In a previous article, we discussed some interesting facts about what it’s like to work as a structural engineer. Now, we’d like to look at what’s changing and explore the cutting-edge and continuously evolving technologies in the structural world.
Again, we went to our go-to head of Structures, Valontino James, for some insight into the innovations transforming structural engineering as we know it.
Here’s what we discovered:
‘Finite element modelling’ or FEM uses state-of-the-art computer software to assess the behaviour of structural elements. It allows engineers to see how a structure will stand up against all kinds of forces, from heavy winds to the weight of cars. Advances in FEM are helping engineers to improve their designs. And let’s not forget, better designs usually mean less material waste and, therefore, cost savings.
‘Building information modelling’ or BIM software allows engineers to efficiently model multi-storey buildings. From the comfort of their own desks (sandwich in hand), engineers can easily figure out overlaps and clashes between the walls and the plumbing, for example. This is also done early in the design process. Gone are the days of discovering construction-halting issues halfway through the build. BIM reduces unwanted surprises and helps keep things on schedule.
As wonderful as these tools are, Valontino cautions against relying solely on design software to do the work. With a good understanding of how the software works, a keen eye for accuracy, and their in-built knowledge of engineering first principles, engineers need to do the work to ensure those digital predictions translate into sturdy real-world structures.
Valontino tells us that drones aren’t exactly an everyday tool in structural engineering. But when it comes to inspecting hard-to-reach or high-up places (like sky-high network towers, expansive bridges, or monumental dam walls) they are indeed the handy allies of the future. Inspections are essential for spotting defects and drones can swoop in to help.
Drones aren’t going to be replacing physical inspections any time soon. The quality of drone images is influenced by lighting, camera angles, distance (and more), which affect the drone’s ability to accurately identify and rate defects. There’s still nothing quite like the trained human eye!
But who’s to say what the future holds? As technology advances, drones might just become the go-to inspectors, capturing every nook and cranny with meticulous accuracy.
There are some exciting AI developments that are making structural condition assessments easier. One example is deep learning algorithms that are used for pattern recognition. It’s like a highly specialised structural assessor who recognises faults using databases filled with millions of images of actual defects. However, like with drones, it’s not all smooth sailing. Rating the severity of defects based on poor or distorted images poses the same challenges mentioned above.
The next big thing for AI in structural engineering could very well be brewing right here in Africa! Professor Pilate Moyo at the University of Cape Town is currently conducting interesting research in this field.
Valontino is impressed by a video of cutting-edge construction technologies being implemented by Broad Group. They apply modular construction principles to assemble prefabricated modules around a steel frame of a 10-storey building, within 28 hours. That’s not just fast, it’s groundbreaking! Closer to home in Stellenbosch, J.K. Architects worked on student accommodation, Studios on Park, using a similar method of modular construction to complete a 62 apartment 4-storey building within a record time of 5 months. Also, in Maboneng, Johannesburg, Lot-Ek Architects worked on a modular construction project for Propertuity called Drivelines Studios.
When you scale this up, the time and cost savings of factory-controlled modular construction could be enormous, something Valontino thinks would ultimately benefit end-users.
At Lithon, we’re inspired to see all of these innovative technologies redefining what’s possible for structural engineering!
If you’re planning your next project and are excited by the possibilities these cutting-edge technologies offer, don’t hesitate to reach out. Lithon’s structural engineering team is eager to hear from you. Let us help you bring your project to life with the best that modern structural engineering has to offer!
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