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The bridge that designs and builds itself.
Leading design and engineering consultancy Dar takes on the construction industry’s most pressing challenges, using 3D printing, robots, generative design, and AI.
Smart bridge - Dar
Intelligent self-learning and generative design lay foundation for AI-driven construction.
Construction of large civil structures is still dogged by analog working methods, blueprint schematics, delays, and costs. Digitalization is helping the sector to modernize, save money and maintain quality and safety, which means that companies are, consequently, facing pressures to seek digital manufacturing methods to remain competitive. One of the EMEA region’s biggest structural engineers, Dar, is working with Autodesk on a generative design approach coupled to an intelligent self-learning manufacturing system that can lay a foundation for the transition from legacy blueprint processes to an AI-driven construction process.
Smart bridges, 3D printed with robot arms, that have been optimized for their manufacture and learn from themselves
Designing, planning, and constructing a bridge or large commercial building is today safer, quicker and – in many cases – more cost effective than ever. Digital technologies, such as building information modelling (BIM), allow design teams to collaborate better. In addition, building techniques such as offsite modular construction, technologies like augmented reality, and advances in materials such as reinforced concrete and even 3D graphene, have improved the economics of building large structures.
Even so, construction remains expensive, energy-intensive, and is heavily reliant on manual labor. Building contractors and engineering firms face the same challenges as manufacturing companies: cost, quality, safety, delivery times, material shortages and price, bottlenecks, and sustainability. Building consultants and their partners are seeking new ways to shorten build times while making construction more profitable, sustainable, and safer – a challenging ambition. To stay competitive, companies are implementing aggressive strategic goals that challenge the status quo, turning to novel ways of digital construction and using technology that has only recently reached the maturity to deploy on commercial building sites.
With design centers and offices around the globe, Dar is one of the world’s leading engineering, design, and project management consultancies. Its corporate goals include designing for more sustainable, efficient, and innovative construction through the use of digital transformation, including harnessing artificial intelligence (AI) and data capture in design and project delivery and using automation with robotics to increase efficiencies.
Briggs Automotive Company
The Liverpool based Briggs Automotive Company (BAC) designs and builds the BAC Mono, a street-legal race car. In order to accelerate and optimize performance, they are constantly looking into further opportunities to save weight.
By using generative design technology to redesign the rims, BAC was able to shed an additional 4.8 kilograms (10.5 lbs). The wheels have been fabricated on a conventional 5-axis mill.
Briggs Automotive Company
Briggs Automotive Company
As a worldwide bicycle component manufacturer for both road and mountain bikes, SRAM’s mission is to provide the best components to the market and the best user experience to the cyclist.
By experimenting with generative design and additive manufacturing for a new bike crankarm, they could produce a part that was twice as strong and 20% lighter.
Image courtesy of SRAM
Image courtesy of BAC
MJK Performance designs, manufactures, and sells specialty aftermarket parts for Harley Davidson motorcycles—all in-house from a small, four-machine shop in Calgary, Canada.
Collaborating with Autodesk, MJK used generative design technology to create a set of triple clamps for a drag bike. The resulting designs were not only lighter and strong, but appropriately stylish and fully machinable on a 2.5-axis mill.
Image courtesy of MJK Performance
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One particular synergy was in large-scale civil engineering structures like bridges; specifically, reconsidering methodologies to develop a generative design and additive manufacturing process for the construction of these structures.
“We wanted to reimagine how a bridge can be built,” says Peter Storey, Lead Research Engineer on the AEC Industry Futures team at the Autodesk Technology Center in Birmingham, UK. “The thought experiment was: what if a smart robot drove up to a river and, using previous knowledge and its own intelligence, was able to print its way across?”
The Smart Bridge is the result of a collaborative research project which takes a first step towards realizing this thought experiment. The manufacturing process uses a robotic arm with a customized end-effector capable of printing fiber-reinforced polymers (FRPs), and various sensors for closed-loop monitoring of the print quality.
