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May 03 2011

Civil Dilemma

Civil engineering has a unique hurdle to overcome that most other disciplines do not.  We can’t test out our designs.  A bike designer can, at some point, make an actual bike and test it out in order to see if works, make changes, and refine the design.  When a civil engineer builds a bridge, that’s it.  The design should be based on principles of how materials work, the strength of soils, and how the bridge will withstand a flood, all of which are based on testing done in labs.  However, once a bridge is constructed, the testing is real use, revisions can be costly, and failure may be deadly.

bike_test

Historically designs have been driven by math.  Designs are still driven by math, but with the advent of the computer we can use a lot of math in the form of computer models.  As the power of computers continue to increase, the ability to virtually model designs continues to get more thorough, accurate, faster, and visual.

Almost all the projects I work on involve a river, so the models I typically use are hydraulic models.  For design work of an actual structure I have access to the latest CAD software, but for understanding how water works on a river there are four modeling options.  The options available are a scaled physical model, three-dimensional, two-dimensional, or one-dimensional hydrodynamic computer models.

Knowing when to use which model and understanding the limitations of each one is very important for  understanding a river, and to appropriately design a bridge, flood control structure, bank protection, aquatic habitat structures, grade control structures, etc.

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