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Interview: Removing the disconnect

3 d tunnel and highrise

Bentley Systems promised to remove a “disconnect” in geotechnics when it acquired finite element analysis software specialist Plaxis. Plaxis managing director Jan-Willem Koutstaal explains what this means for customers.

foto jw koutstaal

foto jw koutstaal

Koutstaal: We are part of a larger company now, but we are still very much focused on geotechnical solutions

Many people in the ground engineering business were surprised when news broke that Bentley Systems had bought finite element analysis software developer Plaxis, along with the geotechnical software business of Soil Vision. Some feared the entry of a big player like Bentley into the market could have a negative effect, but Plaxis managing director Jan-Willem Koutstaal believes the deal offers benefits for Bentley, Plaxis and customers of both businesses.

One of the main benefits will be to remove what Bentley chief executive Greg Bentley described as a “disconnect” between ground engineering and the rest of the civil engineering industry when announcing the takeover. The disconnect he refers to relates to the use of three-dimensional visualisation, but Koutstaal says that is only one of the benefits that the deal will deliver.

Long-term investment

After 10 years leading Plaxis, Koutstaal is now looking forward to the next chapter of the business’ story as part of Bentley Systems. It now has the added remit of integrating Soil Vision and Plaxis software with Bentley’s existing geotechnical data software Gint to create a suite of geotechnical offerings.

Koutstaal says that the buyout by Bentley came when a major shareholder in Plaxis wanted to leave the business and he started to look at alternative investors.

“We were seeking a strong partner,” he says. “Bentley is the perfect combination and will help us take Plaxis further.

“Plaxis is a company of engineers and we recognised a similar approach to business at Bentley. The technological environment matches well with ours and we will retain our identity within Bentley.”

Despite the ubiquity of finite element analysis using Plaxis products in geotechnics, the company is still relatively small with just 75 employees.

“Being part of Bentley adds good career options for our staff that will give them development opportunities,” says Koutstaal.

Although Bentley is a much larger company, there are benefits resulting from the buyout for its business too.

“Bentley is a leader in civil engineering but not in geotechnics,” says Koutstaal. “Previously it was a missing link. Our products, and those of Soil Vision, will combine with Gint to strengthen Bentley’s offer to this part of the market.”

Koutstaal says that the businesses are to retain their brand names, demonstrating Bentley’s understanding of their strength in the geotechnics markets.

According to Koutstaal, there are major benefits for Plaxis users in terms of development and interconnectivity of the geotechnical software with software for construction sectors.

“We are part of a larger company now, but we are still very much focused on geotechnical solutions, and Bentley does not intend to change the way we do business with our customers,” he says. “Our customers range from individuals through to large companies and the main benefit that the acquisition will bring is likely to be in the greater flexibility in the types of licenses we can offer.”

Koutstaal hopes that the licensing will open finite element analysis to a wider group of engineers and a greater range of projects.

“Finite element will not be the only method but can help limit risks,” he says. “But projects are becoming more complex and there is a greater need for finite element analysis than ever before.

“There are some areas in the world where use of the analysis is not yet common but urbanisation means that finite element analysis is becoming essential.”

3 d tunnel with rockbolts

3 d tunnel with rockbolts

Koutstaal hopes to support the geotechnics industry to use 3D analysis over 2D

Dealing with disconnect

This greater use of finite element analysis and integration within Bentley is key to overcoming Greg Bentley’s “disconnect” when it comes to thinking in three dimensions. Koutstaal hopes that the buyout will help move geotechnical engineers away from two dimensions and into three to allow their work to be more easily integrated with other parts of the civil engineering sector, which more widely use 3D models, such as building information modelling.

“Most Plaxis users still mainly work with the 2D product and the outputs don’t integrate into the 3D models used by civils projects,” he says. “The ground engineering industry is starting to use 3D finite element analysis but I’d estimate that around 65% of the industry is still operating in 2D only.”

Koutstaal believes that there is resistance to 3D is because it is easier to create models in 2D for simpler projects. But he says that Plaxis is working to improve its 3D products over the long term to help the industry to move more from 2D to 3D.

“The user interfaces between 2D and 3D products are the same but users need to think in 3D,” he adds. “2D is a habit for many.”

The integration between Bentley’s ground engineering products should also help aide this move.

“Borehole data is stored in a database and taken out as 2D, but this process needs to be bridged and we need to create data storage that automates the modelling,” says Koutstaal.

“It is difficult to derive geotechnical parameters from borehole data automatically because soil is highly non-linear and it is difficult to predict what it will do. Engineering judgement is essential and some common sense is needed to ensure that calculations are realistic, but I do wonder if it might be possible to use artificial intelligence in the future.

“It won’t replace engineering judgement, but the technology may help close the gap with tools to help with decision making.”

In the shorter term, Koutstaal’s team is working on interconnectivity with Gint and to integrate at a technology level with other Bentley products.

Other developments planned within the next 12 months include the release of a new geotechnical package – Modeto – for offshore monopile design, which Koutstaal says will play a key role in helping to drive down the cost of design and construction in the offshore wind market.

Koutstaal says that there are more developments and improvements to come and the business is actively recruiting to ensure it has the skills base to continue the pace of development and respond to customer demand. In short, Koutstaal says it is business as usual for Plaxis but with the benefit of larger company support.


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