Structural engineers are taking advantage of some of the latest developments in computer science, robotics, and materials to reinvent how they approach the design of new structures.
Recent innovations in the field are solving some of the biggest challenges the discipline faces right now. These include construction safety, sustainability, and the difficulty of designing complex, intricate structures with traditional techniques.
These are six of the most important recent building innovations in structural engineering. They suggest a lot about the direction of the field.
1. Modular Engineering
Prefabricated building materials offer a few major advantages over traditional structures. Less on-site waste and quicker construction are two of the most significant benefits.
Modules are constructed or fabricated off-site, then transported to where they are needed. A construction team unloads them and assembles them into a finished structure. As a result, you can put up the building with less time and resources than it would take using conventional methods.
This approach also improves the build quality of structural materials. Manufacturers of modules can fabricate them in a controlled environment with advanced construction technology — often allowing them to create structures that are more structurally sound and consistent.
2. Drone Design and Site Management
A growing number of engineering firms are using drones to survey construction sites before, during, and after the building process.
Drone mapping services can provide a more accurate view of a site as it exists. For example, they can gather important data on-site elevation that are useful during earthworks or when building foundations. Drones can perform structural inspections during and after the construction process, as well as do other things that would be difficult for a human inspection crew to perform.
These drones can free up workers for more important tasks — or spare inspectors from dangerous work that may put them at risk of exposure to toxic chemicals or unstable structures.
3. New Safety Tech
Construction remains one of the most dangerous professions. Heights, electricity, and heavy machinery all pose unique safety risks for workers directly involved in the building process.
New safety technology offers protection and mitigates some of the risks the industry has so far been unable to eliminate. Wearable safety devices that can track lone workers, smart backup systems that use RFID to detect people in the path of a machine, and virtual reality-powered training programs are examples of how the industry is adopting new technology to improve on-site safety.
This technology is typically used in combination with more conventional safety measures — like fences, covers, and body harnesses — to provide an additional line of protection for construction workers.
4. Digital Engineering Simulation
New digital engineering technology enables the simulation and generation of new designs, allowing for more effective and ambitious prototyping of new structures. The technology was recently used to great effect in the creation of the Morpheus Hotel in Macau, China.
The hotel’s intricate structure was possible because the engineers behind the design were able to simulate the structural integrity of a new building that would be constructed on existing, abandoned foundations. They could also ensure a final design that was aesthetically innovative while still practical.
Henry Louth, the senior designer at Zaha Hadid Architects, the firm that designed the hotel, said that the use of digital design software from Altair “helped us in the identification of the main structural members … detailed processing guided the final shape as an ideal accommodation between optimization and fabrication.”
Technology like this is increasingly important as a way to design more intricate structures whose strength and practicality may be hard to evaluate with traditional simulation methods.
5. Self-Healing Concrete
Concrete is one of the most commonly used materials in construction, and self-healing options are becoming a popular choice. More conventional approaches typically use capsules containing adhesives to “heal” cracks as they develop. When the stress on a concrete structure causes cracks to form, these capsules are broken open, releasing the bond.
Recent innovations have also enabled the use of biological materials. Some self-healing concrete uses capsules containing the spores of limestone-precipitating bacteria. When water enters a new crack in this kind of self-healing concrete, it dissolves the capsules. This in turn activates these bacterial spores.
The activated bacteria then go to work, sealing the crack by biologically precipitating limestone or similar minerals. In practice, this can improve the compressive strength of damaged concrete by 16%.
The use of materials like bio-concrete can significantly streamline the maintenance of new buildings. They also reduce maintenance costs and labor necessary to keep concrete in good shape.
Self-healing concrete could also lower the environmental costs associated with production. By reducing the amount of concrete needed for the maintenance of new structures, engineers could cut down on the carbon cost of maintaining them.
6. 3D-Printing for Concrete and Metal Structures
Additive manufacturing techniques, like 3D printing, are new building innovations that are becoming more common in construction and structural design. On-site machines can print entire structures from scratch — streamlining the construction process and significantly reducing the labor required.
3D printing is also useful for creating components that would have been difficult or impossible to manufacture with other methods. For example, one London engineering group is pioneering the use of 3D printing to fabricate “complex structural steel components” for projects in a way that reduces waste and material cost.
How Building Innovations Are Changing Structural Engineering
The structural engineering sector is taking advantage of new technology for building innovations to reinvent new designs for buildings. Prefabricated materials, drone site inspections, and new digital engineering platforms are all helping to streamline existing construction processes. They also enable new approaches to structural design.
Advances in safety technology and materials innovations — like self-healing concrete — are also helping to make building maintenance both safer and less costly.
These innovations are paving the way for more efficient, cost-effective design and construction. If your company has not looked into implementing these methods, you may find yourself falling behind competitors and losing out on contracts. That’s why it’s vital to stay on top of the latest developments and use them to your advantage.
Rose Morrison is an AEC industry writer and the managing editor of Renovated. To read more of her work, check out her site.