Published: 30 October, 2019
A new approach to SurfLoad
Taking a product to market – particularly one with as rich a heritage as SurfLoad, DNV’s tool for conducting Soil/Pipeline Interaction Analysis (“SPIA”) – is challenging. One of the key drivers for any digital innovation project is finding that perfect intersection between “novelty and need” – the now almost traditional definition of innovation thanks to publications and frameworks such as The Innovator’s Method from Nathan Furr and Jeff Dyer. Whilst understanding the market potential and customer need is, from our perspective, essential, overcoming technical obsolescence was as much of a challenge as anything during the journey to producing a modern SurfLoad app.
The new SurfLoad app, which is typically used during during civil construction, agriculture or highway loading scenarios, has an origin rooted in DNV Loughborough’s rich British Gas heritage. The method, theory and original code was developed some twenty years ago as part of some extensive research and development into SPIA. SurfLoad represented a state-of-the-art computer program for undertaking fast, yet realistic and accurate SPIA and became the norm for the UK Gas Industry. However, upon the advent of privatisation of the UK Gas Industry, SurfLoad was not updated in line with computing technology and power.
The development process
This story begins some twelve months ago during that most creative of environments – a coffee in the office kitchen between two colleagues; one fresh from several dialogues with trusted and valued customers and the other brimming with enthusiasm about identifying great use cases to test the services available within DNV’s fast-expanding Veracity portfolio. A couple of espresso’s later and the idea was cemented via a question – why couldn’t SurfLoad be re-engineered for today’s modern platforms? All the ingredients were in place – a good idea; market potential; a platform; a revitalised subject matter; an enthusiastic team; and some eager customers.
It was with this excitement that the team worked to shape its customer story, building upon the aspirations of the UK Gas Distribution Networks to expand and enhance their use of SPIA given pressures onshore pipeline operators are under to ensure safety and code compliance during temporary and permanent vehicle loading scenarios.
Helping our customers
The overarching ambition of the project was to help improve the decision-making process faced by our customers when evaluating whether pipeline protection measures are required or not. Operational experience had previously shown that SurfLoad can reduce the requirement for pipeline protection slabs by up to 60% and this value was to become the focus point for DNV during the development of a modern SurfLoad app.
A solution fit for the future
One of the first principles established within the project team was to ensure that the application functioned in the cloud – that slightly overused catch-all for computing servers and services that function off-premise, typically in one of the globally distributed data centres with one of the big tech players.
SurfLoad contains both Boussinesq and Finite Element (“FE”) calculation engines, which allows it to better model real soil behaviour and provide fast, realistic and accurate results. After much brainstorming, pivoting and re-evaluation, the project team embarked on several parallel workstreams to migrate the application logic away from a desktop environment to a cloud environment using a number of different services and techniques to allow these engines to run.
Fundamentally there are differences between running an analysis engine in the cloud and running an app on a desktop ( typically via a Microsoft Windows operating system) and some key decisions needed to be taken swiftly; How would we move data to and from the interface? What are the internet bandwidth considerations? What provides the best user experience? How should data be structured and presented both within browser and within the calculation engine? How can you balance the compromise between time-to-deliver and market requirements, yet keep momentum? How do we remain true to our aspiration to create an easy-to-use yet feature-rich calculator?
It was with these key questions and decisions in mind that a small yet nimble project team was set up to take “SurfLoad in the Cloud” from concept and vision to reality. Many long nights, long days and key decisions were faced making sure the customer was at the forefront of our development; that we remained true to our vision; and that we drew from our initial aspiration based on that initial coffee conversation.
That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges. Taking an app that is fundamentally proven using acknowledged research and wrapped in mathematics to produce a result that is either right or just plain wrong requires testing and lots of it! We lost count of the number of times we questioned numerical precision; mathematical notation; and each other, always in a way that was healthy and encouraging and motivated everybody involved to press just that little bit harder.
Ready for launch
Finally, after many months of pivoting, sweat and hard graft – not to mention lots of good, strong coffee – the team reached the culmination of the development activity this summer with a proud and significant achievement; a functioning SurfLoad app had been reborn and re-launched on Veracity.
Throughout the project we’ve worked carefully to ensure we choose elements from our supported technology stack that allow us to produce a robust yet relatively lightweight tool. Veracity is fast-growing to be one of several significant players within open and proprietary industry data and provides opportunities that the team are excited to explore further – be it in the GIS (geographic information system), machine learning and/or interactive data visualisation space or others. A product roadmap has been developed and over the coming months it will allow the team to define what is needed to enhance the product – all with an eye on the potential benefits, value and opportunities this could give our customers.
We are absolutely delighted to see SurfLoad re-born on Veracity – there is huge potential for this as a cloud web app as well as the opportunities this new medium gives us to reach customers beyond the confines of this service line’s traditional geography within the UK.
Cadent Gas have already issued the team with an order for SurfLoad and intend to use the tool to provide a consistent approach for the UK’s High Speed 2 project – a proposed new rail network that will connect London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. The route of the proposed HS2 will impact upon several existing buried gas assets owned and operated by Cadent.