2002 Rankine Lecture: Numerical Analysis: A Virtual Dream or Practical Reality?

Prof. David Potts

The development of numerical analysis and its application to geotechnical problems over the past 20 years have provided geotechnical engineers with an extremely powerful analysis tool. However, the use of such analysis is still not widespread, and when it is used there is all too often evidence of bad practice. Part of the reason for this is a lack of education and of guidance, especially from codes of practice, as to the appropriate use of such methods of analysis. Clearly, some form of initiative is required to promote good practice and allow the full potential of this analysis tool to be realised, both from a safety and an economy perspective. This lecture began by reviewing the key advantages of numerical analysis over conventional analysis tools, and then debated whether or not it can replace the conventional analysis tools in the design process.

Examples from engineering practice were used extensively to illustrate the arguments both for and against the use of numerical analysis.The power of numerical analysis to predict mechanisms of behaviour will be clearly demonstrated with the implication that conventional analysis tools could soon become extinct. Attention was then be focussed on some of the pitfalls that commonly arise and some of the problems related to the use of numerical software. These were shown to be both significant and extremely worrying and must be resolved if numerical analysis is ever going to fulfil its enormous potential. The successful use of the analysis tool requires a user to be proficient in many areas, some of which are not covered adequately either at undergraduate or postgraduate level. To rectify these deficiencies, changes in the education of geotechnical engineers are necessary, with all the implications this brings to the profession.

The lecture concluded by discussing some of these issues.

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