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Bentley improve their geotechnics portofolio with Plaxis, SoilVision aquisition


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For much of the last 25 years, Boston was a construction site. The Big Dig project put an elevated highway under ground, to improve traffic flow and create green space where the roadway had once divided the city. What many people didn’t recognize was how much soil conditions affected the project: Boston is built on landfill, some of it centuries old, and is subject to coastal weather and ocean tides. Digging a tunnel under a working city is never easy; add in our fleet of small to large skyscrapers, historic buildings and working roads and bridges, and it becomes a geotechnical nightmare. Geotechnics is the branch of engineering that merges geology and physics to model soil mechanics and rock behavior, considers the effects of water from rain, rivers or tides, and other aspects of the physical site in which a AEC project might find itself. The Big Dig engineering companies had  geotechnical experts, but many of Boston’s landmark owners and operators hired their own experts to make sure that their assets would be safe as the project proceeded from exploratory digging to tunneling to construction and, eventually, to daily operations. Each stage of the project was modeled and analyzed, but in the end, I am told, most things were over-designed in the interest of safety. The compute horsepower we have today wasn’t available back then, the algorithms not as sophisticated, and the risk too great to do anything else.

Enter Bentley Systems, which makes software used in the design, construction and operations of roads, bridges, railways, dams, buildings, offshore rigs and wind farms–just about any type of built asset. Bentley announced last night that it has acquired two players in geotechnical engineering, Plaxis and SoilVision, to create an integrated environment that will go from geotechnical analysis to structural mechanics to detailed design to generating construction instructions. Bentley wants to connect tasks that are currently disconnected to eliminate errors and duplication, and to make it possible to iterate, accurately, so that engineers stop over-designing. They see the future workflow like this: Bentley’s gINT product manages site surveys and soil sampling. Geotechnical engineers use Plaxis to calculate soil properties and behavior, and groundwater flow with SoilVision’s SVOFFICE. Taking all of these physical properties into account, they then model soil-structure interaction with Plaxis’ FEA-based design, simulation, and engineering tools, PLAXIS 2D and PLAXIS 3D. The results from these simulations are used as inputs into Bentley’s suite of design tools –for example, SACS for offshore structures or STAAD for general structures or foundations. These then feed into Bentley’s design and construction tools and, ultimately, asset operations solutions.

And that’s Bentley’s secret sauce: its massive portfolio of surrounding products. For example,  the geotechnical applications will be integrated with the STAAD, RAM and SACS structural applications to close the loop between requirements and design. In the offshore world, an owner may change the requirements for a platform; given new loading and known soil conditions, how must that change the design of the platform’s supporting structure? Or, in the case of a congested urban environment, how will the construction of a new parking lot change drainage — and what does that mean for our brownstone’s proposed foundation? Or, looking further into the future, how will loads on a storm-weakened levee in New Orleans affect the structures around it? With real-time monitoring and enough compute capacity, we can know and act.

I had the chance to speak this morning with Jan-Willem Koutstaal, Managing Director of Plaxis; Raoul Karp, Bentley’s VP, Design Engineering Analysis; and Chris Barron, Bentley’s Chief Communications Officer. Mr. Koutsaal said that his customers are excited by the possibilities the combination offers –integration between PLAXIS and Bentley’s analysis suite, access to technology such as reality capture that can smooth workflows– while Mr. Karp and Mr. Barron reinforced Bentley’s commitment to creating more efficient workflows. The companies know one another well: they integrated gINT and PLAXIS years ago and are already working on broader integration plans.

A couple of things I hadn’t known about geotechnical engineering and the problems it solves:

  • Soil is a natural object, inherently nonlinear and unpredictable. Structures are … not. That mix of nonlinear and linear is hard for many to wrap their brains around and, as a result, geotechnical engineering is often seen as too complicated. By offering both, Bentley will be able to help companies integrate their analytical processes
  • Geotechnical engineering, as a discipline, is in huge demand. Boston is old landfill, but Singapore and Japan are building out into the ocean today, creating apartment blocks and airport runways where before there was just water. Careful geotechnical simulation is the only way to ensure safety and fit for purpose
  • As they’re built, structures’ weight and center of gravity change. If the geotechnical modeling doesn’t take the changes into account, it’s possible to wind up with a leaning Tower of Pisa — not desirable. Geotechnical engineering should be done for all major milestones of a construction project to predict what might happen, so that it can be prevented
  • In a perfect world, geotechnical and structural analysis would be iterative and would examine design alternatives that include geotechnical considerations as well as material cost, schedule, design aesthetic and other factors. Bentley believes that integrating these workflows can make that happen.

For now, it’s business as usual. All of Plaxis’ experts have joined Bentley and are working with their Bentley counterparts on integration. But Plaxis is still marching to its own release plans, too:  its MoDeTo for offshore wind turbine structures will be out later this year. And it’s a great complement to Bentley SACS’ wind turbine structural analysis product.

Tighter integration between geotechnical and structural engineering has compelling benefits, even if we only look at problems avoided. Add in opportunities for more innovative designs, less waste from over-design, and improved reliability via digital connections, and it becomes a question of how quickly rather than if. And that’ Mr. Koutstaal says, is his customers main question. They are excited about the combination and are looking forward to exploring the new possibilities if offers.

It sounds like a great fit, culturally, too, as both sets of execs said they were “engineering companies that write software”.

No financial information was released.


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