Resourcing Vulcan to maintain the grade

Maptek Director of Global Product Development, Scott Schell discusses the Vulcan roadmap and the challenges of keeping ahead in an ever-changing industry.

We all want Vulcan to remain world class. What does this mean to the development team?

We believe that Vulcan is the best overall GMP (general mine planning) software solution in the industry. While we know we can never be ‘all things to all people’, we want to consistently be the first choice of our customers for their GMP needs.

A world-class development team takes more than just hiring the best people and following the best practices or coding standards. It means setting the benchmark in the industry for software delivery. Most importantly, it means consistently providing the best-of-breed product, service and support to our customers - listening carefully to their needs, delivering solutions quickly, and ensuring that we are relentless about improving our development processes and software quality; lessons I learned from my previous work experience outside of the mining industry.

Being close to customers is important. We have recently expanded development teams in North and South America. They combine with developers in Australia to ensure we address regional as well as global needs.   

How does Maptek prioritise development directions?

Development directions are formed as we talk directly with our customers. The Vulcan product development management team, led by Eric Gonzalez, helps us define the ‘big rocks’, or major projects, that should be accomplished for each release. Within each of the four Maptek regions, technical service leaders define smaller bits of new functionality that their customers want, and work with the product management team to prioritise these ‘medium rocks’, or smaller projects. Finally, development prioritises and manages the eradication of defects, rounding out the ‘filling of the jar’ with these ‘small rocks’.

What are the key issues in developing a long term roadmap?

The roadmap must balance competing forces such as company strategy, industry needs and changes, competitive threats, and architecture needs. Maptek gathers input from customers, technical services, architecture, and industry leaders through surveys and direct communication. That information is used to regularly update the roadmap.

What challenges have caused a change in priorities?

Our roadmap is 80% determined at any given time, and always evolving due to the dynamic forces in our industry and company. The biggest changes to priorities come directly from interaction with customers. For example, a site visit uncovered a subtle but important theme: Vulcan users were partitioning their data to fit it into Vulcan’s constrained memory. From this knowledge 2 projects were defined: 64-bit and Large Data. Together, these allow users to access all the available memory on their computer dynamically without having to tell the software apriori how to allocate space.

Larger datasets have highlighted how we need to further leverage the available CPUs and GPUs to improve processing performance; several smaller projects are now underway to address this.  

What other insights have arisen?

Sometimes it takes several conversations with customers to lead to exciting new developments.  For example, we were hearing that data import and export capabilities needed to be enhanced. Investigating further, we found that several customers were spending a lot of time exporting/importing data to perform implicit modelling. So we created a superior implicit modelling tool within Vulcan to benefit all customers.

We also realised that the lack of standards in the industry makes data exchange difficult. By making an API and SDK available we have enabled our partners and customers to more easily exchange information.

Insights from customers, often in casual conversations at a tradeshow, can greatly shape the future direction of our product and service offerings.

How does the Vulcan development team cope with an ever-changing landscape of customer needs and market conditions?

We have made release cycles shorter to be more responsive to industry needs. A major release once a year is supported by minor releases every 2 months. This allows us to quickly respond to requests and ensure that tools get into our customers’ hands straight away.

How does Maptek ensure that we take advantage of available technology?

Vulcan developers are encouraged to put forward new technologies and innovative approaches to be considered by our Architect and Chief Software Engineer. We are, for example, currently moving our user interface platform to C#/.Net. The new improved Vulcan workbench will be released in 2015 using this platform.

Another example is improving processing speed by using the hundreds of processors on modern graphics cards, GPUs. Finally, we have replaced our graphics engine with a commercial offering rather than continuing to develop it ourselves. This allows us to leverage the strengths of world-class graphics capabilities, allowing us to focus on our core offering.

It is important that Maptek remains focused on our core competencies and partners
with best-of-breed vendors to deliver those areas that are not our core.

What architecture/infrastructure are we waiting on to be able to deliver tools and functionality in Vulcan?

The nice thing about software is its flexibility. You can achieve anything if you simply roll up your sleeves and program it. However, several advancements in development protocols are making programming easier, allowing us to deliver functionality more quickly.

The workbench platform, for example, will enable us to leverage more 3rd party tools, make localisation and internationalisation easier, and make our user interfaces more dynamic. Graphics engine integration allows users to visualise and manipulate more objects on the screen simultaneously, faster than possible today; it makes the 64-bit and large data efforts come to life.

What activity demonstrates that Maptek is driving innovation?

Vulcan Implicit Modelling is one example. We have chosen an approach which allows users to combine implicit modelling with explicit and stochastic modelling to suit their operational needs.

When Maptek surveyed graphics engine vendors, we found it was better to go with a leader in the oil and gas space, rather than the default choice in the GMP space. This choice allows us to manage large datasets, at faster frame rates and with more features than our competitors.

Customers are reaping the benefit of Vulcan’s ability to leverage GPUs for faster data calculations. They can do tasks faster, ultimately allowing them to create better designs and more profitable plans.

What are you excited about?

I am excited about the future of Vulcan. Maptek has assembled a very talented team of developers globally. I’m confident that we have built a world-class software development organisation that can work together to tackle any problem.

What is top of your wishlist?

Better interoperability between Maptek products will help many of our users seamlessly incorporate scan and blast information with their Vulcan models.  We’ve invested heavily in R&D for the Vulcan workbench and graphics engine, and I’d like to see them standardised across all products.

What are the Vulcan plans for the future and the impact for customers?

Maptek has extremely aggressive goals for Vulcan in terms of technology, product offering and market share.

The investments that Maptek is making in staff, product technology, and roadmap development will make our customers’ work easier, allowing them to complete their tasks more quickly and profitably.  

Maptek has come a long way in the last 30 years. Innovation breeds innovation, and I foresee exciting developments ahead.