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Cost Effective Settlement Monitoring

With the cost of human intervention rising, what is the value of focusing your team on the work that matters?

How much value are you extracting from your geotechnical instruments? Whether the objective of your instrumentation and monitoring program is quality assurance, risk management, construction control or data driven design, the goal for any project manager is a maximised return on investment. The value of the data has been established, so how do we maximise that value and minimise the risk?

The cost of the instrumentation itself accounts for a minor proportion of the cost involved in a monitoring program. Designing, planning and approving the installation; establishing access; undertaking drilling and installation work; slowing or moving production to accommodate installation; ongoing monitoring and maintenance costs, data processing and management; and finally reviewing and evaluating the reports. This is money well spent when the information serves to progress production, validate design, or save lives. However, in a situation where the data is incomplete, late, or incorrect, the time and money wasted is significant. The goal of improved quality, timeliness and reliability of data has driven the move toward automation.

Manual monitoring of a construction site is a task that is often underestimated. The work is slow, repetitive and time consuming and can often be overlooked as “simple”, work you might otherwise give to a graduate or (seen all too often) a labourer. But when left to inexperienced or untrained personnel, the difference between good quality data and poor quality data quickly becomes apparent. Poor data can render an instrument useless, or even worse than useless it can mislead designers and contractors, leading to potential disaster. 

With that said, there are still some valid reasons to opt for manual monitoring. Reasons such as adaptability, cost, and the value of physical inspection. Here are some of the reasons why, and why they may be losing their weight:

Cost

When looking at the installed materials alone it may seem the cost of installing in-place geotechnical instrumentation is significant compared to a manual approach. The napkin analysis is easy:

(CoL * N) + RO – A

Where CoL is cost of labour per reading, N the number of readings over the duration of the project, RO is the cost of readout equipment and A is the cost of automation.

A good engineer might dig deeper and add on the cost of calibration of their equipment, perhaps replacement readout equipment during calibration or back up equipment for contingency. What is harder to quantify is the impact of unforeseen changes. Project delays? N goes up. Extended consolidation period? N goes up. Unexpected readings demand increased monitoring frequency? N goes up – and potentially more readout equipment is needed to allow further monitoring teams to be mobilised. Damage to readout equipment (not uncommon when the aforementioned inexperienced workers are handed the task of caring for it). Cost (both money and time) of repair or replacement.

Then there’s the cost implications of operator error (as discussed above) leading to erroneous data. That could either render the data useless or worse – lead to misinformed decisions. The cost of the former, ranges from sending someone out to repeat the reading to delays to construction. The cost of the latter is almost limitless.

Adaptability

Geotechnical instruments are more often than not placed at the epicentre of construction activity. This means when earthworks begin and embankments are being raised or the excavation is starting, instruments need to adapt to their surroundings. Adding or removing sections of casing is a far more attractive option than pulling dozens of expensive sensors out of the ground, adapting the installation, reinstalling, waiting for them to settle, only to go back out and do it again in a few weeks’ time, right in the thick of construction activity.

This is why we are specifically designing our instruments to be easy add, easy remove, easy adapt so your instruments can work with and for you.

Physical Inspection

No one will question the importance of an engineer’s boots on the ground, at the coalface, observing site conditions, monitoring visual cues that might indicate something not represented in the instrument data. While qualitative, a brief visual inspection can provide more information than hours of data mining ever could and to the end that a manual monitoring schedule prompts engineers or operators out onto the field, this is a plus.

However, you need to know what to look for. The inspection needs to be carried out by someone with the appropriate training and experience. The value of the monitoring visit is proportional to the degree of expertise held by the person being sent to site and as mentioned above, the task can often be allocated based on cost rather than capacity.

An automated monitoring system allows knowledgeable, experienced engineers to prioritise visual assessment when conducting an inspection. The time not spent conducting manual surveys can then be spent reviewing the data and supplementing it with qualitative information, issuing tangible, actionable reports.

Summary

The lifetime cost of an instrument extends far beyond the materials installed. It extends back to the planning and enabling works, the installation, ongoing monitoring, maintenance, reporting, disruption to production and so on. Selecting the right equipment to automate your monitoring may seem like an additional expense, but when accounting for reduction of risk, increased quality and frequency of reporting, along with the recovered opportunity cost of the engineer’s time, the balance quickly shifts in favour of in-place measurement equipment.

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