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Successfully designing and building a bridge requires a collective effort toward a massive undertaking. However, various technologies can make it easier by streamlining processes and helping those involved avoid pitfalls. Here are some of the possibilities.

Big Data Analysis

Coordinating the different groups working on a construction or design project is often one of the most challenging parts. Managers must constantly assess the situation and adapt as things change. It’s also often necessary for them to predict certain outcomes. Many of these professionals rely on their experience and instinct to reach those conclusions about the future.

However, now that big data tools are so readily available, they can let those resources do much of the work. A study spotlighted the data types most important to people using this software. The results indicated that 93% wanted project performance data. Then, 76% found payroll and person-hours information most important, followed by 75% prioritizing productivity data.

Big data platforms have algorithms working in the background that help them function. Researchers showed how algorithms could provide a warning system for safety issues during bridge construction. They selected five risk categories and three algorithms that worked together to reduce risks. The team then tested their work on two bridge construction projects in China. After collecting and analyzing 1,060 days’ worth of data, the researchers used their algorithms to pinpoint the most likely risk drivers.

People who use big data tools can track trends and get insights about whether bridge construction is on schedule or at risk of delays. Some solutions also let them manage communications with supply chain partners, clients or other stakeholders, keeping everyone in the loop.

BIM

BIM allows people to view multidimensional digital representations of projects before and during construction. BIM tools can help designers show clients the impacts of certain decisions before moving ahead. Plus, the BIM content makes it easier to spot potential design mistakes or issues before they cause problems in real life.

BIM also allows making complex calculations and seeing their effects in a digital environment before implementing them during construction. Due to a bridge’s scope and safety considerations, having such foresight can be critically important.

One project in Connecticut required replacing a swing bridge with a vertical lift bridge. A tricky part of this endeavor was that the people involved wanted to allow railroad traffic to keep passing over the existing bridge while construction on the new one occurred. They decided to combine the project’s BIM data with geospatial information.

Doing that allowed them to monitor aspects such as tilt, temperature and movement throughout construction. The team eventually realized this approach could assist with bridge monitoring during use, as well as the design and construction phases.

3D Printing

People are becoming more interested in how 3D printing could make numerous gains throughout the construction sector. Could it help solve the housing crisis by getting homes built faster? Could it cut the emissions associated with transporting building materials to sites?

The possibilities for bridge construction and design are fascinating, too. 3D printing is a quick way to create prototypes. They could help designers make more confident decisions about whether to use particular materials or make certain structural choices.

In 2021, a much-discussed 3D-printed stainless steel pedestrian bridge opened in the Netherlands. The people involved noted how their technique would make construction more sustainable. It could also ease supply chain strains by allowing people to print components on-site rather than waiting for shipped ones to arrive. Plus, 3D printing allowed the bridge to weigh less while still being sufficiently sturdy. That characteristic helped the overall construction happen more efficiently.

Elsewhere in the Netherlands, people constructed a 29-meter bicycle bridge with 3D printing. That project used concrete as the main material. Zeeshan Ahmed, who worked on the project, has launched a startup focused on combining concrete and 3D printing.

He also developed a pair of machines to facilitate the 3D printing for bridges. One is a reinforcement entrainment device (RED), which adds steel cables into the concrete to strengthen it. Ahmed called the other a fiber reinforcement entrainment device (FRED). It puts fibers and aggregates into the concrete. The RED system was an instrumental part of constructing two 3D-printed concrete bridges so far.

Computer Models

Knowing how a bridge will likely perform over its lifetime is crucial for succeeding in its design and construction. That’s why engineers, designers and other professionals sometimes use computer models to assess particular outcomes and minimize unwanted events.

In one recent example, civil engineers used computer models to plan how to fix bridges’ reinforced concrete columns damaged during earthquakes. The models simulated how specific repairs would make the bridges handle local and global displacement during future earthquakes.

Team members said their top priority was maintaining safety. However, they believe their models could make it easier to evaluate whether damaged bridge parts need replacement or if repairs would suffice.

In a similar effort, researchers elsewhere prioritized repairs over replacements by developing a computerized bridge coactive model. It assesses the changing condition of single bridge components and the effects on nearby and codependent parts of the structure.

Such computer modeling can help engineers and designers better understand the cause-and-effect between things that cause bridge damage. For example, the salt used for de-icing could go into a damaged expansion joint and accelerate the deterioration of lower bridge parts. Knowing how and when these things happen could enable better decision making throughout the bridge design, construction, usage and repair processes.

Smart Sensors

People in various industries use Internet of Things sensors for condition monitoring. Those components can tell if a piece of industrial equipment will fail soon or even warn that a person with a chronic but generally well-managed illness needs medical attention to prevent complications.

In Kingston, Canada, engineering students are working on building the Third Crossing Bridge. They’re collaborating with local officials to deploy built-in sensors to monitor the bridge. Those components will determine how well the bridge’s expansion joints and bearings tolerate the extra tension caused by concrete contracting and expanding due to seasonal changes.

However, a second part of the project involves using drones that will fly around the structure and take pictures. That photographic data will help people become more aware of potential deterioration. The team hopes to develop an artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that can look for telltale signs of issues within the photos. The technology could then flag a technician to take a closer look in person.

Technology Helps Bridge Projects Succeed

 Bridges are marvels of construction, and people must assess countless factors to make them safe, highly functional and able to withstand decades of use. The technologies mentioned here won’t replace human expertise and creative thinking, but they can certainly supplement those things.

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