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jwripple

What sets RockWorks aside from the rest?

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Basically, I am giving a presentation in about a week to a bunch of engineers and managers in my department about RockWorks 14 and ArcGIS. Let it be known that I am a Senior in College(Civil Engineering) and was given RockWorks 2006 out of nowhere to learn all by myself, with 50 years of Boring Logs and Geotechnical Reports. By the way, I work at a Waste Water Plant(caters to 1.5 mil people). So I have been struggling all by myself the last 7 months and have gotten the hang of RockWorks and some of the various commands it entails. So now, I've come up with a fairly detailed PowerPoint presentation with all the various things RockWorks offers(that is relevant to Boring Logs) and made a bunch of 2D and 3D examples. So, my question is; what sets RockWorks aside from other programs? In short, what benefits would making all these 2D and 3D models, sections, maps, etc... benefit others? How long would these models be valid and is that a relevant question in my case or is it based on the engineer who analyzes my work?

Based on others who have actually used RockWorks in the field and benefited from this program, could please share your knowledge to why it is so? The main thing I have been doing is using RockWorks for Boring Logs from Geotechnical Studies. Undergrad in engineering barely covers any Geotechnical engineering and the very basics of Soil Mechanics. Help is greatly appreciated.

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Dear “JWripple”;

(1) What sets RockWorks aside from other programs?

In my biased opinion (I work at RockWare), there are multiple factors that have determined the popularity and applicability of RockWorks within Civil Engineering. Each of the following twelve items is fundamental. Without any one of them, RockWorks just wouldn't be RockWorks.

Relational Database: We tried for years to work with non-relational (aka "flat") datasets. Once we switched to a relational database, things got much better. It certainly didn't hurt that we chose to use the Microsoft Jet Engine. This allowed people to access our database from Access and opened up a world of possibilities, including; shared data on network servers, data transfer with in-house databases, and user-extensibility (adding your own tables to the RockWorks database). Had we chosen to use a proprietary database, things would be a lot different (e.g. I'd probably be unemployed.)

2D Graphics: As tempting as it is to exclusively focus on the sexiness of 3D graphics, the geo-engineering market is entrenched in 2D, CAD-style graphics for good reason. These are the "meat and potatoes" diagrams that engineers use on a daily basis. We've tried to give the 2D equal priority to the 3D and it's paid off. Geo-engineers can survive on 2D alone whereas a 3D-only package just doesn’t cut it.

3D Graphics: Civil Engineers wear two hats. The aforementioned 2D graphics is what they use for getting the job done while the 3D graphics is what they typically use to convey their concepts to clients and non-engineer types. This is the "eye candy". On the other hand, even engineers can benefit from the spatial understanding that 3D graphics can provide for complex geological environments. As you’ve probably noticed by now, our 3D stuff is starting to scratch the “soft underbellies” of some very high-end products costing orders (yes orders) of magnitude more. What’s more, we’ve made our 3D display engine (RockPlot/3D) a free standalone so that you can send your diagrams to clients, along with the 3D engine so that they can manipulate it (e.g. rotate, enlarge, enable/disable layers, etc.) rather than watching a static slide show. Hey, it worked for Adobe with their free Postscript viewer, and it’s working for us too.

Modeling/Interpretation: Just showing the data in 2D and 3D isn't enough. Most projects require some sort of interpolation to fill in the missing information between the boreholes. The two-dimensional, grid-style modeling isn't enough either. Geotechnical properties vary in all three dimensions (actually four dimensions when you consider time). We originally limited our modeling to grids (surfaces), assuming that true 3D modeling was the domain of the "big guys". Thanks to the folks at Intel, we started making 3D block models and that led us into volumetrics, the "end game" for many civil applications. Most importantly, we chose not to go down the path of proprietary, black-box, secret modeling algorithms that don’t stand up in court.

Relative Ease-of-Use: Note the term "relative". Civil Engineering is complicated stuff. We spend most of our time trying to make the program easier and more intuitive. Unfortunately, the enemy of ease-of-use is flexibility. It's a constant tug of war. I once had a guy ask me for a new feature while also telling us that the program was cluttered with too many features (all in the same sentence!). The best thing that we ever did to address the complexity issue was to switch to the expanding/collapsing tree-style menus that implicitly organize topics while simultaneous hiding non-applicable options. By integrating an extensive context-sensitive help system in these menus, we’ve add more distance between us and our competitors.

Documentation: Engineering applications have historically treated documentation as an afterthought. We’ve done the opposite. Our technical writers are integral to the design process. Writing up tutorials and case studies always results in changes to the program. Along the same lines, our consulting services have given us a competitive edge for two reasons; (1) Our consulting staff are the same people who provide technical support. This means that when folks call for answers, they’re talking with experience users as opposed to a call center where drones are reading from scripted decision trees. (2) Our technical writers, project consultants, testers, and technical-support people sit within shouting/striking distance from our programmers. As a consequence, when somebody’s trying to get a project done and they encounter a problem, the programmers are compelled by self-preservation (fear, shame, ridicule, etc.) to quickly address the problem

Affordability: We started out in 1983 at $49 in a market where the closest competitor was priced at $40k. This was a good move. We certainly weren't making as much money on a per-unit basis as the competitors, but we were saturating the market. This in turn allowed us to gain far more feedback from a much larger clientbase. The result is a product that has been essentially designed by thousands of geologists and engineers rather than a handful of "sugar daddy" clients. As a consequence, RockWorks is the most flexible and multi-faceted product in the market while still being relatively usable (there's that "relative" term again). Don't get me wrong: There are better products for specific elements within RockWorks, but nobody pulls it together into a single, affordable product like we do. In fact, many of our civil engineering clients use RockWorks for the day-to-day work and other, more-specialized, competing products for occasional projects. Peaceful coexistence. The other benefit to the lower price-point is that everybody within an organization can use it. This in turn, means that synergies form when co-workers are cross-training each other. Compare this to the designated "high-priest" approach whereby a single person (aka “geek”) within an organization is specially trained to use a high-end monster. This type of organization has gone the way of the personal secretary. Easy word processing eliminated the need for professional typists.

