When I was young, everybody knew what the future held. Much as an earlier era had had Jules Verne’s novels to show them space travel and undersea living, we had The Jetsons every Sunday night on ABC-TV in 1962-1963. Here our future world was clearly laid out for us — there would be robots to do 99% of our work; all buildings would be high on stilts, above the clouds; every person, place, and thing would be named after something related to outer space; and of course we would have jetpacks. Yes it’s true that The Jetsons didn’t get everything right. For example, teenage Judy Jetson was often shown confiding her secrets to her robotic diary, while in reality adolescents of today’s “future” are much more likely to broadcast their secrets onto the internet – one small detail that the show missed completely.
As a budding structural engineer, watching this show gave me a great anticipation for the future. I couldn’t wait to design the crazy structures required to support the futuristic Googie architecture on steroids, to stress test all the materials needed to manufacture the flying cars, and work on the construction site where Mr. Cogswell’s concrete mold presses were “printing” out 2000-foot tall buildings in minutes. (It is not surprising that The Jetsons appealed to structural engineers – it turns out that William Hanna, one half of the team that created the show, originally studied structural engineering. After getting laid off from a construction project during the Great Depression, he turned to what used to be a structural engineer’s second biggest talent – the ability to draw neat block letters – and got himself hired to draw title cards at a movie studio. The rest is history…engineering’s loss became cartooning’s gain.)
For the last 50 years, I have heard many people lament that “the future” never arrived. “Where are our robots, and where are our flying cars?” they bemoan. “And especially, where are our jetpacks? Didn’t they promise us jetpacks?” But we structural engineers certainly aren’t complaining, we understand that “the future” arrived for us right on schedule. In fact, there may be no more exciting time to be working as a structural engineer than now. Not only does the spectacular array of skyscrapers that have sprung up throughout the world over the past few years put the talents of structural engineers front and center, but engineers also have opportunities in many other futuristic endeavors as well.
First, what was the big news from outer space this summer, 50+ years post-Jetsons? No, it wasn’t New Horizons’ flyby of ex-planet Pluto or NASA’s discovery of a “second Earth”, but rather the structural failure that caused the explosion of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket during its launch on June 28 of this year. It seems that a 2-foot by 1-inch steel strut, which was meant to support a helium bottle in one of the rocket’s liquid oxygen tanks, snapped upon application of only a 2,000 pound load – even though it was designed for the much larger load of 10,000 pounds. This resulted in an overpressure and explosion of the oxygen tank, followed by the loss of the entire rocket.
The reports addressing the post-mortem evaluation of the failure sounded very familiar to a structural engineer working on any type of project (forensic evaluation of load capacity, re-estimate of applied load, discussion of potential failure modes, as well as the corrective actions to be put in place in the future), except for two things: they were describing a structure in space, as opposed to one firmly rooted down here on earth, and the findings were being presented by no less a figure than Elon Musk himself. A front page news story combining space, Elon Musk, and structural engineers? How cool is that?
While some engineers are looking up to space, others are looking down to the ocean floor. At this moment there are a number of underwater hotel projects in various stages of progress, from operating to construction to proposal, from the Maldives to Fiji to Dubai. The engineering problems that must be overcome are challenging, as detailed here by US Submarine Structures, LLC, developers of the Poseidon Undersea Resort in Fiji. Whereas most terrestrial structures have rectangular contours, and use traditional materials such as steel, concrete, or wood, the undersea engineer has to be well-versed in the curved surfaces of spheres and cylinders, and the use of acrylic plastic (Plexiglas), a material which surprisingly has a strength to weight ratio similar to that of carbon steel, while allowing transparent views of the surrounding seabed.
Curved surfaces and Plexiglas — Deep Ocean Technology’s proposed Water Discus Hotel
Another recent technological development has been the rapid spread of the 3D printer. These days it seems that 3D printers can print everything, from food, to clothes, to guns, even body parts. But the most impressive usage, in the eyes of the structural engineering community, occurred earlier this year when the Shanghai-based company WinSun printed a five story apartment building using “ink” made of recycled construction waste and concrete. Printing these buildings brought significant savings in cost, time, labor, and construction waste – earlier WinSun had claimed to have printed 10 houses within 24 hours, at a cost of $5,000 apiece.
What’s next for 3D printing? WinSun’s next challenge was just announced in June – a joint venture with the United Arab Emirates National Innovation Committee to print an entire office building, complete with furniture.
Does this bode ill for the structural engineers? Is this the equivalent of Rosie the Robot replacing all of the Jetsons-era human workers? In reality, no – just as the advent of word processors and dot matrix printers did not make authors obsolete, somebody will still have to design and engineer the printed buildings. In fact, three engineering firms have been selected to participate in this project: Gensler, Thornton Tomasetti, and Syska Hennessy, proving that the engineer will be a vital part of the structural printing industry going forward.
OK, so “the future” has presented us structural engineers with all sorts of cool projects to work on — now we need an equally cool tool with which to work. Whereas a few short years ago engineering computations were restricted to isolated PCs anchored to our office, today we can use the cloud. Yes, I’m talking about CloudCalc, the provider of structural analysis software that offers all the benefits of the cloud: the ability to access your work from anywhere, easily collaborate on projects with your distributed team, perform structural modeling and analysis on mobile devices (so you can modify/verify your analysis in the field, in your clients office, or on the run), free yourself from IT costs associated with the software update cycle, or balance your licensing to match your workload.
PS – and how about those jetpacks that they promised us? Well check this out, and maybe you’ll realize that “the future” really has arrived.
Need to analyze the structures of “the future”, today? Then use the tool of “the future”, here today: CloudCalc, the scalable, collaborative, cloud-based engineering software. www.cloudcalc.com – Structural Analysis in the Cloud.
By Tom Van Laan
Copyright © CloudCalc, Inc. 2015