Piling managing director Stuart Norman also believes that the geotechnics industry must work on better and quicker digital data transfer.

“I think there is need for guidance or specification on what data different parties need and in what format,” explains Norman. “The wider BIM protocols set out what level 2 and level 3 mean, but people need to understand the detail behind that. What should the contractor be providing, but also what should the contractor be provided with to make them more efficient?”

Data ownership appears to be a common problem in the industry too.

“There is a certain amount of resistance in the construction industry to liberating data to third parties due to ownership of the data and commercial value or protection issues,” says Arup director NickO’Riordan.

digital data graph

digital data graph

“Emancipation of data does require a certain amount of care as it may be used by people who are not geotechnical specialists.”

O’Riordan believes that part of this issue could be solved through use of data storage facilities run by, for example, universities who are independent of the commercial environment.

While there appears to be a lack of willingness to share data, software is also creating compatibility issues, and this is further restricting transfer of information.

“This is not a situation where you can go and buy a product off the shelf. You have to sit down with a consultant or provider and fully specify what you want and the format as there is nothing out there that I’m aware of for the ground engineering market,” says Norman.

“We’ve looked at a number of snagging type systems and we decided that they weren’t good enough for what we wanted, so we’ve had to go down the bespoke route. The advantage is that it’s tailored to your systems, procedures and forms, but the disadvantage is that the code takes time to write and is expensive – and the cost is forever mounting up.”

It is clear that there are still some challenges, but De Waele hopes that digital data will provide the key to greater collaboration in the construction industry.

“For me, the biggest challenge is the collaboration between the client, principal contractor and specialist,” he says. “What I would love to see is the use of digital data unlocking that potential and almost forcing people to work in a collaborative way rather than the disjointed way we contract today.

“Things like BIM absolutely cut across that and I think that the digital data will unlock – andr equire people – to work more collaboratively.”

Under pressure

As part of the digital data survey, GE also looked at the use of data for finite element analysis (FEA).

“BIM contains factual information, but geotechnical models require interpretation,” says Beales. “This interpretation may need to be varied to reflect a different worst case depending on what we’re designing.

“The BIM model does not allow you to adequately quantify or convey the interpretation or risks associated with it.”

O’Riordan believes that it is the low level use of 3D FEA that is holding back integration. “At Arup we are pioneering the use of 3D BIM model information and extruding it into the 3D FEA and then back the other way too,” he says.

“There is the forward prediction of performance from FEA and then there is the actual performance information from the instrumentation and monitoring that can be fed back into the model for back analysis.”

While there are differing opinions within the industry as to whether FEA data could one day become integral within a BIM model, there has been a clear growth in the use of FEA. The survey results reveal clear drivers for the growth, with 67% of respondents reporting that they believe FEA reduces geotechnical risk and a further 85% stating that it results in a less conservative design.

However, respondents to the survey also said that reliability of geotechnical parameters and staff training and understanding of FEA were barriers preventing wider use of the technique, along with project and software costs.

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