Open Attitude: As mentioned above, we don't use a proprietary database, proprietary algorithms, or for that matter, proprietary anything. This eliminates the risk in using RockWorks because you can always move the data out of the program and into something else. It’s not such a big deal in Civil Engineering, but we seen some horror shows, especially in mining, where you can get “locked” into a program that never lets your data out in the event that you need to switch to something else. We’ve also seen products that have secret algorithms that require you to subpoena the programmers (no kidding) for expert testimony in the event of litigation.

Dynamic Distribution: As you've probably noticed from our constant revisions (see http://www.rockware.com/rockworks/revisions/index.html), this is a very dynamic product. We add, on average, about one new feature every day and make these available every two weeks at no charge. Admittedly, we add new bugs along with the new features, but consider the alternative attitude of "We'll have that fixed in the next version that you can buy in about a year or two." This responsiveness to suggestions and complaints is something that we're very proud of. I sometimes joke that it's like R&D without the "R", thanks to a vocal userbase. For example, we're currently working on time-based data (e.g. sampling monitor wells for various contaminants over time). We'll be trickling out new time-based applications for the next two months at no charge to existing customers.

Integration: As we add more features, we're able to "leverage" existing features into new applications. For example, we started out with individual stereonet diagrams. Then we added downhole fractures to the database. It only made sense to pass the fractures to the stereonet subroutine and create maps of stereonets. As the program grows the possibilities for "hybrid" applications become exponential.

Trialware: The decision to make the program available on a try-before-you buy basis was something that was admittedly scary at first but it sure worked. In one simple step, we eliminated the stigma associated with the lower price. People started comparing it side-by-side with higher priced competitors and we came out ahead. In addition, people started to notice that many of our competitors don’t offer free trial version relying instead on return policies that require a call to your lawyer.

Generic Applications: A longstanding blessing/curse for RockWare has involved our desire to serve multiple markets. Specifically, we target the petroleum, mining, civil engineering, environmental, hydrological, and academic markets. At times this is frustrating because we give priority to generic applications as opposed to more esoteric, industry-specific utilities. On the other hand, it’s also proven to be a great way to offer applications that are more flexible that what you’ll see in industry-specific products. More importantly, many applications that were introduced to appease one market turned out to be equally applicable within markets that we never considered. For example, we added trend-surface analysis for the petroleum people but it turned out to be a hit within the hydrology market for modeling potentiometric surfaces. The best example for Civil Engineering involves the solid modeling. We were focused exclusively on mining when it first came out. But then, we were amazed by how many people were using it for modeling geotechnical properties such as compaction, cohesion, swelling, etc. It’s technology transfer. Lately, we’ve been amazed by how many people are using the deviated borehole capability (originally designed for the oil and gas industry) to model tunnels. That’s why we recently added the capability to compute the volumetrics of materials inside a borehole (aka tunnel). Another benefit of the generic/multiple-market approach is that we’re able to sell far more units thereby holding the price down to something that everybody can afford.

I originally considered answering your question with a feature matrix, but opted to address the “big 12” instead. Now, onto your next question …

(2) What benefits would making all these 2D and 3D models, sections, maps, etc. benefit others?

First off, let’s consider you as “others”. The 2D and 3D diagrams should always be used as a quality check for your data. If a borehole is being plotted in outer space relative to the rest of the boreholes then there’s a good chance that the coordinates are wrong. If a model looks funky, it’s time to check the data as well as the modeling.

In regards to others, that depends on who the others are. For example, diagrams and volumetrics (based on models) are typically required by contractors in order to provide cost estimates and implementation plans for site preparation and/or remediation. If you’re presenting to upper management or non-technical audiences (e.g. a town hall meeting), the rotating 3D models can be used to convey concepts that would otherwise to explain with words and arm waving.

(3) How long would these models be valid and is that a relevant question in my case or is it based on the engineer who analyzes my work?

We have some beautiful lithologic fence diagrams on the wall of our conference room that were hand-drawn as part of a USGS report from 1953. They’re still valid because the quality of the data and the reasonableness of the interpretations (conceptual models) are still valid. Good work is timeless.

On the other hand, we’re often alarmed by the blind faith that some users place behind computer-based modeling. Don’t get me wrong, we’re proud of the modeling techniques, but … they’re very simple-minded and frankly quite dangerous if you fail to compare the models against the raw data. Critical thought has never been more important. I once heard a lady in the Ozarks say “Well, it must have been true because it was typewrit. [sic]” I feel the same concern about the computer modeling algorithms. For example, if you’re modeling elevations within an urban environment, you dang well better use the triangulation algorithm. On the other hand, if you’re modeling blowcount data, triangulation is totally inappropriate whereas the inverse-distance/anisotropic solid-modeling is the way to go. These types of considerations will determine if you’re models will stand the test of scrutiny and time.

Best regards,

Jim Reed

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