Southern Earth Sciences Inc.

Advancing Cone Penetrometer Testing in the Southeast

Inducted in 2008

Over three decades and 169 employees ago, Southern Earth Sciences Inc., the distinguished Mobile firm named this year to the Hall of Fame, had a humble start in the garage of company founder, Dr. James E. Laier. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers veteran and a holder of a doctoral degree in civil and geotechnical engineering, Laier founded the unique soils-analysis firm in 1975. He and his wife, Diana, who assisted him, delivered flawless job after flawless job, steadily growing the company. SESI’s uniqueness stemmed from Laier’s impeccable qualifications: 10 years’ field experience, research publications, and two U.S. patents. They also benefited from being one of Mobile’s few turnkey geotechnical consultants with the ability to collect samples, analyze them in-house, identify problems, and pose solutions.

Today, the company’s remarkable reputation is largely secured by the peerless technology it employs such as cutting-edge, digital cone penetrometer testing, or CPT. For one-third the cost of standard methods, CPT offers up to 30 times the information. The penetrometer—pioneered in the Netherlands around 1930—is a steel cone hydraulically pushed underground, collecting in situ soil properties available for instant interpretation (video capability is the latest enhancement). SESI’s penetrometer rig is enclosed, lighted, and climate controlled, making data acquisition possible any time and in all types of weather. Using one- to two-inch holes and requiring no drilling fluids, CPT’s continuous screening reveals soil type, sheer strength, resistivity, compressibility properties, and more. CPT’s real-time data analysis allows engineers to immediately alter the field investigation program based on direct information. The technology is safer than conventional drilling for workers at contaminated sites because no cuttings are generated, therefore, minimizing potential exposure to hazardous waste.

Despite these substantial benefits, CPT was rarely used in the Southeast until SESI introduced it in 2001. Two years later, the company patented a CPT-based process of measuring length and reliability of deep foundation systems and in-place pilings called PS/CPT. The technique allows engineers the ability to discern structures like bridge abutments without extensive, expensive removal of surrounding soil. PS/CPT benefited engineers reevaluating levees following Hurricane Katrina and will undoubtedly grow in popularity.

SESI partners with the University of South Alabama Coastal Research Center to develop new uses for CPT. It also offers internships to students at USA, where Laier teaches foundations engineering and is a director of the Technology and Research Park. SESI is also a partner-in-education at Mobile’s Davidson High School and is active with the school’s Engineering Pathways Advisory Committee. Laier is a representative on ASCE’s ABET accreditation board and a board member of AGC’s Mobile chapter.

SESI branches in Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, and Mississippi provide geotechnical engineering, construction-materials testing, and environmental services throughout the region. The firm primarily serves engineering organizations, architects, and government entities. Accredited by AASHTO and the Corps of Engineers, SESI employees 170 employees. Laier is chief executive officer.

Previous honors for SESI include several AGC safety awards, AGC’s 2006 Engineer of the Year, the Mobile chamber’s 2006 Small Business of the Year, and the Mobile Area Committee on Employment of People with Disabilities 2003 Employer of the Year.

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