February 1, 2022

– Geotechnics is still far behind other industries

The industry needs to pick up the pace and accelerate the development of new technology for site investigations and design. Otherwise, we could be easily falling behind, according to one of the experts in the field, Alex Petty.

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Australia-based Alex Petty is an experienced geotechnical engineer. For the last 16 years he has been working to promote new and more sustainable solutions in the industry.  Simultaneously he is challenging what he sees as a sometimes too conservative industry that are often wrapped up in its established norms.

As these are values that resonate with how EMerald Geomodelling is approaching its work, we sat down with Petty to hear his thoughts on the current state of our industry and the path ahead.  

Alex Petty has been working in the industry for 15+ years and believes its lagging behind on technical innovation.

– Happy New Year’s, Alex! In your eyes, where is the industry in 2022 when it comes to technical innovation?

Petty: The fact that we are lagging behind, is also evident when I discuss the use of more modern technology with many of my clients. Even though many can acknowledge the potential benefits of a new method, people still tend to lean towards what they already know – even when the old way is clearly less efficient.

– What do you think this conservatism comes down to?  

Petty: I think a lot has to do with conformity - people feel more at ease with using the methods they are used to. In their mind, this might translate into less risk, although I would disagree with that in some cases.

Perhaps we have not been doing a good enough job in explaining that there are risks involved in using the existing methods as well. Sometimes there are more risks. Completing a single borehole every 200m that uses Standard Penetration Test (SPT) results for design and assuming the information in between is the same…? You can add conservatism to the design to cater for this, but why should you? Just because you have been doing the same thing over and over, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. Geotechnical engineering is all about managing ground related risk. Why would you not want to do the best job?

– How can we get better at that?

Petty: In my experience, some of the most effective ways of demonstrating the risks in using old methods, unfortunately, is to show where it has gone wrong.  

If you are doing site investigations with boreholes as your only source of information, you are losing important insight about what exists between the boreholes. This has on several occasions led to catastrophes later in the project, due to missed information.

– Except from the risk aspect, are there other factors you feel are contributing to the conservatism in the industry?

Petty: Well, my opinion is that site investigations are often done too late in the project. If you wait until you are ready to start designing, it is often too late to reap the full benefits of things like geoscanning and LIDAR, geophysics, etc.

For example, clients often don’t think about the sustainability outcomes related to geotechnics because the benefits often come at a later stage in a project, because you have been able to improve the design as a consequence of better information available. Smaller/less/shallower foundations mean less steel and concrete.

– Do you see things getting better in the years to come?

Petty: It will come, slowly but steady. We just need to keep promoting it to clients, as well as to a broader audience. We need to utilize channels such as LinkedIn, newsletters, university lectures, curriculums, trade media and so on. As mentioned initially, we are lagging behind at the moment, but I believe we will catch up eventually.

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