Further sensors are embedded while the part is still being printed, which will allow the bridge to “learn” throughout its operating life.
"With the immense potential of 3D printing, generative design, and sustainable materials, we saw an opportunity to create a true pioneer in smart construction and really pave the way for a new era in engineering."
Charles Malek, Director in Structural Engineering, Bridges and IT, Dar
Dar wants to move on from old ways of doing things and to break out of the established constraints of construction. Labor shortage is also a big limitation. The construction industry has an ageing workforce, globally. Fewer young people are willing to do the hard labor or train in the traditional jobs. Robots have the potential to help.
Inflexibility is another constraint. Building big structures, while demonstrating more architectural flair now than in the past, is formulaic – box sections, steel joists, blocks, and straight edges, all defined by cost. Robots have the potential to be very good at building bespoke parts and sections. “Rather than making prismatic shapes with simple geometries, you can reimagine the design. Architects then have more freedom,” says Peter, referring to other bridges 3D-printed using generative design (GD), with shapes and contours that shatter tradition and look visually arresting, while retaining all the load bearing properties of a conventional concrete box or steel girder bridge.
Safety is another incentive. Workplace accidents in construction are typically higher than other industrial sectors, such as agriculture, forestry, and manufacturing. Construction deaths in 2019 and 2020 were higher in the UK than its five-year average.
Why 3D-print a bridge with a robot when there are multiple bridge types that have worked well for decades?
Robots eliminate the danger inherent in building at height. Other manmade structures, like tunnels, also carry risk. A robot has no problems working in a tunnel with heavy machinery and tons of poured concrete, compared to these conditions and risk for a human crew.
The Smart Bridge was designed to use a recyclable material. In addition, the generative design process allows optimum saving of material, and additive manufacturing avoids formwork and practically eliminates waste, resulting in a lower overall carbon footprint.
Speed of build is a potential benefit of The Smart Bridge, with enormous value to developers. For now, it’s not high on the list as the technology is still being proven out.
The original project evolved into two research streams: to generatively design and 3D-print a “smart bridge”, and to produce what was called Spark Design Assistant, an AI-driven algorithm that learns from Dar’s bridge design experience to create and optimize new bridge designs.
“The Smart Bridge is the outcome of the first stream. It is a pedestrian bridge designed and 3D-printed as a proof of concept in two stages: first as a 2-meter bridge to test and refine the process, then as a 5-meter bridge to augment the process to a larger span and monitor its behavior over time,” says Charles Malek, Director in Structural Engineering, Bridges and IT at Dar. The five-meter bridge will potentially be installed in the garden of Dar’s new headquarters in Beirut.
Sensors are used to earn the name “smart bridge”, by implementing closed loop control first developed in advanced manufacturing. The machining processes of the past rely on giving G code to the robot or machine, which then follow those XYZ coordinates to machine or 3D print the requested part. “We have been trying to close that loop here,” says Peter.
“We are still sending those XYZ coordinates, but we're also getting data back from the robot to inform the next layer of the toolpath, which has been relatively simple for the start of the project. So, we've been measuring temperatures and using that to tell the robot whether to speed up or slow down for the next layer. This is the first step in a more complex feedback system for printing.”
How will the bridge, that needs high safety parameters, perform over time?
More data capture. The health of the bridge will be monitored in real-time using a combination of embedded and external sensors that collect structural and environmental measurements. “This data will feed into a “digital twin” of the bridge to provide valuable insights throughout its lifespan and inform future designs of 3D printed large-scale FRP structures,” says Charles. “The intent was not simply to create another 3D printed footbridge like many others around the world.”
Robots allow the use of different, greener materials than normal building methods. Fiber-reinforced polymer can, in some cases, be further recycled. The generative design process allows better saving of material, additive manufacturing avoids formwork and almost eliminates waste, resulting in a lower overall carbon footprint.
“The choice of materials was based on their characteristics and sustainability, as priority has been given to the use of a multi-recyclable material,” says Charles. “Other polymers can equally be used, as well as conventional materials such as concrete and metals.”
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